The Moral Ambiguity of Anorexia: Class, Culture, and Privilege

Dr Elizabeth Throop
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Although conventionally thought of as a serious mental illness, anorexia can be re-envisioned as the enactment of American dominant culture through the eating behaviors of privileged adolescent girls. Currently, anorexia is read by dominant culture as reflecting the burden of dominant cultural images of beauty and perfection, and anorectics as the victims of those images. However, anorexia also can be understood as a clear yet covert statement by anorectics of class and national privilege. Only in the wealthy west, and more particularly the United States, do young women willingly starve themselves outside of a wider set of meanings (for instance, religious practitioners may sometimes fast in extreme ways): anorexia, far from being a biologically-based illness, is a cultural construction as well as a set of immoral behaviors that is contemptuous and ethnocentric while being forgiven by dominant culture. Interestingly, anorectics are provided with psychotherapy and highly sympathetic attention by "experts", those who are obese in this country, conversely, are treated with disgust at the obese person's lack of willpower. Why? U.S. anorectics are overwhelmingly middle-class and upper-middle-class European-American young women, while obese persons cross the class gamut. Also, the American obsession with psychologizing all behaviors while abstaining from passing moral judgment on some — though, clearly, not all — of them means that if a person is afflicted with an illness — anorexia, though not obesity — she is not to blame for her behavior. The consumption of food is read in oppressive and, appositely, value-free ways, by dominant American culture, and asceticism is valued while indulgence is not. Recognition of the moral aspects of anorexia, and a culture-wide discussion, could perhaps provide a larger focus on issues of social justice globally, so that a contextual, voluntary starvation is no longer understood as a forgivable set of behaviors.

Keywords: Anorexia, Mental Illness, Psychotherapy, Social class, Ethnocentricism, American culture, Obesity, Morality
Stream: Sexuality, Gender, Families
Presentation Type: Virtual Presentation in English
Paper: A paper has not yet been submitted.

Dr Elizabeth Throop

Associate Professor, Anthropology and Social Work, Department of Sociology, McKendree College, Lebanon, Illinois

Elizabeth A. Throop, Ph.D., is associate professor of anthropology and social work, housed in the Department of Sociology at McKendree College in Lebanon, Illinois In addition to holding a MSW from the University of Illinois-Chicago/Jane Addams of Social Work, she took a MA and Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from the University of California-San Diego She has practiced family therapy in the Chicago area and, briefly, in Dublin, Ireland, with violent and sexually abusive families In addition, her therapeutic experience includes work with runaways, chronic truants, teenage mothers, and gang members Furthermore, Throop has researched mental illness, specifically schizophrenia in cross-cultural and family context Her first book, "Net Curtains and Closed Doors: Intimacy, Public Life, and the Family in Dublin" (Bergin Garvey {Greenwood Press}, 1999), explored urban family life in Ireland She has also written book reviews and articles regarding issues in Ireland and currently is investigating mental illness in India and the United States.

Ref: H05P0190