Tag Archives: anorexia

Women’s Suffrage: The Shut Mouth and Forced Ingestion

26 Aug

On the 5th of July 1909, female self-starvation became politicised as WSPU member Marion Wallace Dunlop initiated a hunger strike within Holloway Goal. Suffragettes famously embarked upon this strike in order to protest their confinement and punishment for public acts of physical insubordination that included breaking windows and chaining themselves to railings. Their rejection of food was a reaction to the government’s refusal to grant them the status of political prisoners. Rather than taking notice of and meeting the hunger strikers’ demands, however, the authorities responded with forcible-feeding.

The late Victorian contest for control of the female body reaches its apogee in the battle for woman’s suffrage. The female mouth, in this instance, which has been open in protest and then closed in resistance, becomes a site that embodies the sexual and political violence always present but often hidden in nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century discourse on women’s ‘aberrant’ eating behaviours.

The hunger strikes that occurred at the beginning of the twentieth century were not isolated incidents but were a product of the Victorian debate surrounding female eating habits. Women’s dietary requirements were monitored throughout the 1800s when there was much discussion upon the subject of what was appropriate for a woman to participate in or consume. According to newspaper articles and etiquette guides, women ought to eat less than men, while certain foods were considered altogether unsuitable. These restrictions that were placed upon the female body possessed a moral dimension since appetite was connected with sexuality. Woman’s hunger and consumption were therefore subject to constant regulation.

When the Women’s Social and Political Union was founded in 1903, its members endeavoured to gain recognition as subjective individuals, rather than submit to being defined in terms of their physiological form. One of the aims of the WSPU was to alter the perception that women were closely connected with their bodies. Ironically, this was achieved by starving the very object by which they were defined. Since it was problematic to classify women using bodies that were severely diminished by hunger strike, self-starvation contested the relationship between women and their physical form. The suffragettes used this bodily presence / absence to obtain a political and public existence.

Suffragettes campaigned for sexual equality and to alter patriarchal perceptions of women. Bodies were central to this agenda, Lucy Bland arguing that the suffrage movement aimed to achieve ‘the eradication of women’s experience of sexual objectification, sexual violence, and lack of bodily autonomy’. Medico-legal structures justified denying women admission to ‘masculine’ social and political spheres by pointing to the female body’s natural physical weakness in comparison to its masculine counterpart and arguing that a woman’s energy should be preserved for conceiving and bearing children.

The nineteenth century woman was defined in terms of her use as a reproductive entity. The productive capabilities of the female body and its social and political application are articulated by Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, within which he argues that the ‘political investment of the body is bound up, in with its economic use; it is largely as a force of production that the body is invested with relations of power and domination’. Perceived as objects that produce, rather than subjects who consume, a power dynamic was established in which women were reduced to their physical form and thus denied a political and legal existence. Foucault asserts, however, that this subjection was necessary in order to maintain women’s situation as productive beings: its constitution as labour power is possible only if it is caught up in a system of subjection…the body becomes a useful force only if it is both a productive body and a subjected body.

Prior to the suffrage movement, women who were restricted by their role as producers protested this situation by engaging in self-starvation which suspended the body’s ability for production. The refusal to eat functioned as a female protest tactic throughout the nineteenth century and reached its climax in the hunger strikes of 1909. Women’s bodies that had been exploited for their reproductive capacities were reclaimed by the suffragettes, who, like their mothers and grandmothers before them, aimed to achieve emancipation from domestic life, taking their campaign to extreme measures using militant protest.

Jane Marcus develops the concept of rejecting these traditional female roles that were connected with the body, arguing that ‘[w]hen woman, quintessential nurturer, refuses to eat, she cannot nurture the nation.’ In a ‘symbolic refusal of motherhood’, the suffragettes refused to be defined in terms of the body and its capacity for bearing and nurturing children. In doing so, they challenged woman’s social responsibility of caring for the family, which in turn served as a microcosm of the state. Rejecting their maternal position within the familial sphere through self-starvation was therefore also a threat to the future of society as a whole.

Prior to the nineteenth century, bodies were publicly exploited to exemplify unlawful behaviour. Punishment was a universal spectacle that focussed upon the body with frequent executions and branding of criminals. However, during the 1800s, ‘the great spectacle of physical punishment disappeared; the tortured body was avoided; the theatrical representation of pain was excluded from punishment.’ The suffragettes revived the spectacular element of punishment by bringing the suffering body back into the public view through inflicting the self-punishment of hunger strike. This in turn initiated further physical ‘punishment’ through force-feeding which, owing to its widespread report in contemporary literature and illustrations, enabled the suffering body to once more assume centre stage. The suffragette in her solitary cell thus became the protagonist of her own theatrical production that was viewed by thousands.

Foucault, on the other hand, argues that following the close of the eighteenth century, bodies became unimportant in terms of punishment and were only touched in order ‘to reach something other than the body itself.’ The body was thought of as an instrument or intermediary: if one intervenes upon it to imprison it, or to make it work, it is in order to deprive the individual of a liberty that is regarded both as a right and as property. The suffragettes, however, demonstrated that the imprisoned body did not merely serve as an intermediary, but was itself a symbol of woman’s experience, damaged and starved by political inequalities. Assuming the role of their own torturers, these women inflicted punishment upon themselves in order to illustrate the injurious potential of being denied access to the public sphere. The suffragettes were thereby able to expose the extent of their political and social reduction through the spectacle of their bruised and emaciated bodies.

While Foucault writes that as an instrument, the body ‘is caught up in a system of constraints and privations, obligations and prohibitions’, the suffragettes revealed the extent to which their bodies were already constrained. The nineteenth-century woman was bound by patriarchal society, defined in terms of her body and imprisoned within the domestic sphere. Incarceration only served to exaggerate women’s social and political position, while the hunger strike called attention to female minds that were starved of education and employment.

The nineteenth-century female body is inextricably linked to punishment, politics and power. According to Foucault, the body and the ‘power relations’ with which it is invested are always central to punishment since: in our societies, the systems of punishment are to be situated in a certain “political economy” of the body…it is always the body that is at issue – the body and its forces, their utility and their docility, their distribution and their submission.

These power relations are clearly played out in the case of the suffragette hunger strikes and government force-feeding, wherein the struggle to assume control of the female body accords with Foucault’s notion of power. Rather than being distributed throughout society via a ‘top-down’ system originating from a single patriarchal source, ‘power must be understood in the first instance as the multiplicity of force relations immanent in the sphere in which they operate’. The suffragettes’ power lay in their decision to embark upon a hunger strike, which in turn provoked medical response to force-feed the starving women. In the power struggle between the prison doctor and the suffragette, the hunger strike left women weak and seemingly more malleable to masculine authority. Yet, the prisoners were able to use this weakness as a form of power. Roberts write that ‘[t]he hunger strike was a species of passive resistance’, a phrase which critic Jane Marcus also uses to describe hunger striking, adding that it was a ‘weapon…used by the obviously weak against the powerful’. The suffragettes were far from weak, however, their very imprisonment suggests that they were in fact regarded as a powerful group since otherwise they would pose no threat and would not require incarceration.

It is particularly significant that the body was used as a tool to gain political status at the end of the nineteenth century, coming shortly after the diagnosis of self-starvation as anorexia nervosa in 1873 and in a century obsessed with the regulation of female bodies and women’s relation to food. W. Vandereycken and Ron Van Deth question whether ‘the self-starvation of anorexic patients perhaps served as an example? Or had anorexia itself been an expression of silent protest within the walls of the Victorian bourgeois home?’ Female self-starvation, both in the form of anorexia nervosa and the suffragette hunger strike, have the same origin. They arise as part of the battle for control of the female body within Victorian society. Suffragette prisoners and women diagnosed as anorexic both used food refusal as a weapon against patriarchal authority. Both wanted to be perceived as volitional beings, rather than the ‘weaker’ sex, defined in terms of the body and governed by its reproductive organs.

