The Moral Ambiguity of Anorexia: Class, Culture, and Privilege
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
Dr Elizabeth Throop
Associate Professor, Anthropology and Social Work, Department of Sociology, McKendree College, Lebanon, Illinois