The Matrix of Eating Disorder Vulnerability: Oral History and the Link between Personal and Social Problems

By Leavy, Patricia; Ross, Lauren Sardi | The Oral History Review, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

The Matrix of Eating Disorder Vulnerability: Oral History and the Link between Personal and Social Problems


Leavy, Patricia, Ross, Lauren Sardi, The Oral History Review


Abstract In this article the authors analyze the original oral history transcript of a college student suffering from anorexia nervosa. Research shows that eating disorders are the result of a variety of personal and social factors that come together in order to create a greater susceptibility to eating disorders in some people. Through a thematic analysis of the psychological and socio-cultural factors that influenced Claire's eating disorder, the authors personalize "the matrix of eating disorder vulnerability" through one woman's story. In this way, the authors contend that the oral history process fosters the link between personal problems and large-scale social problems.

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If the sociological imagination is at the intersection of history and biography as C. Wright Mills claimed,(1) then oral history is a method that enables us to work at linking the private and the social biography and history. This oral history project developed because one woman wanted to share a story about her own battle with a life-threatening eating disorder, a story that literature had previously recounted to us in terms of "rates." With her health in peril she felt uncertain of her future and wished to communicate her story with the hopes of helping others, and empowering herself by beginning to answer her question: "How did I get here?" Oral history fosters a communicative process that would help her answer this question. Through the storytelling and data analysis process we came to understand her narrative as comprised of a web of interconnected themes. These themes are the multiple psychological, social, and situational factors that influenced the onset of her eating disorder--a web of pressures and experiences that culminated in an intense and ritualistic focus on her body as a way of coping. Her eating disorder began in college, but her story began in childhood.

When working on this project we were concerned with examining her story as personal and private, which it is, but also placing it against a larger cultural backdrop that she shares with many others. Much of the research on eating disorders focuses on either the psychological aspects of the disorder, locating the "disease" within the body and mind of the individual afflicted, or the socio-cultural factors such as patriarchy and the media. While psychological factors are a part of understanding eating disorders, they do not speak to the widespread nature of the problem and why some groups, namely women, are ten times more likely to suffer from an eating disorder. (2) Particularly, some newer research conducted by feminist social scientists focuses on the socio-cultural context in which women develop eating disorders. Specifically, this research examines the media context and its hyper-thin ideal of femaleness. Moreover, this research looks at the other patriarchal capitalist institutions profiting from women's battles with their bodies--cosmetic surgery, diet, fitness, and cosmetics. In this article we take the position that there is a web of socio-cultural and psychological factors that can increase the likelihood a person will develop an eating disorder. (3) These factors include: the media, family, peers, depression, and trigger events (situational factors). We call this "the matrix of eating disorder vulnerability." Through a thematic analysis of Claire's oral history transcript, this "matrix" is revealed through the story of one woman--the typical female college student who suffers from a serious eating disorder. (4) By exposing the multitude of factors that can contribute to the onset of an eating disorder, through one woman's experience we are able to link a personal narrative to a social problem. In other words, we use one woman's narrative to help illuminate a larger phenomenon.

About Our Project: Research Methodology

Oral history was the appropriate research method for this project because of our interest in understanding our respondent's body image story within the context of her relationships and experiences, from childhood through college. …

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