Abject Relations: Everyday Worlds of Anorexia

Abject Relations: Everyday Worlds of Anorexia

Abject Relations: Everyday Worlds of Anorexia

Abject Relations: Everyday Worlds of Anorexia


Abject Relations presents an alternative approach to anorexia, long considered the epitome of a Western obsession with individualism, beauty, self-control, and autonomy. Through detailed ethnographic investigations, Megan Warin looks at the heart of what it means to live with anorexia on a daily basis. Participants describe difficulties with social relatedness, not being at home in their body, and feeling disgusting and worthless. For them, anorexia becomes a seductive and empowering practice that cleanses bodies of shame and guilt, becomes a friend and support, and allows them to forge new social relations.

Unraveling anorexia's complex relationships and contradictions, Warin provides a new theoretical perspective rooted in a socio-cultural context of bodies and gender. Abject Relations departs from conventional psychotherapy approaches and offers a different "logic," one that involves the shifting forces of power, disgust, and desire and provides new ways of thinking that may have implications for future treatment regimes.


When I started the research for this book, a colleague suggested that “anorexia has been done to death.” Indeed, there is much written about anorexia and it has a very firm hold in the public imagination. As a social anthropologist, however, I was dissatisfied with what I had read about anorexia. There is a strong biomedical contour to much of the literature, in which culture is compartmentalized as a culture-bound syndrome, a variable, or a risk factor, or simply seen as a context for conformity or control. While anthropologists debate the definition of “culture,” in the eating-disorder field, culture is anything that is not biological, a definition that supports the fixed division between what is fact and what is constructed. Of course feminist work has importantly highlighted patriarchy, power, and gender relations as causal factors in the development of anorexia, but I was left asking these questions: Is anorexia a protest or an extreme conformity to societal ideas? Is it a cry for attention or a desire to disappear from view? Why is anorexia so difficult to treat? What do people with this diagnosis think about anorexia? It was this frustration, and an enduring interest in the anthropology of bodies, that led to this study. I knew that there was a different story to be told and that anthropology’s unique approach and analysis of culture might help to unpack some of these contradictions and complexities.

Unlike behavioral/attitudinal studies and population surveys that aim to capture and configure data, an ethnographic research strategy allowed me to immerse myself in people’s everyday worlds and engage with them on their own terms. I discovered what counted to people with anorexia. Long-term fieldwork provided me with very different types of knowledge simply because of its unique methodology. At first, some psychiatrists were wary of me developing close working relationships with participants, but without such connections, I could not examine the social context in which anorexia developed and flourished.

It is this ethnographic engagement with anorexia that I offer as a new contribution to the field. In 2004, eminent scholars writing for a special edition of Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry on cross-cultural studies of anorexia . . .

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