Despite the connection between anorexia nervosa and hunger strikes, however, the motives behind anorexic and hysterical self-starvation were regarded as distinct from that of suffragette prisoners. While Gull identified his patients as suffering from ‘mental perversity’ and Lasègue theorised that anorexia was hysterical in origin, suffragettes starved themselves in protest against the government’s refusal to grant them first division status. According to a report published in The British Medical Journal in 1912, this meant that they were ‘in a normal mental condition, which cannot be said of the patients who refuse food in the asylums’ since ‘there is certainly no evidence of “hysteria”’. Whereas suffragettes ceased self-starvation once they reached their political goal, the goal of the anorexic could only be achieved once patriarchy ceased its attempt to control female bodies and women’s lives in general.

Tamar Heller and Patricia Moran maintain that ‘the anorexic—like her discursive and etiological sister, the hysteric—is apparently on a hunger strike against domesticity and the lack of nourishment it provides for women, the kind of hunger for a sphere outside the domestic’. The suffragette hunger strikers campaigned for emancipation from the private sphere for all women, whereas the anorexic’s food refusal was part of an individual battle to gain control of her own body. By refusing to eat, the suffragettes transformed self-starvation from the personal to the political.

Foucault states that ‘in punishment-as-spectacle…it was always ready to invert the shame inflicted on the victim into pity or glory’. This was revived by the hunger strikers since their capacity to maintain their fasting, despite the violent force-feeding, glorified them as strong, determined individuals. Government authorities attempted to prevent this when on the 18th March, 1912 in response to a declaration that forcible-feeding should be stopped, the Home Secretary ‘firmly disagree[d], foreseeing mass suffrage martyrdom.’

With the diagnosis of anorexia nervosa, self-starvation was viewed as a shameful illness that must be treated privately in the home or hospital before the patient was able to return to society. From a personal affair acted out within the privacy of the middle-class bourgeois home between the anorexic girl, her family and the attending physician, with the arrival of suffragette hunger strikers self-starvation became a public spectacle.

Unlike in the cases of anorexia nervosa, suffragette hunger striking was not the behaviour of individual women, but a political act in which many came together and starved themselves en masse. While medical practitioners and government officials considered hunger striking to be rebellious or suicidal, in reality its aim was to call attention to the political motive for what were judged as criminal offences.

The government and the medical establishment also held the belief that the hunger strikes were an attempt to reduce prison sentences. One physician, Dr Nesbit, writes that the hunger strikes were carried out as a method of avoiding punishment, describing the behaviour as ‘“a very cheap way of escaping the penalty of the law”’. A report published three years later, however, disagrees, stating that ‘[t]he suffrage prisoners…have never hunger struck to shorten their sentences, but only to obtain equality of prison treatment for prisoners convicted of like offences’.

Since their campaign was political, rather than personal, the imprisoned women only refused food until their demands were met. The true motives for the hunger strike are recounted by suffragettes themselves in fictional and autobiographical writings, such as K. Roberts’ ‘Some Pioneers and a Prison’, published in 1913. In her work, Roberts reveals that since petitions proved useless in gaining first division status, ‘it was determined to make a protest by politely and quietly declining to wear the prison clothes and eat the prison food’. Members of the WSPU protested ‘against second division treatment, among ordinary criminals, being given to a woman who had committed political offences.’ The narrator does not consider her actions to be ‘an offence at all’, but merely a demonstration against the inequality of government law.

Self-starvation was a protest against injustice, not only of women’s treatment in general, but of the way in which the campaign against this injustice was perceived by authority figures. In a report published in 1909, C. Mansell Moullin writes that: they are fighting for a political idea. Even the Government, though it will not treat them as political prisoners, does not venture to deny that. For this they are being treated as common criminals, in a way that men never are, and forcible feeding is resorted to because that is the only way in which the Government can make the continuance of their punishment as common criminals possible. By diagnosing suffragette behaviour as criminal, the government was able to discount women’s appeal for political power.

Similarly, a few decades earlier, physicians had diagnosed women who took control of their own bodies through self-starvation as being of unsound mind and suffering from the ‘disease’ anorexia nervosa. Nineteenth-century patriarchal structures defined what they considered to be undesirable behaviour as criminal, insane or the result of physical illness in order to justify ignoring female subjectivity. Women’s efforts to challenge the status quo through political protest or by attempting to gain ownership of their bodies were discounted by the government, which defined their actions as abnormal or dangerous and requiring imprisonment and medical treatment.

Even though the days of the body as spectacle were over, authority figures continued in their attempt to regulate and normalise the rebellious female body. In the nineteenth century, ‘a whole army of technicians took over from the executioner, the immediate anatomist of pain: warders, doctors, chaplains, psychiatrists, psychologists, educationalists’. Foucault’s argument that the executioner was replaced by the physician suggests that medical examination and treatment of the body is as violating as the pain and suffering caused by a public death.

J.S. Edkins, however, disagrees with this association, instead aiming to elevate the physician. Edkins’ remarks are one example of the opposition raised in the case of treating healthy women, writing that the use of force-feeding is ‘derogatory to the dignity of the medical profession that its members should be called in to treat with force healthy but recalcitrant prisoners.’ There is a suggestion in this of the status of the profession being removed only in degree from that of common executioner or flogging warder. According to this report, the suffragettes ought not be made to suffer the physical ‘punishment’ of force-feeding since this is beneath the dignity of the medical practioner whose job it should be to treat ill patients, rather than to administer violent procedures upon a healthy subject.

Despite this account, however, prison medical authorities did force-feed women, treating them as mere objects to be kept alive, while ignoring their mental state and subjectivity. This is exemplified in C. Lytton’s ‘Prisons and Prisoners’, the narrator of which relates that following her sixth force-feeding: ‘I complained to the doctor that the processes of digestion were absolutely stagnant. I suggested to him that he should leave out one meal, with a view to allowing the natural forces of the body to readjust themselves. The physician’s response symbolises masculine reactions to the suffragette campaign as a whole: ‘[h]e did not answer me, but turned to the head assistant…“Do you understand her? I don’t”’. Rather than treating the narrator as a reasonable being, the doctor finds her words nonsensical and he chooses to ignore her plea.

The suffragette’s perceivably incomprehensible words match her ‘irrational’ actions. The female language of self-starvation is dismissed by patriarchal authority as the ramblings of a lunatic. Some physicians diagnosed self-starvation itself as the symptom of an unbalanced mind, Dr Nesbit stating that: [i]f an otherwise healthy individual refuses food to the injury of her health and danger to her life, she is without doubt to my mind temporarily insane, just as much as a person taking a dose of poison in similar circumstances. Let the idea be what it may—political or otherwise—the mind is unhinged, and the individual must be guarded against herself. Forcible-feeding was thus justified by diagnosing hunger striking as the result of insanity, the subject’s lack of rational thought suggesting that she is incapable of decision making and does not really intend self-harm.

