Article Highlight: Vol. 41, Issue 1, “‘Hunger Hurts, but Starving Works.’ The Moral Conversion to Eating Disorders”

This week we’re highlighting Gisella Orsini’s “Hunger Hurts, but Starving Works.” The Moral Conversion to Eating Disorders article. Orsini suggests that eating disorders are the result of moral self-transformative processes. Women in Malta and Italy with anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorders are thus actively and deliberately engaged with cultural moral values embodied in thinness and the control of bodily needs and pleasure. Thus, the more control over hunger, the higher the level of satisfaction and the degree of moral conversion achieved.

Orsini begins by discussing the history of eating disorders within the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), highlighting that the explanations of onset, classification, and treatment has often been, and to a large extent remains, unclear. Yet before the medical category of “eating disorders,” behaviors which would now be considered symptoms of pathology had different meanings, often characterized as holy behavior or as a wonder of nature. Medieval European nuns often adopted strict starvation practices in order to reach unity with Christ. Pre-Victorian and Victorian era “fasting women” were admired by the rest of society and were considered curiosities by scientists and doctors. Orsini narrows the modern gap between the biomedical construction of illness and the self-perception of patients through an understanding of the narratives of people with eating disorders and framing it as a process of self-transformation.

Between 2012 and 2014, Orsini conducted comparative qualitative research in Malta and Italy. Even though the prevalence of eating disorders was relatively similar between the two countries, the social reactions to eating disorders were markedly different. The Italian government considers eating disorders to be a “social epidemic, which leads to serious problems in terms of public health.” Malta, by contrast, has almost no concern with eating disorders at the public level as well as a lack of public and private treatment institutions. Both countries aligned with the international trend of eating disorders being mostly female.

In framing eating disorders as a moral conversion, on the basis of the interview narratives she collected, Orsini suggests that eating disorders could be considered as the body becoming a physical symbol of an attempt to redefine their lives. Yet the biomedical approach views the behavior of people with an eating disorder as stemming from a mental condition. Orsini states, “anorexics, bulimics and binge eaters actively and deliberately adopt behaviors in relation to food and their own bodies in order to morally improve themselves.” All of Orsini’s participants sought to dominate their bodily needs in order to improve themselves morally. Furthermore, all recalled negative moral feelings, such as guilt and shame, when their behavior was not in line with their moral values of purity and control. In this way, moral values became moral imperatives.

Yet not all people with eating disorders reacted to their diagnosis’ pathologization in the same way. Anorexics tended to be the most resistant to their newly achieved satisfactory personhood with illness. Bulimics and people with binge eating disorder, on the other hand, tended to experience relief at being labeled “ill,” identifying more with their condition as a disorder rather than a moral conversation.

Orsini states that although the main objective of people with eating disorders is thinness, this thinness is simply the end result of several behaviors that aim to ameliorate one’s self in highly moral terms. The process of a moral conversion requires an individual to adopt views, attitudes, or patterns of behavior that are generally thought of as morally better than their previous views. Orsini then further divides the three discussed eating disorders into levels of conversion: achieved moral conversion for anorexia nervosa, attempting moral conversion for bulimia nervosa, and rejecting moral conversion for binge eating disorder.

In the case of anorexia nervosa, Orsini presents the circumstances of Elisa, a 28-year-old woman in residential treatment in Italy. Elisa’s narrative of transforming her body from being “sinful and dirty,” to a “pure and sinless body” through her anorexia is an example of an achieved moral conversion. Yet she was forced to abandon her new perspectives and values in order to live. Elisa had to decide if the costs of her anorexic beliefs justified the benefits, leading to a painful moral choice.

For bulimia nervosa, Orsini discusses that people who are diagnosed with bulimia after having had a history with anorexia can be said to have lost the ability to practice the core values associated with anorexia, even though they still consider such values (such as controlling hunger and thinness) to be core values in their lives. Orsini’s participants who were not diagnosed previously with anorexia often spoke of their daily frustrating struggle to control their hunger; while they are unable to totally control their eating, the compensatory behavior of self-induced vomiting, laxative use, or over-exercising was still an attempt at thinness. This continuous attempt to control their hunger, followed by “repairing the damage caused by their moments of weakness,” is an example of how they are attempting moral conversion.

Finally, for Orsini, binge eating disorder is seen as a case of rejecting moral conversion. While the people in Orsini’s research diagnosed with binge eating disorder still described thinness and control over food as a core value in their lives, unlike the anorexics and bulimics, people with binge eating disorder did not believe they deserved to ameliorate themselves. Their self-transformative process can be understood as a form of self-punishment as well as a statement of their perceived failure in being the person they want to be.

Michelle, a 34-year-old Maltese woman, spoke of her body as a sign of failure after gaining a significant amount of weight during and after pregnancy. Orsini states Michelle never referred to her body in aesthetic terms, such as “ugly,” but instead as a mark of her inabilities and moral dissatisfaction. She states, “If I was slimmer, if I am slimmer, I would be a better person” (p. 134). For Michelle, bingeing was a manifestation of her moral failures.

