SPA Interview with Dr. Rebecca Lester

This week on the blog we are featuring a partial summary of an interview with Dr. Rebecca Lester, conducted by Ellen Kozelka, as part of the Society for Psychological Anthropology “Voices of Experience” series. In this audio conversation, available in full here, Dr. Lester discusses her newest book project, Famished: Eating Disorders in the Era of Managed Care, focusing on the conditions and experience of eating disorders treatment in the United States. Also discussed in the interview is Dr. Lester’s research interests, reflections on her personal experience experience with an eating disorder, and the linking of anthropology to advocacy. Dr. Lester’s book is not yet for sale.

The SPA “Voices of Experience” series is a venue to showcase the range of work that psychological anthropologists engage in, and to give listeners, virtually attending the live events, the opportunity to ask prominent scholars in the field about their work.


The interview begins with a reading of the book’s preface by Dr. Lester herself. The recitation narrates the experience of an insertion of a nasogastric (NG) tube and subsequent first “feeding” of an 11-year-old girl with anorexia. Capturing the anxiety and fear of being forcibly held down for the insertion of the NG tube, and yet still being terrified of eating, Dr. Lester describes the instructions given by the doctor before inserting the NG tube. “We are going to put it in. You can either cooperate with me here, or we can take you to a seclusion room and put you in restrains and do it there. It’s your choice,” the doctor says to the girl.

The process of having an NG tube placed is extremely uncomfortable. Feeling disconnected from the world around her, exhausted from the painful NG tube ordeal, and distraught from watching “so many calories” being pumped into her body while she is unable to do anything about it, the young girl is then further mentally assaulted by another patient nearby asking her questions about her new feeding tube.

“Is [anorexia] the thing where you’re scared of getting fat so you starve yourself and you get real skinny? Hell, I wish I could have anorexia for a day,” the older patient states while laughing and grabbing at her own stomach fat. The young girl is then left to make sense of her situation while listening to the woman and another patient chatting about how much they wish they had the willpower to starve themselves as the holiday season approached.

This preface sets the tone for what it is like to be a patient in an eating disorders clinic. This reading then transitions the conversation into the interview between Dr. Lester and Ellen Kozelka.

Ellen Kozelka: What is the managed care system as it relates to eating disorders treatment, and why is it so important to understand its moral dimensions?

Dr. Lester: Managed care operates as a moral system in our society. So in terms of eating disorders, we are in a situation where our healthcare system is really predicated on a certain kind of understanding of what health is and what a person is. This is foundationally oriented to the splitting off of behavioral health and medical care.

Managed care plans have a pot of money that goes to medical care, and another pot of money is set aside for mental health, behavioral, or psychiatric care, depending on how insurance companies classify it. What’s challenging in terms of eating disorders is that they are conditions that bridge both of those domains. Certainly there are medical complications to other things, such as addictions, but we find in eating disorders this bridging of the medical and of mental health in terms of the symptomatology.

Trying to get an integrated treatment approach for eating disorders is really difficult. Clinicians are left to try and piece together care, but getting that care reimbursed is extremely difficult. Often times managed care companies will pay for the acute medical issues, such as an inpatient hospitalization because of a cardiac incident, but you then cannot also get mental health care at the same time. Or you can go to an outpatient clinic for the psychiatric concerns, but you then are not able to also be treated for the physical complication that might be going on too. Thus it is very difficult to provide a full spectrum of care to someone in a way that is actually going to treat the problem.

Kozelka: The foundation of the system in the US is that physical medical care and mental health care are two separate things, which based on this idea of what health is and what the person is. So would that make managed care in the US a type of cultural system?

Dr. Lester: Absolutely. One of the things I’ve been interested in is what kind of philosophies of the person are embedded in our healthcare system and how is that structuring or impacting the way that clinicians are perceiving what’s going on with clients, what the problem is, or how to best intervene with them. It’s a whole epistemological and world view about humans and what motivates humans, and what the appropriate end goal of that behavior should be.

Kozelka: In your book you provide an overarching definition of care. Care “orchestrates cognitive and sensory attunement, practical agency, and affective imagination into a disposition to the ‘other’ which comes to organize attention, doing, and feeling in locally meaningful ways.” This definition of care combines two previously separate conceptual definitions of care as practical or political action, and care as affective concern. How do you see this combination linking to your understanding of care in relation to power?