Richard Smith points to the ethical implications involved in allowing the hunger strike to continue: ‘even though he might start his strike in his right mind, sometime before he dies (and usually only very shortly before) he loses his faculties. How then for the next few days can the doctor continue to be sure that the prisoner knows what he is doing and wants to continue? He cannot.’ It may be questioned why women chose a form of protest that deliberately reduced and weakened their bodies, thus confirming patriarchal views that women were too frail to be granted political power. According to Adrienne Munich: they may have been responding, in part, to seductions of a dominant middle-class culture that claimed that women’s bodies, as well as political aspirations, should be small and subject to regulatory control. I add that the suffragettes challenged this masculine version of the ideal woman by using their physical fragility as a power mechanism to make a political statement. By purposefully weakening their bodies, the hunger strikers demonstrated, in an extreme form, the state in which they were kept by those who demanded their restriction to the private sphere. The vote would therefore enable women to exercise their full potential and develop as subjective individuals, rather than being reduced and inhibited by government law.

This was symbolised in suffrage propaganda, which Linda Schlossberg notes, ‘frequently imagines the vote itself to be a kind of sustenance’. Denied a voice, the suffragettes called attention to the fact that their political exclusion was a form of intellectual starvation. Their political non-existence thus became physically expressed through their wasting bodies. Self-starvation was not only a political statement; it was also a method of self-control achieved through refusing physical penetration. The politics of desire are made apparent in the practices of self-starvation and force-feeding. The closed mouth frustrates the opponent’s desire by refusing entry, while simultaneously preventing the subject from satisfying their own hunger or sexual desire. The subject and the object cannot access or satisfy their desire if one of the bodies is impenetrable.

The nineteenth-century woman was able to use refusal in order to gain power by maintaining ownership of her body, rather than surrendering it to her husband, doctor or prison authority. By closing the body and denying entry to external ideas, hunger-striking also served as a symbol of resistance to notions of women as weak, passive and inferior to men.

Conversely, feeding was a metaphor for the forced ingestion of patriarchal concepts of womanhood. The pain caused by forcible-feeding is symbolic of the damage inflicted upon women by these ‘ideals’ of Victorian femininity. Frustrating desire and causing immense suffering, the masochism of hunger-striking is referred to by Lady Constance Lytton as ‘“the weapon of self-hurt”’. Sylvia Pankhurst describes the discomforting experience of hunger strike, speaking of pains in the back, chest and stomach, lack of circulation and palpitations as ‘gradually the feeling of weakness and illness grows.’ Every day, she is able to perceive ‘that one has grown thinner, that the bones are showing out more and more clearly, and that the eyes are grown more hollow.’ Following release from prison, many suffragettes continued to experience problems with digestive functions and suffered from headaches and nervous symptoms.

The sacrifice involved in the suffrage campaign did not only include self-starvation, but even extended to suicide. In June 1912 during a mass force-feeding in Holloway Goal, Emily Wilding Davidson threw herself down a staircase, while the following year she cast herself under the King’s horse and was crushed to death.

These efforts were undermined, however, by the introduction of forcible-feeding. Patriarchal authorities attempted to neutralise the physical effects of the hunger strike, and the protest that it represented, by robbing suffragettes of a weapon that did not conform to masculine discourses of power. In 1909, 36 of the 110 hunger-striking suffragettes were force-fed. Like the diagnosis of anorexia nervosa in 1873, forcible-feeding of hunger striking prisoners was a method of controlling women’s bodies. In the British Medical Journal (1912), the Home Secretary stated that ‘force feeding was instituted by him to keep the suffrage prisoners in health’. He also assured that ‘the practice of forcible feeding is unattended by danger or pain,’ yet both were found to be untrue.

Forcible-feeding was put into practice in order to avoid death, while the process of feeding itself was painful and injurious. Prior to 1974 when the Home Secretary declared that ‘a prison medical officer would not be neglecting his duty if he did not feed a prisoner against his will’, there was considerable debate as to whether forcible-feeding should be carried out.

Some were concerned that allowing a prisoner to starve themselves to death meant that the supervising authority would be held responsible. One physician questioned: whether if a prison doctor provided substantial meals for a prisoner, but never bothered himself whether they were eaten or not, and the prisoner eventually died of starvation, the doctor could be held to be an accessory before the fact to suicide. In response, Mr Burrows stated that: it was a well-known principle of the Common Law that, where one person was in charge of another, who could not help himself or herself, there was an obligation on the person in charge to see that that person was properly fed and had proper attention. It became a concern that if women were left to starve, this would ‘bring the officials into conflict with a large number of prison rules’. The motivation for feeding the women was thus self-interest on the part of the attending physician who did not wish to be charged with manslaughter.

Others believed that it was their medical duty to sustain the prisoners’ lives, Dr Collingwood stating that ‘he feels that the only function of a medical officer as such is to prevent loss of life’. Unlike modern law which acknowledges ‘that a competent prisoner may choose to commit suicide by starvation’, suffragettes were not permitted to starve themselves to death. While in today’s society intervention only occurs when a prisoner is unable to make an informed decision, force-feeding took place on a regular basis in the case of the suffragette hunger strikes. During one case, Leigh v Gladstone, a woman who was forcibly-fed ‘later attempted to sue for trespass’ and was unsuccessful since it was perceived by the court as the doctor’s duty to prevent her death: Lord Alvestone, Lord Chief Justice, directed the jury, saying: “…as a matter of law it was the duty of the prison officials to preserve the health of the prisoners, and a fortiori to preserve their lives…”

Prior to the suffrage campaign, self-starvation was often used as a method of suicide in the Victorian prison. In his account, Philip Priestly records that ‘“[o]bstinate refusal of food, and an attempt to die by starvation were of common occurrence…always to be overcome by forcible feeding.”’ Force-feeding in this case was justified by claiming that it prevented the ‘crime’ of constant food refusal, since to starve oneself to death was regarded as a form of suicide. In one report written a few months following the onset of the hunger strikes, it is stated that self-starvation must be prevented since it is a form of suicide and therefore a criminal action: [i]f prisoners are kept in prison, it is clearly the duty of the authorities to prevent them committing other felonies, and it must not be forgotten that suicide is a felony. Thus, force-feeding was justified in these cases as being carried out in the name of duty and preventing crime.

Some medical authorities, however, were of the opinion that no intervention should be given in the case of hunger strike. Edward Thompson, Surgeon at Tyrone County Hospital, wrote in 1909 that ‘the duties of medical officers of prisons are, or should be, confined entirely to the treatment of sick prisoners’. According to this report, self-starving women should not be treated since their behaviour was not the result of illness. It was argued that the suffragettes should instead be permitted to assert control over their own bodies given that they are ‘political prisoners, and therefore should be allowed to do much as they please.’

In addition to these arguments, Bea Brockman writes that the forcible-feeding of suffragettes was ‘justified on paternalistic grounds…As in all paternalistic judgements, it was felt that the doctor “knows best”. The physicians who carried out the feeding did not ‘know best’ however. According to The British Medical Journal they ‘were acting practically as prison warders, and were putting their medical skill to an improper use by carrying out forcible feeding against the wishes of the patients.’ During the hunger strikes, doctors behaved unprofessionally as controlling authorities. Instead of acting in the best interests of the patient, they removed their autonomy in what equated to physical abuse. The British Medical Journal records that ‘[t]he public trusts in the profession, and has great faith in “medical treatment”’: by force-feeding suffragette prisoners, however, this trust was abused.

In Discipline and Punish, Foucault states that ‘there may be a “knowledge” of the body that is not exactly the science of its functioning, and a mastery of its forces that is more than the ability to conquer them’. The medical and legal establishments claimed to possess knowledge of the female body, which in turn was used in the subjection of women. Since, according to Foucault, ‘power and knowledge directly imply one another’, this ‘knowledge’ of women placed men in a position of power over their female patients. Law, medicine and the regulation of women’s bodies are combined in the case of forcible-feeding, J. Price Williams writing that ‘[t]he fact that prison doctors are constables explains how this abuse has arisen, but does not justify it.’

