Blogs > Cliopatria > Teaching Anorexia?

Apr 22, 2004 9:30 pm

Teaching Anorexia?

I'm teaching a class this semester on"Beauty, the Body, and the Euro-American Tradition". It's a brand new course, and it's coming along well (we're heading into the home stretch). One of our many topics is the history of disordered eating and anorexia, and we're using Joan Brumberg's magisterial Fasting Girls as our main text. We've been having some thoughtful, lively discussions around it.

The class of thirty students is largely female. At least half a dozen of the women have shared some of their own experiences with food and anxiety; as they do so, most of their peers nod their heads in vigorous agreement. Two women have told me (separately, and during my office hours) that they are currently struggling with fairly serious eating disorders. Both are in treatment of one form or another; both took the class because they were intensely curious about the historical and cultural roots of their affliction. The problem (and I had been warned about this) is that an intense focus on food and the body -- even in an academic setting -- seems to be fueling rather than diminishing the problem for at least these two students! Brumberg's book is filled with descriptions of various extreme food-refusal techniques employed by women, past and present. One young woman told me recently that it "made (her) feel bad that (she) didn't have the willpower that some of these girls had... but now (she's) got some new ideas! She half-heartedly assured me that she was joking, but it has left me concerned.

Research has shown that attempts to discuss eating disorders (and other self-destructive behaviors, like cutting) often leads to an increase in the very behavior that the discussion was trying to prevent. In a body-obsessed culture, many students clearly find it liberating to hear about the historical origins of our contemporary body obsession. As part of that journey, it is natural and appropriate that they also share their own experiences and feelings. In gender studies, individual narratives, no matter how subjective, are intensely important! But for some of my students, I sense that there is a genuine danger in focusing so intently on the body. I am beginning to consider the possibility that the discussions that we are having and the texts that we are reading are"fueling the disease" for at least a few of my kids (yup, that's what I call 'em). I might well be"teaching anorexia" in more ways than one!

As a gender historian deeply concerned with the well-being of my students, I am convinced that a good course in body history needs to walk a fine line between the therapeutic and the academic. Too much of the former, and the class can degenerate into a talk-show. Too little of the former, and I am flagrantly disregarding the sine qua non of gender studies: that the historical is always personal.

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shawn murffy jack - 12/30/2008

Noadays Anorexia is the main concern throughout the world.Can anybody give me more information about its causes and remedies.
Bulimia News and Discussion Forum

Jonathan Dresner - 4/26/2004

There was a topic?

Speaking for myself, I love "returning" students. People with a little worldly experience, who really understand how long a decade is, whose life is not bounded by dormitory walls, get history much more substantially than 19-year olds with fraternity lives. People who are committed to an education rather than to a credential, are what keeps me in the classroom (well, that and the nagging sense that even people who aren't committed to learning history bloody well need to experience it).

Anne Zook - 4/26/2004

Well, that was part of what I edited out, so I'm glad you reminded me of it. I was a "mature student" in the university's classification, meaning that I was 27 or 28 when I decided to take a degree, and I'm certain I got four times as much out of those years as any 20 year-old on campus.

With a (very) little maturity under my belt, I didn't hesitate to try classes I would have scorned six years earlier. And, being out of the "school mentality," I'd forgotten how to sit in class waiting to be spoon-fed dates and facts I could memorize. In my innocence :) I looked on the college experience as a romp through a fabulous library where I could sign up for 'guides' on almost any section in the Dewey decimal system.

I think taking a year or two off before university would change the experiences of many students. There's nothing like a stint in the "real world" to make you appreciate all there is you could know...or might just want to know.

I'm getting off-topic, aren't I?

Grant W Jones - 4/23/2004

Family System Theory has an psychological explaination for eating and other forms of self-distructive behavior:

Ophelia Benson - 4/23/2004

Don't be sorry for length - I don't think there's any rule that these have to be short. Anyway it's interesting. That's exactly the kind of thing I mean! And it's exactly what happened to me, too. I thought Literachoor was the only subject that interested me when I was a teenager - then when I finally (after a year off to work) got to university, I discovered, with much amazement, that it wasn't. And I've gone on finding things other than Literature that interest me ever since. worries me when university courses meet students where they are rather than taking them someplace they haven't been and don't know about. Maybe I'm just hand-wringing about nothing, but that's my thinking anyway.

Hugo Schwyzer - 4/23/2004

I posted some more thoughts on a feminist classroom at">my place.

Anne Zook - 4/23/2004

I never taught no one :) but I'll admit that a university history professor inspired my passion for the subject.

Actually, I started reading political science on my own, as a result of arguments (in the best sense) with that same history teacher whose views were, in my eyes, appallingly Conservative.

Political science naturally led me back to philosophy, a subject I'd dabbled with years before. Both of those require an understanding of sociology and a timely university course started me down that path....

I was (at least briefly) fascinated by geography, art history, and semantics, each as the result of an enquiring mind meeting an informed source. (I sometimes think it's a pity I never became that fascinated by punctuation, but there you go. There are limits.)

