Oral History

Carolyn Steedman

  • The Hungry Self: Women, Eating and Identity by Kim Chernin
    Virago, 213 pp, £3.95, May 1986, ISBN 0 86068 746 5
  • Hunger Strike by Susie Orbach
    Faber, 201 pp, £9.95, February 1986, ISBN 0 571 13682 6
  • Holy Anorexia by Rudolph Bell
    Chicago, 248 pp, £18.95, January 1986, ISBN 0 226 04204 9

Myths can be seen as particular kinds of symbolic story designed to explain all the other stories that people tell about themselves. In this case, then, we should expect their periodic recasting, as the day-to-day narratives shift and change. We are in the middle now of some quite explicit recasting, conscious attempts to reverse accounts, particularly psychoanalytic accounts, which place masculinity at the centre of the picture, and which have in the past defined femininity in relation to it. Mothers and mothering become the pivotal points of the daughter’s development, Freud’s hysterics become heroines, grimly and doggedly determined to tell a truth that the analyst will not hear, and Demeter now stalks the earth mourning all her raped and lost daughters, prisoners of phallocentrism or the underworld. The modern anorexic is seen as making a political protest through an act of courage, which in these three books is described as a bid for autonomy using the limited material that comes to hand – a woman’s body: but which can also seen as the ultimate denial of that body unto death. In Kim Chernin’s large claim in The Hungry Self, modern woman’s obsession with eating and not-eating might even provide the royal road to the unconscious that dreams provided for Freud.

Down there in Hades, did Persephone think obsessively about pomegranates while refusing to eat them; did she lovingly handle them, prepare them for others, watch them being eaten – and then, pigging out, eat just six seeds? If she’d been bulimic, she would have vomited them up. It is the detail with which the eating of the six seeds is recorded that must lead us to suspect that Persephone was anorexic, and that once inside her the seeds took on the weight and quality of horror, likely to swell to a mountain of food, manufacturing fat, swaddling and muffling her in a female body. Soon, she went home to mum.

These three books are concerned with this kind of female relationship to food, and with mothers, our first food. In this way, they are also to do with the investing of myths with new meaning. Kim Chernin and Susie Orbach write out of clinical experience, having worked with anorexics and bulimics in the US and Britain. Hunger Strike is partly a therapeutic handbook, but its author, like Chernin, also provides an analysis of eating disorders that deals in cultural and political terms. Rudolph Bell’s subject is historical: the anorexic behaviour of certain Medieval ascetic and saintly Italian women. Using modern clinical and feminist delineations of anorexia nervosa, he makes a convincing case for interpreting self-abnegation and self-starvation among these women as a ‘holy anorexia’. In his argument, anorexia is both a cluster of symptoms and an act of individual will that ‘has existed for centuries in European society, and is one aspect of the struggle by females for autonomy in a patriarchal culture’.

Anorexia, bulimia and compulsive eating are highly publicised modern disorders of the relationship between (usually) young women and food. The symptomatology of anorexia nervosa, which technically describes loss of appetite or an aversion to food, but which in medical reality and common understanding is a process of self-starvation, has been added to recently by descriptions of bulimia, a cycle of gorging and purging, again in young women. Kim Chernin, who deals with bulimia rather than anorexia, gives it at times the appearance of desperate conviviality, carloads of American college women cruising the main drag for take-outs, spending vast amounts of money on vast amounts of food, and then, having binged together, vomiting together in the dorm. Orbach tells us that this kind of episodic bulimia (which is to be distinguished from the bulimic phases which some anorexic women experience) ‘is currently spreading through college campuses in much the same way that marijuana did some fifteen years ago’; and Chernin describes young women initiating each other into the techniques of effective purging.

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