Dr. Lester: Something that many of us as psychological anthropologists struggle to do in our work is try to illuminate the ways that these are not different domains. When we talk about political or practical action, and we talk about affective experience or subjective experience, they are not separate domains. We can separate them ideologically, but in terms of the way people live their lives, the domains are intertwined.

Part of what I’ve been interested in is how these structures of power operate across multiple levels of analysis at once. Care in all of the senses of the definition above, is a way of constituting not only an object of concern, but who the subject of care is, and how that person is constituted as a moral agent, or not, in a given circumstance. We have to look at how political and practical components of care are connecting and interacting with the affective dimensions and the subjective experience of care. That is where you see psychological anthropology coming in and trying to theorize about what these connections are in a way that’s rigorous and ethnographically grounded.

Kozelka: How do these moral dimensions of care, in terms of whether the or not the individual is considered to be a “good patient,” relate to the actions that these managed care systems either take or don’t take?

Dr. Lester: There are different ways of thinking about a patient, such as framing the patient as a moral actor, or discussing the patient in relation to her own quest for health, whatever that is. In the case of eating disorders, it can become a situation where it almost does not matter what the patient does. It does matter, but the same action can be interpreted in a variety of ways depending on how you are thinking about that actor as a moral agent or not.

Compliance and non-compliance are big concerns in all of healthcare, certainly in behavioral health, but particularly in the field of eating disorders where patients are historically thought to be non-compliant, resistant, or really difficult to work with. Managed care companies have concerns about patient complying with the treatment recommendations. What I saw again and again is that it almost did not matter what the patient did. There would be times where they were complying, following the regulations and meal plans, and doing what they were supposed to do. But the insurance companies were skeptical of the motivations for this behavior, so that even when clients were complying with treatment, their compliance was sometimes read as manipulation. That’s just an example of how these moral dimensions, or how you constitute the recipient of care as a moral agent or not, affects the way that care is delivered, almost regardless of what the person is actually doing.

Kozelka: In this system were patients are constantly being scrutinized, how do you think these factors affect their experience of treatment?

Dr. Lester: It’s horrible. It would be miserable for any of us to be in that circumstance. This is particularly challenging for these patients because a lot of the dynamics experienced during the course of treatment itself are the exact same issues that they are already struggling with. These are questions like, “Are you worthy of care,” “Are you worthy of attention,” “Are you worthy of time,” and “Do you matter?” These questions are really at the core of eating disorders for a lot of people.

Dr. Rebecca Lester, via Washington University in St. Louis Dept of Anthropology website

Patients are being told they should not always be monitoring or surveying themselves, yet at the same time, because of the kinds of things that the insurance companies care about in order to make their decisions, patients are being constantly monitored and evaluated. There is a constant, pervasive insecurity that pervades that clinic where you do not know from one day to the next if someone is going to be deemed “sick enough” to still need care, “too sick” to remain there, “invested enough” in her recovery, or “invested too much in her recovery” and thus deemed as manipulative. It is this constant uncertainty and people trying to make themselves into appropriate patients just so that they can get care.

This does not address the underlying issues that are going on. So this scrutiny affects them a lot, especially when clients want treatment, doctors say they need treatment, but insurance companies say “No.” There are even discussions among the clinicians, expressing that “if only she were cutting, because then we could get her treatments.”

Further, the patients may not even be able to deal with some of the underlying things that possibly got them to the eating disorder because they are so busy dealing with the feelings around not being worthy of getting treatment. If the insurance companies deny them, they cannot get treatment. There is a case I discuss in the book of a 14 year-old teenager who was struggling with anorexia in the clinic. Her weight had gone up a bit during the two or three weeks she was admitted and making progress. But then her insurance ran out, and the family did not have the financial resources to afford the $1,200 a day price tag. Their only option was to get the teenager into a research study going on at a local university where a randomly assigned treatment group would get free therapy. The problem was that she had gained too much weight for the regulations of the study, forcing the clinic staff to put her on a diet at the treatment center in order to get her down in weight enough so that she could get free treatment. That was the only option besides merely discharging her with no support.

Kozelka: What do you think the study of self brings to anthropology as a whole?

