Fasting Girls: The Emergence of Anorexia Nervosa as a Modern Disease.

Fasting Girls: The Emergence of Anorexia Nervosa as a Modern Disease. – book reviews

Laurie Jackson

Symbolic Slimming

What did medieval “miracle maids” have in common with Karen Carpenter? According to historian Joan Brumberg, both chose food avoidance as a form of self-expression.

Anorexia nervosa, flourishing in a modern society that equates slimness with salvation, has been called the disease of the ’70s (to be upstaged only by AIDS in the ’80s). But the practice of female fasting traces back to medieval times, when Catherine of Siena demonstrated her piety by supping on nothing more than a few sprigs of herbs, sometimes sticking twigs down her throat to purge more substantial foods.

While noting that St. Catherine was no more an anorexic than Carpenter was a saint, Brumberg asserts that the symbolism of self-starvation was central to both of their lives. In Fasting Girls: The Emergence of Anorexia Nervosa as a Modern Disease (Harvard University Press, $25), Brumberg shows how these and other women through the ages have used a symbolic “food vocabulary.”

Scholarly in tone, exhaustively documented and occasionally repetitive, this book may try the patience of a casual reader. But for students of history and women’s studies, and for professionals in the fields of mental health and nutrition, it offers many revelations about anorexia’s ancestral roots.

The author uses cases and writings from past eras to show how the practice of female fasting evolved from a holy renunciation in the Middle Ages to a discreet act of insubordination among middle-class daughters in Victorian times, and in recent decades became an epidemic dominating the lives of an estimated one million young women in the United States alone. She also traces the evolution of anorexia treatments, including recuperative sea voyages, forced feeding, massage, injections of “organ juices” and, more recently, psychotherapy.

Brumberg argues that a number of important social forces converged in the early 1900s to change how Americans viewed both women and food, setting the stage for today’s epidemic of self-starvation. Insurance companies began promoting “desirable weight” tables and the concept of calories was popularized. In the 1920s, the institutions of the American beauty culture emerged: moving pictures, modern advertising, the modeling profession, swimsuit competitions and a fashion industry based on standard sizing. By the 1940s, entrepreneurs had successfully targeted teenage girls as a new market; by the 1950s, ads for diet foods were threatening that “Nobody Loves a Fat Girl.”

Today, Brumberg concludes, young women’s compulsive struggle to exercise and lose weight has become “a new secular credo of physical denial,” in which “how much one runs and how little one eats is the prevailing moral calculus.” With thinness signifying a modern sort of “holiness,” fasting girls seem to be echoing their saintly sisters.

COPYRIGHT 1988 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group