The suffragettes were imprisoned by legal and medical authorities who exploited their power in order to dominate others: [t]he Constable-doctor comes to the aid of the Government with his skill as a doctor, his power as a constable, and, using the term “medical treatment” as a cloak, commits an act which would be an assault if done by any ordinary doctor. Using this ‘cloak’ of authority, the physician was able to control women by diagnosing their bodies as sick and in need of treatment, thereby forcing their submission to patriarchal authority.

Prior to the forcible-feeding of suffragette prisoners, anorexia nervosa and hysteria were treated in a similar fashion. In the nineteenth century treatment of anorexia, the patient was often removed from her family, superintended by nurses and provided with food at regular intervals. In the case of ‘Miss K. R—, aged fourteen’, reported by William Gull in 1888, ‘[a] nurse was obtained from Guy’s, and light food ordered every few hours’. Although Gull himself did not admit to using force-feeding, ‘[p]ublished clinical reports from doctors of lesser status…reveal that force-feeding was not uncommon in cases of anorexia nervosa’. An issue of the Lancet in 1888 states that one patient who ‘went to live in a farmer’s house some miles away, was forced to take “plenty of milk and fresh eggs,” and came home very much improved.’ In the same year, the journal published notes on the case of a nine year old girl who was also forcibly-fed: [s]mall quantities of liquid food were ordered to be given to her frequently; for a few times she voluntarily swallowed it, but on the 7th she became stupid, and everything had to be administered to her forcibly.

Force-feeding anorexic patients was not always successful, however. A report in an 1895 issue of the Lancet described a fatal case of anorexia. The patient refused food so ‘was fed an enemata of peptonised milk, beef tea, and brandy.’ This was carried out for two to three days and ‘[i]n ten days she could take a moderate diet by the mouth, but suffered from diarrhoea. On the thirteenth day after admission she rapidly became worse, the temperature rose to 102°F, and on the fifteenth day she died.’

Forcible-feeding was also performed in lunatic asylums upon women who refused to eat. In the case of hysterical patients, however, feeding was sometimes employed by the physician for their own financial gain and to secure a successful reputation. Joan Jacobs Brumberg states that ‘the medical entrepreneurs who ran the private asylums turned to the same procedures when they faced an intractable patient whose parents were paying handsomely to see her weight increase.’

In some cases, the threat of force-feeding was sufficient to encourage a hysterical woman to cease her starvation. J.A. Campbell, Superintendent of the Garlands Asylum in Carlisle, writes in The British Medical Journal (1878): [c]onsiderable numbers of girls in the hysteric state, who had refused food at home, when they were brought here, and the means and manner of giving it were explained to them, have at once given in and taken their food. I always make a point of taking such patients to see another fed with the pump. In order to discourage them from taking up the practice of self-starvation, asylum doctors ensured that new patients observed other women being forcibly-fed.

While this was often a successful method of prevention in the case of hysterical women, the threat of punishment failed to deter the suffragettes from their political hunger strike. The self-punishment of starvation and subsequent physically punishing practice of force-feeding was welcomed by the suffragettes because it drew attention to their campaign. Unlike hysterical and anorexic patients, members of the WSPU did not give in when faced with force-feeding but instead suffered for their cause. By utilising forcible-feeding, patriarchal authorities refused to acknowledge the political dimension of the suffragette starvation.

As in the case of anorexia nervosa, the prison doctor judged that treatment had been successful and the patient ‘normalised’ when her body no longer displayed signs of emaciation. Only the symptoms of the hunger strikes were treated, revealing that patriarchal perspectives upon women and their bodies underwent little alteration during the second half of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. In the struggle against political exclusion, the suffragettes’ bodies were bruised and battered in their arrest, and subsequently imprisoned, starved and force-fed. Yet, the authorities only saw emaciated bodies that could die under their supervision.

The process of force-feeding is graphically described in contemporary journals and works of fiction. In ‘Forcible Feeding of Suffrage Prisoners’ published in 1912, the authors disclose that ‘[t]he feeding cup method is frequently forcibly administered solely by the wardresses, without the supervision of a qualified medical practioner.’ The procedure was often carried out by women in which the wardresses became the agents of the patriarchs, carrying out their work. Women’s bodies were held down and restrained by other women’s bodies, the very bodies that the suffragettes fought to liberate. The force-feeding was violent and brutal, a power struggle of physical strength that symbolised the suffragettes’ political and social battle: [d]uring the struggle before the feeding, prisoners were held down by force, flung on the floor, tied to chairs and iron bedsteads. As might be expected, severe bruises were thus inflicted. The prisoner’s arms that were ‘held firmly, so that she could not move’ represent the restraints placed upon women by early twentieth-century society, while the bruises are visible marks of their suffering, both mental and physical.

It was not only the act of force-feeding itself that was injurious, there were many side effects. A report in the British Medical Journal states that ‘[i]n most cases local frontal headache, earache, and trigeminal neuralgia supervened, besides severe gastric pain, which lasted throughout the forcible feeding, preventing sleep.’ Choking, vomiting, palpitation, faintness, and cold temperature were common, while in one case, food was accidentally injected into the lung.

In accounts of forcible-feeding, the mouth is often the focal point of the procedure, Agnes Savill and Victor Horsley recording that ‘[w]hen the oesophageal tube was employed the mouth was wrenched open by pulling the head back by the hair over the edge of a chair, forcing down the chin, and inserting the gag between the teeth.’ During the feeding ‘the lips, inside of the cheeks, and gums were frequently bruised, sometimes bleeding and sore to touch for days after.’ The mouth becomes stopped up with food in order to prevent speech, its bleeding a symbol of how the female voice was damaged by those who did not heed its words and instead demanded its silence. The injured mouth not only represents the wounded voice, its closure also suggests a refusal to be penetrated. If this is the case, as critics such as Jane Marcus have noted, ‘[t]he depictions of forcible feeding on several suffragette representations may be clearly read as rape scenes.’ The brutality of rape is depicted during the feeding, as the mouth was forced open ‘by sawing the edge of the cup along the gums’, while ‘[t]he nasal mucus membrane was frequently lacerated’ and the process left the ‘throat…swollen and sore’. The throat became the vaginal passageway which was torn and injured during the force-feeding, pointing to the sexual abuse that women’s bodies suffered at the hands of men.

The nineteenth- and early twentieth-century female body was used for sexual purposes and to bear children, both of which caused internal physical harm. Despite the critics who define this procedure as rape, however, I would argue that to do so marginalises self-starvation as an act of political agency. The suffragettes could choose whether or not to eat and were aware of the consequences of not doing so. Suffragettes permitted themselves to be violated as since they could have discontinued the hunger-strike at any point, force-feeding could have been prevented.

The fact that the self-starvation was sustained is an indication of women’s power in which they compelled prison doctors to create suffragette martyrdom through repeated force-feeding. To simply view the procedure as rape fails to account for this element of choice and instead subscribes to the conventional power dynamic which the suffragettes intended to resist.

Often, however, forcible-feeding failed to increase the prisoner’s weight and health. A report in The British Medical Journal states that: ‘[h]owever successful it may have proved in patients suffering from other diseases, the experience of the last year or two seems to prove pretty conclusively that it fails very frequently, if not always, in the case of the suffragist hunger strikers’. The phrase ‘other diseases’ suggests that the suffragettes’ self-starvation was regarded as an illness that ought to be pathologised, treated and thereby controlled. This echoes the diagnosis of self-starvation as anorexia nervosa in 1873.