Dr. Lester: It’s absolutely critical. The self as a general category is about why people do what they do. We cannot understand why, or effectively theorize about why, unless we are willing to engage with questions about parts of experience that we cannot directly observe. We have to be open and flexible enough to understand different ways that different groups of people comprehend the components of what makes up a person, how to understand motivation, or whatever we want to call why people do things. It is imperative if we, as a field, want to have something useful to say.


The interview with Dr. Lester continues, and concludes with a question and answer session with listeners who were virtually tuned in during the live recording of the interview. The full audio interview recording is available here.


Dr. Rebecca Lester is an Associate Professor of Sociocultural Anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, and a practicing clinical social worker. Her interests include how individuals experience existential distress, and how this distress manifests as psychiatric symptoms, religious angst, somatic pain, and other culturally informed bodily conditions.  Specifically, she considers how bodily practices deemed “deviant,” “extreme,” or “pathological” – and local responses to such practices – make visible competing cultural logics of acceptable moral personhood. Along with her many publications and previous book, Jesus in our Wombs: Embodying Modernity in a Mexican Convent (2005) from the University of California Press, Dr. Lester is also the founder, Executive Director, and a psychotherapist of the non-profit Foundation for Applied Psychiatric Anthropology.

Ellen Kozelka is a graduate student at University of California, San Diego.

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From the Archive: Eating Disorders Amongst Japanese Women

In our “From the Archive” series, we revisit an article published in past issues of Culture, Medicine & Psychiatry. This week, we’re highlighting a piece on eating disorders in Japan, originally featured in our December 2004 issue.

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Kathleen Pike and Amy Borovoy’s article “The Rise of Eating Disorders in Japan: Issues of Culture and Limitations of the Model of ‘Westernization'” makes a poignant case for the importance of context when examining eating disorders across the world. In this piece, they argue that studies of eating disorders abroad have often attributed the etiology of these illnesses to an increasing visibility and presence of Western beauty standards that accompany the spread of new technologies, medias, and communication tools. While Western beauty ideals have been problematically exported to the non-Western and developing worlds in other cases, Pike and Borovoy suggest that this model does not account for the experience of eating disorders in Japan.

Westernization and modernization, they note, are two distinct processes: and Japan, which has developed economically but retained many of its traditional social roles, exemplifies this difference. Modernization is the process of economic and technological development as a nation shifts from traditional to modern (often, mechanized). Westernization may be defined as the process of integrating the lifestyle, values, and experiences of Western cultures into the fabric of society, especially during periods of modernization and economic change.

Despite the drive for modernization, Japanese women are still expected to be homemakers and mothers rather than career women in the new economy. The Japanese have not adopted the individualistic and feministic sensibilities of the Western world, and the domestic burden– both caring for the home and children, and tending to older family members– squarely falls upon wives and mothers. This creates enormous stress for young women, who wish to extend their adolescent years and savor the freedom between childhood and their adult lives, as defined by marrying and becoming a homemaker. Modernization allows young Japanese women to obtain jobs, travel widely, and earn an education, but traditional social roles do not create a space for women to enjoy such a designated period of freedom without familial commitment. The inevitability of domestic life, then, is ever-present in the lives of women who yearn for fewer responsibilities– even if just for a time. This creates feelings of distress, unease, or unhappiness in many young women.

Pike and Borovoy observe that Japanese women do not reject food (anorexic behavior) or induce vomiting (bulimic behavior) out of a desire for thinness or due to fat phobia, as women with eating disorders almost universally experience in Western nations. Rather, Japanese women stress that they reject food because it worsens their digestive complaints, which are connected to the anxiety and stress they feel out of dissatisfaction with their social role (or lack thereof.) The tension between women’s expected social functions, and their desire to live and work in some other way, therefore spurs disordered eating within this broader frame of mental distress.

As we see, women’s experiences of Japanese eating disorders are entwined in the fabric of traditional social life, and not rooted exclusively in imported ideas of the body, independence, and individualism per the Western way of life. Indeed, the non-fat phobic symptomatology of eating disorders reflects the essential differences between Japanese women with eating disorders and their peers in Western nations. The study highlights the centrality of culture in studies of mental illness, and the way that these conditions emerge out of a local social world.


To find the full article online, click here: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11013-004-1066-6