In conclusion, Orsini reiterates that only viewing people with eating disorders as having a physiological or psychological dysfunction underestimates the active role their conditions and cultural meanings of their behaviors. Through her analysis of the narratives of people with an eating disorder in Malta and Italy, she reveals how anorexics, bulimics, and binge eaters deliberately engage in a number of practices aimed at losing weight in order to improve themselves in moral terms. Their actions are further divided into an unofficial moral hierarchy, wherein anorexics embody an ideal moral-selfhood.

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Guest Blog: The Autism Spectrum, Anorexia, and Gender

This week on the blog, we are hosting a guest post by Carolyn Smith, MA, a third-year PhD student in medical anthropology at Case Western Reserve University. Carolyn studies the intersections of mental health, eating, and the body, blending biological and cultural approaches. This blog post complements our July 2015 issue on autism, which you can read more about in the links provided at the end of the guest post.


In Autism spectrum disorders: Toward a gendered embodiment model, Cheslack-Postava and Jordan-Young[1] argue the importance of gender theory in understanding the preponderance of male cases with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) in the United States. In addition to evidence of autism as sex-linked, the authors argue that there is evidence as well for biases in diagnosing autism, and that social environment likely plays a role in male susceptibility. The literature on anorexia nervosa offers a parallel argument: anorexia nervosa, like autism, is often described in terms of biological risk factors[2] yet it remains a socially charged, deeply gendered diagnosis. In the USA and other societies with thin female beauty ideals, for instance, anorexia nervosa is most widely attributed to women.[3]

Both anorexia nervosa and ASD are recognized by the American Psychological Association (APA) and have specific criteria. While these categorizations are justifiably scrutinized by medical anthropologists, here I use the APA criteria as a cultural document that reflect what conditions that biomedical practitioners in the United States are cataloguing when they demarcate mental conditions. Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized as one of the most fatal mental illnesses in the United States.[4] Diagnostic criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-V) includes restrictive eating and an intense fear of gaining weight/persistent behaviors to prevent weight gain. [5] One key criterion for anorexia is being of low body weight with the absence of any other pathology. The inclusion criteria have changed over the years, as have social ideas about the disorder and who suffers from it. Meanwhile, autism is classified as a neurodevelopmental disorder with social deficits and rigid behaviors.[6] The understandings of autism, like anorexia nervosa, have also changed over time in the United States.

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Yet gendered categories for these conditions persist. In the realm of psychiatric health, autism is assumed to be a male disorder, and anorexia nervosa, a woman’s diagnosis. This simple categorization overlooks the extent to which anorexia and autism are demonstrably comorbid in studies carried out in the USA and the UK.[7] [8] [9] One study from the UK, in fact, found that anorexics, restrictive-type were five times more likely than the general population to score as high on the Autism Questionnaire as someone with an ASD. 9 This finding offers no simple cause-and-effect explanation for how the two disorders are linked. However, this new data suggests that the body, the mind, gender roles, and dieting behaviors may be entwined in ways that resonate with cultural beliefs and categories.

There are competing theories about the etiologies of anorexia as well as autism, each with gendered overtones that do not reflect the findings of associations between the two psychiatric conditions. One theory of autism is that it is linked to a “hypermasculinized” brain.[10] Meanwhile, in a 2012 article for Psychology Today, Maestripieri argues that anorexia may be due to a “hyperfeminine” brain. The two conditions, it seems, appear to be “oppositional.”[11] However, these theories do not capture the wide diversity of cultural perspectives within the USA or UK, meaning there may be unique gendered understandings of psychiatric disorders between social groups that are not accounted for in existing research. In either case, what is clear is that cultural categories of psychiatric conditions in the US and UK may be missing how patients (of any gender, from numerous cultural backgrounds) live and seek care with either condition.

These gendered categories become even more complex for individuals diagnosed as both autistic and anorexic. The comorbidity of ASD and anorexia is complicated by the fact that restrictive dieting in anorexia may lead to cognitive impairment, which subsequently causes behaviors that might be confused with cognitive patterns on the autism spectrum. However, people with anorexia do report having autistic traits prior to the onset of their eating disorder, and people recovering from anorexia appear more often than non-anorexics to fall along the autism spectrum. 6,7 Thus, the two illnesses co-produce one another in ways that cross traditional gender lines (autism as male, anorexia as female) while also making it difficult, if not impossible, to isolate each condition from the other. Here medical anthropologists can offer valuable perspectives from the view of patients, who may describe their eating patterns and body image in terms that span and challenge existing diagnostic divisions.

Though there may be no empirical means to measure the extent to which ASD and anorexia overlap, existing theories about socialization may shed some light on how these two illnesses co-occur. There are numerous common traits between anorexia nervosa and ASD, including perfectionism, social withdrawal, and obsessive thinking.6 Girls and women with anorexia appear to have other similar traits to boys and men with autism: systematizing, a fascination with details, and resistance to change. Anorexic individuals with these autistic traits, Baron-Cohen hypothesizes, could become fixated on the systemic relationships behind body weight, shape, and food intake.[12]Of course, this would depend on whether or not the person with autism was brought up in a cultural environment where food intake and body shape are viewed as something that can and should be regulated at all. Here is where socialization may play a crucial role in the development of anorexia nervosa out of behavioral patterns attributed most often to autism.

