The psychoanalyst Johanna Tauber believes that anorexia begins around age two. The pre-anorexic baby tries and fails to form an image of herself that’s separate from her mother. Boys usually don’t succumb to anorexia, but when they do, it’s because their mothers were seductive and controlling. In infant-analysis, Mother equals Food. The anorexic is unable to think past this equation. Therefore, the only way of attaining an adult identity is by rejecting food… (On The Way To The Self)
Feminist analysis of anorexia gravitates towards the problems girls confront as they reach puberty. Maude Ellman in The Hunger Artists: ‘It is through the act of eating that the ego establishes its own domain.’ Nancy Chodorow in The Reproduction of Mothering: ‘Because the mother-daughter relationship remains so fluid and pre-Oedipal, the daughter fails to develop a sense of self that is separate from the mother.’ Therefore, she stops eating. The most polemically feminist analyses of anorexia nervosa interpret it as an adolescent girl’s last stand against the female social role and what it ‘means’ to be a woman. Perversely, all this literature is based on the unshakable belief that the formation of a gender-based identity is still the primary animating goal in the becoming of a person, if that person is a girl.
Susie Orbach and Kim Chernin both believe that anorexic girls regard their mothers’ lives with horror. They will starve themselves in order to avoid a female life, i.e., a life that’s drained and compromised and stunted. Orbach writes in Hunger Strike: ‘Anorexia is a rejection of the female role, a life in service to the needs of others.’ Mara Palazzoli, one of the most often-cited specialists in this field, is more specific: ‘The anorexic wishes to diminish those aspects of the female body which signify potential problems.’ A.H. Crisp is even more judgmental: ‘Anorexia relates to a basic avoidance of psychosexual maturity.’ (Anorexia Nervosa)
But it is female psychotherapists and recovering anorexics who really lead the pack in nailing down the anorexic girl as a simpering solipsistic dog: Marlene Boskind-White, Bulimarexia: ‘Anorexics have a disproportionate concern with pleasing others, particularly men, a reliance on others to validate their sense of self-worth. They have devoted their lives to fulfilling the feminine role.’ Anorexics are merely ‘starving for attention’ (Cherry O’Neill, Starving for Attention) and ‘as a group, they are manipulative and deceitful.’ (Hilde Bruch, The Golden Cage)
No one considers that eating might be more or less than what it seems. At best, the anorexic is blocked in an infantile struggle to attain a separation from her mother. At worst, she is passive-aggressively shunning the ‘female’ state and role. At any rate, all these readings deny the possibility of a psychic, intellectual equation between a culture’s food and the entire social order. Anorexia is a malady experienced by girls, and it’s still impossible to imagine girls moving outside themselves and acting through the culture. All these texts are based on the belief that a well-adjusted, boundaried sense of self is the only worthy female goal.
Curiously, Judaism comes closest to conceiving of an apersonal anorexia through the orthodox belief in mitzvah. Food is blessed before it is consumed. The blessing is an affirmation that the food is only good, or holy, when it fuels good deeds by humans.
‘Like all mystics, Simone Weil tells us that it is only by destroying the ‘I’ that it becomes possible to fully believe in, and therefore truly love, the existence of anything outside ourselves,’ writes her biographer, Richard Rees. ‘A common criticism of Simone Weil in France is that she was a masochist who exalted pain and suffering as the supreme values. This is nonsense.’
So long as anorexia is read exclusively in relation to the subject’s feelings towards her own body, it can ever be conceived of as an active, ontological state. Because it’s mostly girls who do it, anorexia is linked irrevocably with narcissism. But girls don’t make good monsters. Their narcissistic bodily dis-ease is so fragile, shaky, so lacking in a center, that their self-starvation can only be a garbled plea for sympathy and attention. Seven decades later, the female anorexic has no more credibility than Janet’s pathetic patient. Female acts are always subject to interpretation. We don’t say what we mean. It’s inconceivable that the female subject might ever simply try to step outside her body, because the only thing that’s irreducible, still, in female life is gender.
Aliens & Anorexia, Chris Kraus