Stating that self-starvation is a physical condition, a ‘disease’, the report later claims that it is a mental decision capable of affecting physicality: ‘[i]t seems quite possible that digestion, absorption, and assimilation may all be more or less inhibited by an effort of the will’. According to this, suffragettes were able to volitionally hinder digestive processes, suggesting that self-starvation was controlled by the subject. This contradicts the article’s earlier classification of self-starvation as a disease.

Despite these assertions, the hunger-striking could not be ‘cured’ since it was not an illness, nor did women have control over their digestive functions. Suffragette food refusal was politically motivated and this behaviour was repeated until their demands were met. This article reduces the political to the physical in stating that it is otherwise.

The female body as an object to be fought over is symbolically portrayed by what became known as the Cat and Mouse Act. Introduced on March 25th 1913, the Prisoner’s Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health Bill was ‘[a]imed specifically at the suffragettes, the law enabled the government to release a hunger-striking prisoner and reincarcerate her after she recovered’. Suffragettes were released from prison, to return when their health was restored. Once back in prison, however, the hunger strike would resume, this cycle of imprisonment and release driven solely by the body. In 1912, it was stated in the House of Commons that: of 102 cases of prisoners who joined in the hunger strike we have investigated, forty-six were released long before the termination of their sentences, because their health had been so rapidly reduced as to alarm the medical officers. The language of the act posits women as mice, victims pursued by the government. Women become prey, consumable objects to be caught, toyed with and finally gobbled up by patriarchal authorities, a process which Sylvia Pankhurst found to grow ‘[i]ncreasingly wearying and painful’.

On October 21st 1913, Emmeline Pankhurst delivered a speech in New York entitled ‘Why We Are Militant’, during which she referred to the suffrage campaign and subsequent imprisonment as a ‘battle’. The battle for control of the female body at the outset of the twentieth century came to involve the diametrically opposed behaviours of female hunger striking and masculine forcible-feeding. Speaking of the ‘joy of battle and the exultation of victory, Emmeline Pankhurst expressed the enjoyment of fighting to reclaim women’s minds and bodies. Suffragettes used their bodies to fight for their minds, they were ‘women fighting for a great idea’. Their cause was social, aiming ‘for betterment of the human race’, even though the methods that they chose to achieve it were considered anti-social and rebellious. The betterment of the human race was achieved ‘through the emancipation and uplifting of women.’ The battle for control of the female body was injurious to the bodies of those who fought, yet it was in order to secure a better life, for the minds and bodies of the women who were to follow: [t]he battle cost the lives of a few, and the health of most of those who went through it: but it has secured slightly better conditions and a different status for political prisoners in the future. It is a thing that we can always be proud that even—even after forcible feeding was permitted, or, rather, ordered by the Home Secretary—not one of our women gave in. The suffragettes who engaged in the hunger strikes of 1909 did not act in vain because in 1928, women over twenty one were granted the vote.

Copyright © 2011 Victoria Fairclough

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The Binging Purging Alice in Wonderland

15 Aug

Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland portrays a girl whose over indulgent eating and subsequent purging causes her body to dramatically fluctuate in size.  Alice initially encounters food upon falling down a rabbit hole, a symbolic vaginal passageway that conveys her deep into the realm of fantasy and represents a growing awareness of her sexuality. Alice passes bookshelves that, instead of tedious books contain desirable food: ‘[s]he took down a jar…as she passed: it was labelled “ORANGE MARMALADE”, but to her great disappointment it was empty’.[6] Alice longs for the marmalade because it is sweet and indulgent.

Alice’s voracious appetite has the potential to destabilise social relationships when she frightens others by expressing a desire to consume them:

once she had really frightened her old nurse by shouting suddenly in her ear, “Nurse! Do let’s pretend that I’m a hungry hyena, and you’re a bone!”[14]

When Alicegrows taller a pigeon refuses to believe her protestations that she is ‘“a little girl”’[15] and will not predate upon her unhatched eggs:

“I suppose you’ll be telling me next that you have never tasted an egg!” “I have tasted eggs, certainly,” said Alice, who was a very truthful child; “but little girls eat eggs quite as much as serpents do, you know.”[16]

In Wonderland however, Alice also becomes a potential consumable, worrying that she will become a bone to ‘[a]n enormous puppy’[17] and ‘was terribly frightened all the time at the thought that it might be hungry, in which case it would be very likely to eat her up’.[18]Alice relishes being a predator, but not the prey.

Upon consuming food or drink, Alicealters in size, often excessively and not always to her advantage. Contrary to normal experience wherein growth is the consequence of dining, Aliceoften shrinks when she eats. After swallowing the contents of a bottle ‘with the words “DRINK ME” beautifully printed on it in large letters’[19] she becomes ‘only ten inches high’.[20] Transforming in size from small to large and back again represents Alice’s sexual initiation and subsequent withdrawal. Alice’s changes in size are motivated by her desire to escape from places such as the White Rabbit’s house wherein she no longer fits, or to enter smaller places, such as ‘“that lovely garden”’.[21] SinceAlice must ‘“grow to [her] right size again”’ and traverse a locked door in order to gain access to the garden, her entrance therein symbolises sexual maturity.

Lewis Carroll’s Alice books are located within the protagonist’s imagination, therefore her dramatic physical alterations are psychological possibilities of bodily distortion. In one instance Alice discovers a cake and

ate a little bit, and said anxiously to herself, “Which way? Which way?” holding her hand on the top of her head to feel which way it was growing, and she was quite surprised to find that she remained the same size.[22]

Carroll argues that physical size is usually maintained ‘when one eats cake’,[23] yet conversely, those experiencing anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa would state that the body becomes significantly larger and distorted following consumption, especially of fattening delicacies such as cake. Unlike the anorexic or bulimic, Alice is unafraid of drinking or eating, even if she is not sure of the potential consequences. In the White Rabbit’s house she notices a second bottle:

[t]here was no label this time with the words “DRINK ME”, but nevertheless she uncorked it and put it to her lips. “I know something interesting is sure to happen,” she said to herself, “whenever I eat or drink anything; so I’ll just see what this bottle does.”[24]

Alice’s wish to grow larger by drinking its contents is the opposite of anorexic thinking, in which the aim is to become as small as possible. Having not considered the consequences prior to swallowing the liquid, Alicesubsequently regrets her excessive drinking when it has too much of the desired effect: ‘I do wish I hadn’t drunk quite so much!” Alas! it was too late to wish that!’[25] Shortly afterwards, the White Rabbit throws pebbles in order to drive the giantAlice out of his house, yet ‘the pebbles were all turning into little cakes’.[26]Alice hopes that food will be the means of cure and restore her to her usual size:

“If I eat one of these cakes,” she thought, “it’s sure to make some change in my size; and, as it can’t possibly make me larger, it must make me smaller, I suppose.”[27]

Like the bulimic, Alice binges upon drink, then regrets and repeats the eating cycle by consuming cakes directly afterwards. In Alice’s case, however, the second bout of consumption cancels out the first, thus Alice purges by eating more. She does not purge in the usual sense of ridding herself of food, but rather counters her eating with more eating. In addition, Alice exhibits symptoms of compulsive food consumption as, unable to solve a problem or being in a difficult situation, she turns to food to help her: ‘“I suppose I ought to eat or drink something or other; but the great question is, what?”’[28] In order to fill the void wherein she should act or speak, Alice consumes food and drink: upon being unable to converse with the nonsensical March Hare, Alice ‘helped herself to some tea and bread-and-butter’.[29]

