Wednesday, 16 July 2014


Eating Like an Ox: Femininity and Dualistic Constructions of Bulimia and Anorexia, Maree Burns
Feminism & Psychology 2004 SAGE (London, Thousand Oaks and New Delhi)
Vol. 14(2): 269-295; 0959-3535
DOI: 10.1177/0959-353504042182



Using a feminist discursive analytic approach this article investigates descriptions of anorexia and bulimia for the purposes of deconstructing some of the hierarchies implicit to them. Data includes interview accounts of women who practise bulimia and of health professionals, and items from popular culture and psychological literature. Analysis demonstrates how a binary logic and discourses of femininity are involved in the inscription of value to the category of, and practices associated with, anorexia. The practices and category of bulimia are therefore often constituted as the eating disordered 'other' to anorexia. Potential implications for women who practise bulimia are examined, as is the destabilising potential of other ways of describing eating disorders. 
Key Words: binary logic, discourse analysis, eating disorder, femininities.



Anorexia brings with it the appearance and feeling of total control and almost total denial. This stimulates pride, and a sense of achievement, perfectionism and of being different (perhaps even better) than other people. Bulimia, on the other hand, brings with it a feeling of being completely out of control. It is shameful in its indulgent excesses, revolting in its final scenario (the vomit spattered toilet, the streaming eyes, the stench). This stimulates guilt and self disgust. (McCarthy and Thompson, 1996: 10.)
- Anorexia = Control
- Bulimia = Out of Control

Although the diagnostic criteria (see American Psychiatric Association, 2000) for the two disorders share many features, such as desire for illness, body dissatisfaction, and fear of weight gain, they are (correspondent with that first glance) organised into distinct and separate pathologies. 


[Categorisation of the two] 'conditions; and makes it difficult to conceptualise them, and the women who practice them, as having much in common. Despite this, cultural theorists have argued that eating too much and eating too little represent inseperable ways of coping with a (western) culturally persuasive slenderness imperative (Girard, 2000; Lupton, 1996).
- Trying to reach the idea through being obsessed with a western culture. 

Thee dualistic conceptual categorisations that characterise western epistemology are far from neutral and always involve the assignment of moral meanings (Gergen, 1995; Shildrick, 1996).

Traditional psychological research on lay beliefs about disordered eating has indicated that the 'symptoms' of anorexia (dieting and the pursuit of slimness) are considered normal female concerns (Levitt, 1997; Polivy and Herman, 1987] and that women with anorexia elicit shocked admiration for their appearance and control (Branch and Eurman, 1980).
- Bulimia is not as common and seen as even more of an abnormal illness to have.


Such dichotomous representations are also evident in the accounts of health experts who associate 'high achievement, perfectionism and 'self-control' with anorexia (Butler at al., 1990: 67) and characterise self-starving girls as 'perfect children, obedient, hard working, excelling academically, admired by their teachers, and often confidants of their parents' (Whyte and Kaczkowski, 1983:91). 

In contrast, women with bulimia, generalises psychotherapist Riebel (2000), practise a 'kind of rebellious selfishness' and 'break common rules of honesty and civility' (p.183).
- Clear contrast between the two above - Anorexia and Bulimia.

Within the psychological literature, popular culture and the media, eating disorders generally, and anorexia in particular, have been receiving increasing attention (Furnham and Hume-Wright, 1992; Murray et al., 1996; O'Grady and El-Sobky, 1987, Theander, 2002). In the case of pop culture and the media, anorexia has even been glamorised (Gordon, 2000; Habermas, 1992) to the point where 'an aura of golden gloss for females with anorexia nervosa exists to some extent as a common public fiction' (Anderson, 1999: 206). Unlike anorexia, with its fashionable and glamorous associations, Anderson (1999) comments that there is no such 'gloss' for women with bulimia. Instead, where bulimia is the subject of popular attention, 'it is often an object of fun' (Gordon, 2000: 207) and derision, or of pity.