I'd also like to add, just by way of tossing fuel on the debate, that I managed to combine a relatively voracious desire to read every book ever published and know everything anyone, anywhere knew, with an obsessive self-absorption that (fortuntely) led me only a small way down the path of the students mentioned in the original post. Teenagers are very flexible. :)

(Sorry for the length. I edited and edited, but writing quick notes isn't my strong suit.)

David Haan - 4/23/2004

Ouch! OK already, I'm going, but it had to be said.

Ophelia Benson - 4/23/2004

I simply don't think it's true that you can't stop the young from being self-obsessed. I think you can. Not completely, of course - but I do think you can teach them to be interested in other things. Dang - am I the only one whose mind was kicked into life at that age? I don't think so! Groaning shelves full of Bildungsromanen (if that's the right plural) would seem to indicate that I'm not. Have none of you ever taught a single student who got interested in something she or he had not been interested in before, because you taught her/him about it?

Anne Zook - 4/23/2004

You can't stop students from using the course as a "how-to" guide if they choose to do so. Nor can you stop the young (female and male) from being self-obsessed. So, you have two choices.

#1 - Restrict university education to the 30+ crowd, or,
#2 - Balance the material you offer with material on the perils of such behavior (and, given the experience you've mentioned, a handout directing students to university or other healthcare professions wouldn't come amiss) and hope for the best.

Maybe I'm cynical, but I find myself worried about the potential liability. Is there a responsibility at the university level, for acting on the knowledge that a student may be inclined to (or engaged in) self-harm?

Ophelia Benson - 4/23/2004

Interesting, all this. I agree that a lot of women are self-obsessed (well that's easy, isn't it, since I don't have to define 'a lot'!) but I think that's at least partly because they've been taught to be. And I seriously do think that some versions of Gender Studies contribute to that teaching. I really, really don't agree with the Ivory Tower idea - I think, on the contrary, that it should be made clear that the door to that tower is wide open. No 'academic' subjects are not the preserve of an elite, they're for everyone.

Read Scott McLemee's speech at his award thingy, for example. Read about the president of Brown who is the 11th (or is it 13th) child of Texas sharecroppers. See (if it's available) her interview on Sixty Minutes - note what she says when Morley Safer asks her what on earth 16th century French poetry could have to say to a 20th century black woman. She lets him know what, in no uncertain terms.

This is the view that seems to me to be the real elitism - the one that says philosophy or 16th century French poetry or physics is an academic or Ivory Tower or irrelevant or elitist subject - the one that says 'You won't like this, so here is something more relevant.' I don't think it's doing people a favor to refuse to make them stretch.

(Not that I'm saying that's what you're doing, Hugo! But I think that kind of view lurks in the background of the Ivory Tower notion, and I like to try to drag it out into the foreground.)

Ralph E. Luker - 4/22/2004

Good Lord, Hugo. I hasten to remind you that pandering is punishable in law. Last time I checked, elitism was not, though someone should tell that to some of our professional organizations. I've pled guilty to one or another form of it on several occasions.
Seriously, do you think that female students are self-obsessed in ways that male students are not and how do you distinguish self-obsession from "normal" forms of self-preoccupation? The "intellectual distractions" of learning about "the other" and how we are like and not like the other can be immensely rewarding.
My recollection of the last time I encountered students who were cutting themselves is that it did involve female students more largely than it involved male students, but when I mentioned it as an issue with some faculty colleagues, I was sharply cut off by a female colleague who gave me a rather hard look and said it was a "political" issue -- which I took to mean that I wasn't even supposed to acknowledge it. That seemed to me to be nonsense. People who are cutting themselves need forms of psychological help which I am not professionally equipped to offer.

Hugo Schwyzer - 4/22/2004

Well, if I had a dime for everytime I have been called an panderer, I could match your pile of Roosevelts. Maybe we should combine them and take ourselves to lunch.

I don't claim all women are self-obsessed, but I do claim that a remarkable number of them are. And I think it is disastrous to attempt to remedy that self-obsession with intellectual distractions that do nothing to explore the roots of and the remedies for that very self-obsession. I think that sort of work belongs in the ivory tower.

I realize that I am not qualified to say whether other fields of study should be free from the obligation to be relevant. Gender studies, from the beginning (at least as I understand it) sought to work from a different set of assumptions than traditional academic disciplines. As I said in the first post, it never should abandon the intellectual and the rational and the empirical; rather, it should place the emotional, the personal, and the embodied along side them. It would be absurd, surely, to require astronomy to work that way. But the study of women, men, and the recent history of their bodies is obviously far more personal than the study of Alpha Centauri or derivatives or Cato the Elder.

Ophelia Benson - 4/22/2004

Hmmm...if I had a dime for every time I've been called an elitist...

But maybe it's not elitist. Or to put it another way, I don't see why it should be. Is it self-evident that all women necessarily want to be confined to the personal? Not that academic courses in The Body do that, of course...not directly...but what about implicit messages, for instance? The implicit message that 'academic' study is 'too' something - too elitist, or dry, or cold, or boring, or impersonal, or abstract, or universal-general, or scholarly, and that therefore it should be changed into something different - something warmer and cozier and more friendly and therapeutic and cathartic. Or implicit messages that women are naturally self-obsessed. Why aren't those messages considered elitist?