When the Caterpillar asks ‘“[a]re you content now?”’[30] Alice replies ‘“[w]ell, I should like to be a little larger, sir, if you wouldn’t mind…three inches is such a wretched height to be.”’[31] Despite Alice’s constant dissatisfaction regarding her body size, her frustration is of a practical nature. Since Alice is dreaming, a process that involves her mind rather than her physical form, it is ironic that her body becomes a hindrance. In Wonderland, Alice’s body assumes the form of her mental perception and is therefore able to transgress natural law and alter in size. Changing size through eating has a confusing effect upon Alice to the extent that she loses sense of her identity and states ‘“I’m not myself”,[32] ‘“being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing.”’[33] Alice lacks a constant to which can be measured since she is beyond the patriarchal world of rules and structure, a world which is liberating, yet also frightening: ‘“[h]ow puzzling all these changes are! I’m never sure what I’m going to be from one minute to another!”’[34]

Nevertheless, Alice is able to control her body size by eating two sides of a mushroom that produce opposite effects:

she set to work very carefully, nibbling first at one and then at the other, and growing sometimes taller and sometimes shorter, until she had succeeded in bringing herself down to her usual height.[35]

This self-control is comforting, yet even though Alice has the ability to change her own physical dimensions, she cannot alter her environment or the other Wonderland characters. After struggling to regain her usual stature, Alice’s surroundings become smaller, compelling her to once again reduce in size. There was

a little house…about four feet high…she began nibbling at the right-hand bit again, and did not venture to go near the house till she had brought herself down to nine inches high.[36]

Even though it appears as though Alice possesses self-control, it is her environment that regulates her behaviour and physical form.

Alice’s bodily alterations prefigure her transformation to a woman as the sexual female body is naturally in a state of flux, changing considerably during pregnancy and menstruation. While Humpty Dumpty’s ‘“name means that shape”’ he is, Alice ‘“might be any shape, almost.”’[37] It is impossible to ascertain Alice’s form from her name alone, reflecting its indefiniteness. As a female, Alice is constantly changing and fluid. By depicting Alice’s body as susceptible to transformation, Carroll demonstrates that women cannot be positioned or contained. During change, the female body produces substances; menstrual blood, milk, amniotic fluid. Alice’s ‘pool of tears’[38] that are secreted when she is nine feet high becomes dangerous when, upon shrinking, she fears she will be ‘“drowned”’.[39] The female body constantly produces fluids, processes that are perceived as threatening to masculine society because they cannot be contained. While seminal fluid is directed towards the woman’s body, female fluids are not focussed upon an Other. Even though women are uncontainable by masculine society, they are self-contained and auto-erotic: this type of woman does not give, she only consumes.

In Carroll’s novels not only does Alice devour various forms of food and drink, she frequently threatens to consume things that never pass her lips, most notably, eggs. The bird that fears Alice may be a serpent who will eat her eggs places Alice in the masculine position of the serpent Satan. Rather than producing eggs and nurturing young, Alice constantly threatens to consume them, thereby rejecting her role as the mother and grown woman that she has not yet become. Yet Alice maintains that she will not eat the pigeon’s eggs because she doesn’t ‘“like them raw”’[40] and is reluctant to buy an egg from a shop as ‘“[t]hey mightn’t be at all nice, you know.”’[41] When Alice does eventually purchase an egg she is prevented from physically claiming it as ‘“[t]he egg seems to get further away the more [she] walk[s] towards it.”’[42]

Following these numerous unusual and confusing experiences, Alice ‘found herself safe in a thick wood.’[43] Despite her impression of safety, however, the thick wood suggests danger, complexity and adulthood. The forest is recurrently threatening in tales by the Brothers Grimm: Hänsel and Gretel lose themselves in a thick wood wherein they are almost eaten by a witch. Their mother states that she ‘“will take the children out into the forest to where it is the thickest”’,[44] to which her husband replies ‘“how can I bear to leave my children alone in the forest?—the wild animals would soon come and tear them to pieces.”’[45] The children are not threatened by animals, however, but by

a wicked witch, who lay in wait for children, and had only built the little house of bread in order to entice them there. When a child fell into her power, she killed it, cooked and ate it.[46]

The witch predatorily gazes upon the sleeping and vulnerable children, observing that their ‘plump and rosy cheeks’[47] will ‘“be a dainty mouthful!”’[48] Designating the domestic role to Gretel, the witch tells her to ‘“cook something good for [her] brother”’ as he is ‘“to be made fat. When he is fat, I will eat him.”’[49] In this tale, putting on weight is associated with death and being devoured. The witch keeps Gretel alive to cook the food that will feed her brother until he is a favourable size to be eaten: in this case, the girl is saved by the traditional female, domestic role.

In contrast, Alice is not accomplished as a Wonderland domestic. When serving cake Alice is frustrated that while she has ‘“cut off several slices already…they will always join on again”’[50] and when carving a leg of mutton she ‘looked at it rather anxiously, as she had never had to carve one before.’[51]  Lacking the security of conventional, female accomplishments, Alice finally loses control and her surroundings descend into ever deeper confusion. Alice experiences extraordinary visions of food and dismembered body parts as the two are associated in a whirling, fragmented scene of distortion and grotesque subversion. The White Queen’s ‘broad good-natured face’ appears in the soup-tureen, cheerfully presenting itself as a consumable ‘before she disappeared into the soup.’[52] Having experienced anarchic excess in the realm of food and the body,Alice loses mental and physical control and upsets the whole dining table:

“I can’t stand this any longer!” she cried, as she seized the tablecloth with both hands: one good pull, and plates, dishes, guests, and candles came crashing down together in a heap on the floor.[53]

At the height of food consumption and the chaos of her own imagination, Alice reawakens into the conventional, stable patriarchal world.

Copyright © 2011 Victoria Fairclough


[1] Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, p.37

[2] F. Nightingale, ‘Cassandra’, in Self and Society in the Victorian Novel (St. Andrews:University ofSt. Andrews Press, 2004), p.13

[3] Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, p.62

[4] Nightingale, ‘Cassandra’, p.9

[5] ibid, p.18

[6] Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, p.38

[7] Brontë, Villette, p.27

[8] Rossetti, Goblin Market, l.115

[9] ibid, l.235

[10] Rossetti, Goblin Market, ll.108-9

[11] J. Grimm and W. Grimm, Hänsel and Gretel, in Complete Fairy Tales (London: Routledge, 2002), p.69

[12] ibid, p.69

[13] ibid, p.69

[14] L. Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 2001), p.159

[15] Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, p.77

[16] Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, p.77

[17] ibid, p.66

[18] ibid, p.66

[19] ibid, pp.41-2

[20] ibid, p.42

[21] ibid, p.66

[22] Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, p.43

[23] ibid, p.43

[24] ibid, p.60

[25] ibid, p.60

[26] ibid, p.65

[27] ibid, p.65

[28] Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, p.68

[29] ibid, p.96

[30] ibid, p.75

[31] ibid, p.75

[32] ibid, p.70

[33] ibid, p.70

[34] Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, p.78

[35] ibid, p.90

[36] ibid, p.78

[37] Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, p.219

[38] Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, pp.48-9

[39] ibid, p.49

[40] ibid, p.78

[41] Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, pp.216-17

[42] ibid, p.217

[43] Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, p.66

[44] Grimm, Hänsel and Gretel, p.66

[45] ibid, p.66

[46] ibid, p.70

[47] ibid, p.71

[48] ibid, p.71

[49] ibid, p.71

[50] Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, p.239

[51] ibid, p.268

[52] Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, p.271

[53] ibid, p.272

A Brief History of Self-Starvation

15 Aug

During the Middle Ages, self-starving practices were commonly undertaken by both sexes as a form of religious observance, particularly during Lent where the control and reduction of food intake was culturally institutionalised. This provided women with the means of experiencing bodily suffering through spiritual fasting. Both Caroline Walker Bynum and Rudolph Bell have explored the role which women assumed in divine practices that involved abstinence from bodily desire. Bynum relates that nourishment was derived by means of prayer and the Eucharist rather than from earthly sustenance as women ‘fasted in order to prepare themselves for Christ’s body and blood.’[1] However, this religious potential for volitional female suffering became largely unobtainable in Britain with the advent of the Protestant Reformation. Worship of the saints was abolished and extreme, publicly demonstrative forms of female adoration such as ‘[t]he renunciation of food, once experienced and explained as a form of female holiness, was increasingly cast as demonical, heretical, and even insane.’[2]