It has been noted that anorexic behaviours are often (but not always) construed as indicative of an ultimate control: as the outcome of the mind successfully transcending the physical desires of the potentially eruptive body (Bordo, 1993; Garrett, 1998; Malson, 1998). Bulimia, by comparison, is negatively valued and fairly consistently constructed as being out of control, abnormal, risky and disgusting (Brooks et al., 1998; Lupton, 1996, 2000).


Anorexia and bulimia do not exist independently of the discourses that describe them.
- Suggested by Burns.


Anorexia and bulimia are, instead, understood to be constituted by the very knowledges that seek to depict and 'know' them. 
- Practicing anorexia and bulimia.


Any definition of the self rests of the exclusion of the other. In order to know what one is, one must first know what one is not. This 'other' is never 'real' as such, but is rather a constructed fiction against which one can define oneself (p.121).
- Holliday and Thompson (2001)


Eating disorders are currently conceptualised in the psychological literature as issues of control. Bulimia is understood to represent a lack of control (Bruch, 1973) and anorexia quite the opposite: an over-control (Jarman et al., 1997). 

They [women with bulimia] make an exhibitionistic display of their lack of control or discipline, in contrast to the adherence and discipline of the true anorexics... The modern bulimic is impressive by what looks like a deficit in the sense of responsibility. Bulimics blame their symptoms on others; they may name the person from whom they 'learned' to binge, in particular those who introduced them to vomiting... from then one, they behave as completely helpless victims. Though relatively uninvolved, they expect to share in the prestige of anorexia nervosa. Some complain about the expense of their consumption and will take food without paying for it. They explain this as due to 'kleptomania', which indiciates, like bulimia, an irresistible compulsion that determines their behaviour.
- Dr Hilda Bruch (1985, p.12)
- Demonstrates that persisting constructions of women with bulimia as uncontrolled were evident in psychological discourse on the subject almost 2 decades ago.


Control and Lack of Control

Within Bruch's account, bulimic women are constructed as lacking. They are deficient in discipline, control, and a sense of responsibility, and embody a questionable morality. Worse, they are at the mercy of their irresistible compulsions in comparison with the 'discipline of the true anorexics'. A representation of bulimia as a 'helpless' and 'exhibitionistic' failure of control is clearly derogatory and functions to idealise the discipline embodied by the 'true anorexics'. In Becca's account that follows, this control/out of control dichotomy persists as a construction around which bulimic and anorexic practices are made meaningful.

Ex 1., Becca:

I think to get, to actually be an anorexic, you'd have to have like incredible, supreme control, and just to get to that place, something inside you must just push you there. Whereas I think with bulimia, it's just (long pause) it's a lot more common because it's like a, a humans are fallible, that's what they do. They indulge and they try to make up for it.

Becca's account portrays anorexia as quite rare and an outcome of having 'incredible, supreme control' whereas bulimia is constructed as a unremarkable or as a predictable human behaviour. Becca's language indicates that indulgence and compensation are inevitable due to inherent human fallibility. Women with anorexia have something extra that just pushes than there, which distinguishes them from the weakness or indulge embodied by bulimic women. In this account just as in Bruch's, anorexia is idealised as the epitome of control.

Success and Failure

Another way in which anorexia and bulimia were differentiated was around the theme of success and failure. Here Fran distinguishes between 'anorexics' and 'bulimics' in terms of the kind of achievement represented by bodily control.  

Ex 2., Fran:

Fran: I almost feel that anorexics are the... are the successes /MB: Right/Bulimics are the failures (laughing).
MB: Why is that? Can you tell me a little bit about why you think that?
Fran: Well, anorexics can do it, I can't I mean, I sort of feel like I've even failed at being an anorexic (laughing).
MD: And so that would be the preferable way to be?
Fran: Oh yeah. Mm I would love it. I would really, really love it.
MB: So what is the um, what is the bulimia then if it's...


Fran: Well it's sort of like, having given in. You know like having let your appetite control you. You know whereas, anorexia's a wonderful feeling of being in control. Of, you know - not letting um, your hunger or anything else take charge of you.