The fact is, it all does sound a bit patronizing to me, and what the difference is between patronization and elitism - I've never been sure.

For instance -

"This is not navel-gazing; it is simply the assertion that in order to be meaningful, the subject matter must resonate (to one degree or another) with their own experience."

But that's just it. Doesn't that encourage people to think that subjects that don't 'resonate with their own experience' are boring? That's not an abstract question, I have known and still know a lot of people who do think exactly that way. Shakespeare isn't 'relevant' so they never once read him after they get out of high school. Ditto math, astronomy, physics, whatever you like. It's good to think and learn about things other than the Self, but a lot of people are never taught that.

There is something squalidly impoverishing about a curriculum that's All About You. I don't think it is elitist to think education should be enriching rather than impoverishing.

Hugo Schwyzer - 4/22/2004

whoops, sorry about the grammar, I meant as Bordo and Brumberg are doing...

Hugo Schwyzer - 4/22/2004

Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Hugo Schwyzer - 4/22/2004

Thanks for the comments, Ralph and Ophelia!

I teach the course in the Humanities, not the History division of the college, and thus have far more latitude to bring in material from other disciplines (ranging from sociology to psychology to the arts).

I'm sure we could have a fun hunt chasing down "the personal is political/historical". But it is surely no more of a cliche than empiricism itself; maybe I spent too much time at Berkeley, but one thing that I accepted hook, line, and sinker was that the "view from nowhere" was itself a highly artificial construct!

I do think that good teaching in gender work asks the students to take a variety of materials and draw connections to their own experience. This is not navel-gazing; it is simply the assertion that in order to be meaningful, the subject matter must resonate (to one degree or another) with their own experience. If one is going to "teach the body" (as Susan Bordo and Joan Brumberg, my two heroes in this are do), one has an obligation to address student feelings and concerns as they come up. We aren't therapists capable of addressing specific conditions, nor should we try. But that doesn't mean that the exploration of the origins of our societal obsession with the body shouldn't be immensely cathartic!

If academic feminism has become -- as some critics charge -- merely about raising the self-esteem of individual women, then indeed, the notion that the "personal is historical" is being abused. What I HOPE to accomplish in gender history and body studies classes is to arouse, among other things, a profound compassion for others.

The fact is, most young college-age women are tied in knots of anxiety about their own bodies; to say that this anxiety and its cultural origins is not a subject worthy of academic study strikes me, with all due respect, as profoundly elitist...

Ophelia Benson - 4/22/2004

I echo Ralph on several points. I'm a grizzled ol' feminist myself, but I've grown increasingly dubious about that 'the personal is political' mantra in the last ten years or so - partly because I know all too many women who take it all too literally and apply it all too extensively - who, in short, seem to be completely incapable of talking or thinking about anything that's not personal. That is unbelievably limiting, obviously. In many ways Second Wave Feminism seems to have pushed us back into a cage as well as letting us out.

So, in short, is the historical always the personal? Is that a sine qua non of gender studies? If so, why? And does that seem to result in a narrow, parochial view of what history is in students who buy into it?

And as for therapy - that's the first thing I thought when starting to read the post. Frankly the whole subject sounds perilously close to therapy. And...I have a lot of problems with that. It seems so infantilizing, for one thing. And so (again) parochial, for another. I mean - it is an important subject (I've read the Brumberg book) but is it an academic one?

Jonathan Dresner - 4/22/2004

the subject of the therapy is truly ready to learn and grow. Perhaps the course should come with a prerequisite: no active disorders. Or perhaps you have to accept the fact that some people don't learn no matter what the course subject or how important it might be.

In the short run, things may be getting worse for them. They already had a problem, and it's unlikely that it would have gotten better if they hadn't taken your course; as you know this is a society in which body-obsession is one of the easiest psychological traps to fall into. But it's entirely possible that this course may be their best opportunity to grasp the core of what's wrong with them (and society) and begin to think their way out of the cycle. Begin, I say. You can give them tools, and information, but you can't finish the journey with them.

Ralph E. Luker - 4/22/2004

A few ruminations, if you don't mind: It's really helpful to know that you are sensitive to what might be unintended consequences of what is studied and discussed. One of my more recalitrant former colleagues used to argue on a fairly regular basis that all that can be learned does not need to be taught. I suppose you are asking whether you are at the end of a tether of what ought to be done in academic work. I've often thought that it ought to avoid the therapeutic -- in part because we really have little preparation to do therapy and it tends to displace what we are best prepared to do.
The other question that your post raised with me -- not for the first time -- is about the "sine qua non" of gender studies. I'm of the generation which apparently coined and gave currency to the notion that "the personal is political." Yet, for the life of me, Hugo, I've got a number of problems with it: a) I've never been able to nail down a specific locus classicus for the phrase (I found the murk from which it came, but it's murky); b) it does seem to me that phrase ellipses some very important values, such as "the private" and "the public"; and c) I have to wonder whether the "sine qua non" of gender studies hasn't become a mere cliche. Where is the careful definitive statement of what the heck the phrase means? It seems to sound right to us, but I suspect that it means lots of different things to lots of different people.