This repression of what were deemed to be irrational forms of mortification attained a new dimension with increasing medicalisation of the female body. The first medical account of self-starvation is credited to the seventeenth century physician Richard Morton who distinguished rejection of food from the loss of appetite that was symptomatic of other illnesses such as tuberculosis and chlorosis, the latter of which Morton commonly terms as ‘Green-Sickness’.[3] In his Phthsiologica – or a Treatise on Consumption (1694), Morton described the case of an eighteen year old girl, resembling ‘“a skeleton only clad with skin”’[4] who

fell into a total Suppression of her Monthly causes from a multitude of Cares and Passions of her Mind, but without any Symptom of the Green-Sickness following upon it. From which time her Appetite began to abate, and her Digestion to be bad; her flesh also began to be flaccid and loose, and her looks pale.[5]

Even though Morton established a specific pathology of self-starvation, the condition would not be formally named for almost two hundred years.

By the nineteenth century, the social status and power of the physician increased as medical authorities had grown secure in the scientific validity of their own assumptions. Unchallenged, physicians increasingly began to compel the subjective experience of their patients to accord with their own doctrine. This was particularly noticeable with female patients and it was at this point in 1873 that an official medicalisation of appetite was elicited when anorexia nervosa was simultaneously diagnosed in England and France by Sir William Withey Gull and Ernest Charles Lasèque. While Lasèque named the condition anorexie hystérique, the term anorexia nervosa was coined by Gull whose description of the malady first appeared in Transactions of the Clinical Society of London (1874).[6] In an 1888 issue of the Lancet, Gull attributed ‘perversion of the “ego” being the cause and determining the course of the malady’,[7] crediting his patients’ refusal to eat to a psychological, rather than a physical affliction as he stated

[t]hat mental states may destroy appetite is notorious, and it will be admitted that young women at the ages named [sixteen to twenty-three] are specially obnoxious to mental perversity.[8]

Yet, in the processes of coercing patients’ subjective experience, while Gull noted the psychological cause and imension of anorexia, he chose not to engage with his patients’ subjective nuances. By concentrating upon the organic effects, rather than psychological causes, Gull failed to acknowledge the existence of the emotional states of his female patients, treating them as ephemera unworthy of the masculine empiricism upon which the evolving medical discourse was founded.

Even when Huchard and Deniau divided anorexia into the two sub-conditions of anorexie gastrique and anorexie mentale in 1883 – describing patients with the former as ‘those with many digestive complaints, in whom hysteria was believed to cause a physiological disturbance leading to impaired gastrointestinal absorption and function,’ and the latter as those with ‘“pure” psychiatric conditions and involved mental rather than digestive problems’[9] – this did not significantly alter treatment, or the way in which female mental phenomena were regarded. Patients diagnosed with anorexie mentale were still treated by controlled or forced feeding in order to overcome the physiological effects, rather than by engaging with the underlying causes that instigated the behaviour.

Yet, while the authority of medical discourse was used to justify the coercion and restriction of female experience, self-starving behaviours continued to create uncertainty within this form of patriarchal control. Gull’s diagnostic security was undermined by the fact that a number of nineteenth century ‘conditions’ shared similar symptoms with anorexia nervosa including bulimia, pica, chlorosis, hysteria and neurasthenia:

“[b]ulimia, pica, and strange longings are morbid modifications of the appetite,” Thomas Laycock wrote in 1840, “and belong to the same class of phenomena as …anorexia…and, like it, are characteristic of the pregnant, chlorotic, and hysterical female.”[10]

Far from being derivations of anorexia, a number of these conditions were theorised and diagnosed prior to the work of William Gull. In 1838, thirty five years before the formal characterisation of self-starvation, the medical adviser in The Penny Satirist described a common disease ‘to which the tender sex is subjected, particularly in the large towns of over-refined countries’, which was identified as ‘chlorosis or green sickness.’[11] The masculine medical establishment responded by perceiving this susceptibility as a female trait and as further evidence that women were the ‘tender sex’. As the advisor continued to observe:

[y]ou can scarcely take a walk in the streets of large towns without meeting young ladies with a pale yellow complexion, mixed with a peculiar greenish tinge, a bluish circle around the eyes, an air of languor and debility.[12]

The cause of such symptoms was thought by Clark to result from the ‘capricious’[13] appetite of the patient, who often exhibited symptoms of pica during which they ‘craved strange substances such as chalk, dirt, ashes, or vinegar’,[14] yet at other times they lost their ‘appetite altogether, sometimes refusing to eat.’[15] As with anorexia, while the psychosomatic nature of chlorosis was noted, arising from ‘one principal source, namely, bad physical and moral education’,[16] the result of ‘[w]ant of proper exercise, improper dress, tight lacing, too much sitting, improper development of the imagination at the expense of the reasoning faculties, boarding-school education, play-going, and novel-reading’,[17] such observation disparaged female subjective experience and trivialised female activities. A further undermining of diagnostic certainty was caused by chlorosis and anorexia occurring within girls of a similar age, with Clark writing that there is ‘frequent occurrence of anaemia or chlorosis in girls between the ages of fourteen and twenty-four’,[18] compared to Gull’s theory of anorexia arising between sixteen and twenty-three. In addition, in cases of chlorosis the Lancet (1887) reported that ‘sometimes there is amenorrhoea’,[19] a symptom also associated with anorexia.

Confronted with such etiological confusion, physicians attributed this uncertainty to a consequence of dealing with the unpredictable, irrational and hysterical female, thereby evading questions regarding the clarity and consistency of the empirical science that formed the foundation of medicine.

Copyright © 2011 Victoria Fairclough


[1] C. Walker Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (Berkeley, 1986), p.117, James of Vitry, Life of Mary of Oignies, AASS, June, vol.5, p.517

[2] J.J. Brumberg, Fasting Girls: The Emergence of Anorexia Nervosa as a Modern Disease (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), p.49

[3] R. Morton Phthisiologica: Or a Treatise of Consumptions 2nd edition (London, 1720), pp.8-9, in R. M. Bell, Holy Anorexia (London: University of Chicago Press, 1985), pp.3-4

[4] ibid, pp.3-4

[5] ibid, pp.3-4

[6] E.L. Bliss and C.H. Hardin Branch, Anorexia Nervosa: Its History, Psychology, and Biology (New York: Paul B. Hoeber, 1960), p.13

[7] W. Gull, ‘Clinical Notes’, The Lancet, March 17 (1888), p.517

[8] W. Gull, ‘Anorexia Nervosa’ (apepsia hysterica, anorexia hysterica), Transactions of the Clinical Society of the London 7 (1874), p.25, in J.J. Brumberg, Fasting Girls: The Emergence of Anorexia Nervosa as a Modern Disease (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), p.118. Gull identified anorexia nervosa as a disease in its own right, rather than a symptom of another disease since upon examination one patient ‘was found to be extremely emaciated, but there were no signs of organic disease.’ W. Gull, ‘Clinical Notes: A Fatal Case of Anorexia Nervosa’, in Lancet, Jan 19 (1895), p.149

[9] E.L. Bliss and C.H. Hardin Branch, Anorexia Nervosa: Its History, Psychology, and Biology (New York: Paul B. Hoeber, 1960), p.18

[10] T. Laycock, A Treatise on the Nervous Diseases of Women (London: Longman, Orme, Brown, Green and Longmans 1840), p.73, in A. Krugovoy Silver, Victorian Literature and the Anorexic Body (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p.2.

