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Being Anorexic

Hunger, Subjectivity, and Embodied Morality



This article explores the embodied process of being anorexic and the moral repertoires within which this process is entangled. The point of departure for this discussion is that, while critical feminist epistemology plays an important role in politicizing anorexia as a symbolic cluster of meanings, it has provided us with limited analytical tools for an in-depth understanding of an anorexic's lived experiences and of the embodied realities involved in being anorexic. At the same time, autobiographical accounts of anorexia provide insightful emic perspectives on being anorexic but are not engaged with symbolic and theoretical etic perspectives on anorexia. This article attempts to bridge this gap through an anthropological exploration of anorexia from within; that is, as a situated embodied knowledge of anorexic women anchored in concrete lived experiences. Findings from an ethnographic study of young women who were diagnosed with anorexia and admitted to an outpatient hospital unit in Israel suggest that anorexic women actively construct a “heroic moral subjectivity,” in which the experience of hunger plays a crucial role, and in which everyday (mundane) practices gain “out-of-the-ordinary” meanings. While these findings partially accord with feminist philosophical explorations of anorexia, I argue that it is only via a detailed ethnographic account that we can follow the ongoing phenomenological and semiotic process through which such heroic subjectivity actually develops. Using an anthropological perspective to bear on the phenomenology of anorexia as an embodied experience contributes toward extending our understanding of the concrete ways in which “culture” becomes present in anorexia. The concluding section discusses gaps between feminist and anorexic narratives of anorexia in terms of therapeutic encounters.

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