In this extract, the achievement and valuing of abstinence informs Fran's separation of bulimia and anorexia, rather than any psychological categorisation. Within individualistic cultures, to be controlled and successful is usually regarded as highly desirable (Lupton, 1996; Thompson and Hirschman, 1995) whereas to allow oneself to be overcome by one's body is constructed as a moral failing (Cooper, 1992). Fran represents the practices of bulimia as failure: as her body and hunger taking over and taking charge of her. This is offered as an example of unsuccessful personhood. The phrasing Fran deploys constitues herself as separate from her hunger or appetite, which are constructed as external forces. This dichotomising construction of eating or bingeing as the body overcoming the self has also been noted by Malson (1997) in the accounts of women who self-starve. According to a hierarchical and dichotomous construction of indulging one's appetite as 'the body out of control' and not eating as 'the body in control', bulimia and anorexia are represented as failure and success.

This framing of anorexia as success and bulimia as failure was also located in the talk of health professionals as indicated by a psychiatrist's comments below.

Ex 3., Jill (Health Professional):

They're [women with anorexia] overachievers - are often - well they're high achievers and (long pause) they're quite driven a lot of them, they have a certain um (long pause) they have a persistence that allows them to be anorexic. You've actually gotta be... quite good at... controlling yourself to be anorexic. Most people can't manage it... ah, there's a certain persistence about
them that h, most people don't have and - so they do have certain personality qualities - you know quite observational and... driven that allows them to succeed at anorexic - if you can succeed at anorexic whereas I think a bulimic, you know, you could consider a bulimic as a failed anorexic.
- Attached stigmatism to the two illnesses.

In an almost admiring fashion, Jill portrayed 'anorexic women' as overachievers, driven, persistent, and good at controlling themselves. These adjectives, when taken out of the context of describing anorexia, depict what would be considered a collection of desirable characteristics belonging to a successful individual in western cultures (see Rose, 1996). Indeed, in Jill's account, the types of women who succeed at anorexia embody the rare but socially admired qualities of self-actualised subject-hood. Anorexia is therefore perversely represented as an exemplar of much that is desirable. Jill's description of bulimics as 'failed anorexics' poignantly echoes Fran's self-description, and serves to portray women with bulimia is at least lacking in those desired qualities, if not embodying all of the opposite negative characteristics.


Anorexia and Spectre

In what follows, it is the appearance of a woman who self-starves and the potentially fatal outcome of her activities that are deployed in the construction of her and her practices as deviant. In contrast to previous accounts, anorexia is produced on the opposite side of the eating disorder binary, as more severe and more pathological than bulimia. 

Ex 7., Pip (Doctor):

I think they're [anorexia and bulimia] both severe - they both have enormous implications. If you regard death as the ultimate than the anorexics [sic] the one that is terrifying.
- Anorexia seen as more severe than Bulimia.

Ex 8., Becca:

Anorexia... I think the real reason it's considered - with - more with distaste is because, you really, really do see the results of it, and it's just so horrifying to see these skinny. skeletal, you know, skeletal figures, and it's, it's more like the shock value where - with anorexia, and I think, more, more, more people would consider anorexia... as, as a worse... as a worse thing than bulimia. 

In this account the 'anorexic' woman's emaciated figure existed as a 'shock[ing]' and 'distasteful' sign of her disorder.
- Bulimia's view v.different views of the media and culture, i.e. fashion and the ideal.


Indeed, the emaciated figure of a woman who starves can more readily be incorporated into notions of psychopathology than the average and unremarkable body of the woman with bulimia who just wants to be slim and beautiful.

In the last three excerpts, it is the potential consequences of anorexia (emaciation and death), not the practices themselves (restriction), that are constructed as deviant and pathological. This produces something of a paradox.


Within many of the examples it is clear that anorexia can be portrayed more positively than bulimia and can be reflective of an admired identity.
- Ideal Fashion Size 0.