Monday, 14 July 2014


Susan Bordo: “Anorexia Nervosa: Psychopathology as Crystallization of Culture”

If at least some aspects of Bordo's thinking can be defined as following (taken from Platonic Dualism):

Dualism has shaped Western culture since the time of Plato, through Augustine and Descartes, up to the present day.   All three of these philosophers provide instructions, rules or models as to how to gain control over the body, with the ultimate aim of learning to live without it. The mind is superior to the body, and strength comes from disregarding the body's existence to reach an elevated spiritual level.

Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body (1993)

Bordo’s Unbearable Weight presents a collection of essays that focus on the body’s situatedness and construction in Western Society and offers “a cultural approach to the body” [1] Bordo examines contemporary Western body practices with the aim “not to portray these obsessions as bizarre or anomalous, but, rather, as the logical (if extreme) manifestations of anxieties and fantasies fostered by our culture”[2].  Disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia, she suggests, cannot simply be defined from medical and psychological standpoints but must be viewed from within a cultural context, as “complex crystallizations of culture” (Bordo 1993:35).

In her book Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body, Susan Bordo points to Philosophers Plato, Augustine, and Rene Descartes, each of whom advocated a mind/body dualism. It is important to note that this dualism does not merely maintain that the mind is one thing and the body is something else; it also claims that the mind is infinitely more important, valuable, lasting, powerful, permanent, spiritual, holy.  This dualism regards the “real” person as essentially a mind and only accidentally a body.  Therefore, our personhood is distinct from our physical presence.  She points out that historically, men are associated with the mind (logic, reason, knowledge) and women with the body (hysterical, ruled by the moon).  (Note there is here something of an echo of the Apollonian/ Dionysian dichotomy.)  Since the body and things bodily are valued much less on this dualist model, if at all, women share this condemnation.  Platonic Dualism is inherently unfriendly to women according to Bordo and, I would add, bodily art (i.e. dance).

This separation of mind and body still permeates Western society.  I would argue that is was assimilated into early Christian thought and spread as Western Christianity spread.  As a result we regard our bodies as less valuable and less desirable Borno argues.  And women are more sensitive to and negatively impacted by the cultural devaluing of the body that are men.  She claims that many women “experience” their bodies as alien, as the “not-self, the “not-me.”  The body is seen as a thing, a device, distinct from the inner, true self (Bordo 144) and should be manipulated and made to conform to the will or the mind.  Under the best of circumstances, the body is a source of confinement, limitation and distraction but it is prevalently regarded as the source of ignorance, temptation, madness, sickness, sin and death.  Augustine, like Plato before him and the tradition of Neo-Platonism saw the body as the prison of the soul.  Our physical existence was a time for learning and working and it is unwise to dwell on the bodily.  (Bordo 145).

Bordo makes the connection (in retrospect so seemingly obvious, but in truth quite insightful) between this mind/body dualism and the eating disorders of anorexia and bulimia.  She argues that this way of thinking is reinforced by media and popular culture which emphasize thinness and “lack of body.”  They further tie into the longstanding dualist demands for “self”-control and mastery of (or renunciations of) the body and physical imperatives. 

In support of this view, one study suggested that Black women have fewer eating disorders due to an Afro-centric aesthetic rather than Western/European.  The former, it is claimed, celebrates uniqueness and unity of mind, body, and spirit.[3] (Lovejoy 2001).

Now I would caution against regarding Platonic Mind/Body Dualism as the cause for either of these eating disorders however.  Bordo’s suggestions, while provocative and even plausible, do not themselves constitute an empirical study.  Let me refine my critical remarks a bit.  First, the cause cannot be anything so pervasive a “culture” alone since these eating disorders, while tragic, are relatively rare.  Second, reducing the choices and experiences of individuals to generalizations is precisely the sort of thing that feminism in particular and post-modern thought in general seek to avoid doing, and in my view, rightly so.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, to accept this account would be to reaffirm the power of word/mind over body.  Simply because it makes a good story or narrative, does not mean it is true and it may well be that the cause for the eating disorders is not “Mental” or “Body Image” at all, but rather a chemical imbalance in the brain, that is, bodily/ physical. Bordo’s explanation does not somehow help us “break the spell” of Plato, but like a dreamer who dreams he has awoken, merely perpetuates it anew.

Nevertheless, one cannot help be stuck by anti-body dualism described by Bordo and two other cultural phenomena (self mortification and Ballet).  For an  overview of self-mortification read Jennifer Egan New York Times article “Power Suffering

[1] Bordo, Susan. Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body: p35 (1993)
[2] (Bordo 1993:15)
[3] Lovejoy, Meg. “Disturbances in the Social Body: Differences in Body Image and Eating Problems among African American and White Women.” Gender & Society 15.2 (2001): 239-261.