Author Deflects Media Blame for Anorexia

By Chawla, Sonya | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), November 24, 2000 | Go to article overview

Author Deflects Media Blame for Anorexia


Chawla, Sonya, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Joan Jacobs Brumberg, professor of history, human development and women's studies at Cornell University, recently published "Fasting Girls," a book that examines the evolution of anorexia nervosa. Mrs. Brumberg discussed her findings with Sonya Chawla of The Washington Times.

Q: What has been the history of female fasting in the Western world?

A: Anorexia nervosa was named and identified in the 1870s, more than a century before the American public really discovered it. Physicians have known about it for a long time, but rarely saw it in clinical practice until after World War II. People blame anorexia on today's popular media, and my book is meant to correct that assumption.

There have been other forms of fasting behavior. With medieval saints like Catherine of Siena, it's not correct to call them anorexic in the modern way. They did stop eating, and some eventually died of self-starvation. Their bodies became emaciated. But diseases are more than physical symptoms. We have to ask about the pathway into the symptoms. With the saints, there were deep cultural differences. She was fasting for religious reasons, as part of a larger penitential program. She was not an adolescent.

There were also some very interesting cases of anorexia in the 19th century, specifically Sarah Jacob, the Welsh fasting girl of the 1870s. She was young and claimed that she didn't need food to eat. People came to see her and worship her as the wonderful little girl who didn't eat.

But doctors could not believe someone could survive without eating. To make their point that there was something duplicitous going on here, the doctors set up a watch that was scientific and controlled, and in fact, she dies. Is this an example of a religious miracle or a case of a hysterical young woman who was deceiving her parents and her community? At that point, there was some tension around women refusing to eat.

Q: What is the fine line of difference between dieting and anorexia?

A: There is a very big difference between being a dieter, a restrictive eater and being an anorexic. There is a full-blown psychopathology of anorexia.

An anorexic is somebody who has engaged in an unrelenting pursuit to become thinner and thinner and thinner. These days, that is generally combined with a very rigorous exercise program. That is a very big difference between anorexics in the 19th century. It looks like women with anorexia today are actually sicker because of the exercise component and our increased tolerance for thinness.

Q: In today's society, is anorexia more a product of nature or nurture?

A: It's interactive and a multi-determined disorder. It involves individual biology, individual psychology - family issues as well as temperament - and then it involves culture. The media prompts an emphasis on dieting and an extremely young body.

All young women have been exposed to obesophobia (a desire to be skinny), but we don't all develop anorexia. So there clearly are some intervening behaviors that have to do with the psychology of family, psychosexual issues and possibly some biology.

Q: What effect, if any, do celebrity anorexics have on young women?

A: Every woman who is extremely thin these days is accused or subjected to questions about their eating. Celebrities have gotten what appears to be too thin, but we're obsessed with the dieting of others: Rosie O'Donnell, Oprah, Delta Burke. And that is what had an impact on American girls [and] the amount of attention we give to women as opposed to men. …

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