The comorbidity of ASD and anorexia nervosa presents an anthropologically complex case where discrete classifications of mental illness may not reflect the connectedness of the two conditions. Likewise, the gendering of each illness as dualistic male-autistic and female-anorexic overlooks the extent to which the conditions share behaviors, tendencies, and thought patterns. Though national clinical studies in the USA and the UK suggest a connection between autism and anorexia, cultural readings of gender, eating, and self-regulation amongst patients with comorbid cases might better illuminate how these conditions manifest on the local scale, and between cultural groups.


Additional Reading

Publications:

Jaffa, T., Davies, S., Auyeung, B., Allison, C., & Wheelwright, S. (2013). Do girls with anorexia nervosa have elevated autistic traits. Mol Autism, 4(1), 24.

Nilsson, E. W., Gillberg, C., Gillberg, I. C., & Raastam, M. (1999). Ten-year follow-up of adolescent-onset anorexia nervosa: personality disorders. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 38(11), 1389-1395.

Oldershaw, A., Treasure, J., Hambrook, D., Tchanturia, K., & Schmidt, U. (2011). Is anorexia nervosa a version of autism spectrum disorders?. European Eating Disorders Review, 19(6), 462-474.

Websites: 

ASD and Autism

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/games-primates-play/201208/the-extreme-female-brain

http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/264666.php

https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=iPGFAgAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PR10&dq=malson+the+thin+woman&ots=sQPGnzOFN1&sig=ZSv8OMyuNAFQ3UgBOWZTEX5lHAg#v=onepage&q=malson%20the%20thin%20woman&f=false

CMP Special Issue Features: July 2015 Issue on Autism

https://culturemedicinepsychiatry.com/2015/07/08/special-issue-highlight-the-anthropology-of-autism-part-1/

https://culturemedicinepsychiatry.com/2015/07/22/special-issue-highlight-the-anthropology-of-autism-part-2/

https://culturemedicinepsychiatry.com/2015/08/05/autism-in-brazil-and-italy-two-cases-from-the-june-2015-special-issue/


References Cited

[1] Cheslack-Postava, K., & Jordan-Young, R. M. (2012). Autism spectrum disorders: toward a gendered embodiment model. Social science & medicine, 74(11), 1667-1674. “Our argument is fully biosocial, and our main points in advancing it are to articulate a model for autism, specifically for explaining the male-female disparities in prevalence, that does not exclude social environmental variables, and is therefore more biologically satisfying; and to demonstrate concrete mechanisms whereby autism may become more prevalent in males as a result of social structures and processes related to gender (p. 1673).”

[2] Bulik, C. M., Slof-Op’t Landt, M. C., van Furth, E. F., & Sullivan, P. F. (2007). The genetics of anorexia nervosa. Annu. Rev. Nutr., 27, 263-275.

[3] Malson, H. (2003). The thin woman: Feminism, post-structuralism and the social psychology of anorexia nervosa. Routledge.

[4] Arcelus J, Mitchell AJ, Wales J, Nielsen S. Mortality Rates in Patients With Anorexia Nervosa and Other Eating Disorders: A Meta-analysis of 36 Studies. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2011;68(7):724-731.

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[6] American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5 (5th ed.).

[7] Zucker, N. L., Losh, M., Bulik, C. M., LaBar, K. S., Piven, J., & Pelphrey, K. A. (2007). Anorexia nervosa and autism spectrum disorders: guided investigation of social cognitive endophenotypes. Psychological bulletin, 133(6), 976.

[8] Nilsson, E. W., Gillberg, C., Gillberg, I. C., & Raastam, M. (1999). Ten-year follow-up of adolescent-onset anorexia nervosa: personality disorders. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 38(11), 1389-1395.

[9] Baron-Cohen., Jaffa, T., Davies, S., Auyeung, B., Allison, C., & Wheelwright, S. (2013). Do girls with anorexia nervosa have elevated autistic traits. Mol Autism, 4(1), 24.

[10] Baron-Cohen, S. (2002). The extreme male brain theory of autism. Trends in cognitive sciences, 6(6), 248-254.

[11] Maestripieri, D. (2012 August 23). The Extreme Female Brain: Where eating disorders really come from. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com “Therefore, just like Autism Spectrum Disorders may be the product of the combination of the extremely high systemizing and low empathizing tendencies that characterize the extreme male brain, eating disorders may be a manifestation of high negative evaluation anxiety that originates from the combination of the extremely high empathizing and low systemizing characteristics of the extreme female brain.”

[12] (2013 August 10). Anorexia and autism – are they related? Medical News Today. Retrieved from http://www.medicalnewstoday.com