[11] Anon., ‘The Medical Adviser’, The Penny Satirist, iss.43 (London, 1838)

[12] ibid

[13] A. Clark, ‘Observations on the Anaemia or Chlorosis of Girls, Occurring More Commonly Between the Advent of Menstruation and the Consummation of Womanhood’, Lancet, vol.130, issue 3351, 19 November (1887), 1003-1005, p.1003

[14] Victorian Literature and the Anorexic Body, p.2, Noted by Samuel Ashwell, in A Practical Treatise on the Diseases Peculiar to Women (Philadelphia, PA: Lea and Blanchard, 1845)

[15] ibid

[16] Anon., ‘The Medical Adviser’, The Penny Satirist, iss.43 (London, 1838)

[17] ibid

[18] A. Clark, ‘Observations on the Anaemia or Chlorosis of Girls, Occurring More Commonly Between the Advent of Menstruation and the Consummation of Womanhood’, Lancet, vol.130, issue 3351, 19 November (1887), 1003-1005, p.1003

[19] ibid

Anorexia and the Middle-Class Family

14 Aug

The classification of anorexia in 1873 served to highlight the wider issues of female control within Victorian society from which the diagnosis arose. In France, Lasègue linked anorexia with the middle-class family, treating members of the Paris bourgeoisie, among whom ‘[t]he prolongation of dependency seemed to add to the intensity of parental love and set the stage for anorexia nervosa’.[1] Adolescent girls who refused to eat had the power to disrupt the familial structure, often becoming the centre of attention. The battleground for control of the female body was thus played out in the bourgeois family and involved displacing the power of the paterfamilias.

During his study, Lasègue discovered that the family often attempted to ‘cure’ the patient, having ‘“two methods at its service”’,[2] one being persuasion as ‘“[t]he delicacies of the table are multiplied in the hope of stimulating the appetite”’.[3] Yet, by attempting to entice their daughter with food, like the physician the family are merely treating the symptoms of anorexia, rather than addressing the cause of self-starvation. Yet, the family’s efforts proved ineffectual since ‘“the more the solicitude increases, the more the appetite diminishes.”’[4] Placing pressure upon the patient only results in increased resistance as she battles to assume control of her own body. The second weapon in the family’s armoury is emotional blackmail. By declaring that their daughter’s love for them can be demonstrated by eating, the patient’s parents attempt to transform her behaviour: ‘“[s]he is besought, as a favor, and as a sovereign proof of affection, to consent to add even an additional mouthful to what she has taken”’.[5] The more parents compel their daughter to eat, however, the more she refuses as ‘“this excess of insistence begets the excess of resistance.”’[6] Meal times become a struggle to take control of the starving girl’s body.

This conflict mirrors greater implications of women’s bodies within Victorian society, wherein the patriarchal Establishment prescribes certain female physical forms and behaviour. The family’s role to socialise the young girl into the values of society is challenged by a daughter who refuses to adhere to these norms, represented by the family meal. The daughter rebels through the medium of her body, asserting the right to control her own physicality, rather than submitting to a socially constructed gender role. For both Gull and Lasègue, it was the responsibility of medical authority to act in loco parentis in order to re-establish masculine control over the female body and therefore transform the dysfunctional family. In order to achieve this, they advised that the patient should be isolated from her family and friends and placed in care of the nurses, who were in turn controlled by the physician. Gull believed that the medical practitioner alone was able to control his patient since ‘“[o]nly medical concerns should govern her regimen, not the girl’s fretfulness over being forced to eat or her parents’ desire to avoid a scene.”’[7] Once treatment was successful, the patient could be returned to her family and society preserved.

Copyright © 2011 Victoria Fairclough


[1] Brumberg, Fasting Girls, p.126

[2] Lasègue, ‘On Hysterical Anorexia,’ Medical Times and Gazette (September 6, 1873), pp.265-266, Original French report in Archives Générales de Médicine (April 1873), in Brumberg, Fasting Girls, p.129

[3] ibid

[4] ibid

[5] ibid

[6] ibid

[7] Brumberg, Fasting Girls, p.121

The Invention of Anorexia

14 Aug

Prior to its diagnosis, anorexia, or loss of appetite, had been thought to be a symptom of another, primary disease. It was given the status of an independent condition by the eminent physician Dr William Withey Gull, who asserted that anorexia was distinct from the weight loss that resulted from a separate disorder such as organ disease or tuberculosis. Gull first introduced anorexia to the British Medical Association in 1868, referring to it as ‘apepsia hysterica’:

[a]t present our diagnosis is mostly one of inference, from our knowledge of the liability of the several organs to particular lesions: thus we avoid the error of supposing the presence of mesenteric disease in young women emaciated to the last degree through hysteric apepsia by our knowledge of the latter affection, and by the absence of tubercular disease elsewhere.[1]

In his footnote to hysteric apepsia, Gull writes that ‘I have ventured to apply this term to the state indicated, in the hope of directing more attention to it.’[2]  He did just this since five years subsequent to this address, on 24th October 1873, Gull presented a lecture to the Clinical Society of London, an elite group of medical consultants, entitled ‘Anorexia Hysterica (Apepsia Hysterica)’ in which the 1868 diagnosis of ‘apepsia’ was replaced by ‘anorexia’. Gull explained this substitution since ‘“what food is taken, except in the extreme stages of the disease, is well digested.”’[3] A paper based on this lecture, ‘Anorexia Nervosa (Apepsia Hysterica, Anorexia Hysterica)’, was published the following year. In this report, the original title of the lecture, ‘Anorexia Hysterica’, was altered to ‘Anorexia Nervosa’ because Gull had come to believe that anorexia was nervous, rather than hysterical in origin given that ‘hysteria’ implied a gendered disease affecting only women:

we might call the state hysterical without committing ourselves to the etymological value of the word, or maintaining that the subjects of it have the common symptoms of hysteria. I prefer, however, the more general term “nervosa,” since the disease occurs in males as well as females, and is probably rather central than peripheral.[4]

Two years after Gull’s publication, a paper delivered at the Royal College of Physicians was printed in The British Medical Journal that offered a detailed description of the symptoms of anorexia nervosa, concurring with Gull’s earlier diagnosis:

the appetite fails, food is not taken, and the body wastes to an extreme degree, the countenance has a distressed appearance, the eyes are sunken, the cheeks hollow, and the whole system impoverished: the body has fed upon itself, and all superfluous fat has become absorbed.[5]

Similarly in France in April 1873, Dr Ernest Charles Lasègue published ‘De l’anorexie hystérique’ in the Archives Générales de Médicine, in which anorexia was described as ‘“hysteria of the gastric center”’.[6] Although Lasègue believed that the condition derived from hysteria, ‘anorexia’ (lack of appetite) is used in place of ‘hysterical inanition’ since he states that anorexia ‘“refers to a phenomenology which is less superficial, more delicate, and also more medical.”’[7] In 1884, however, T Clifford Allbutt opposed the idea of a hysterical cause owing to the variety of symptoms produced by anorexia. Based upon six cases collected prior to the reports from Gull and Lasègue, Allbutt found that in some instances, ‘there is great pain on the ingestion of food; in others, there is no pain, but simply a distaste for food.’[8]

In his account, Lasègue identified three stages of l’anorexie hystérique. During stage one, he reports that the patient experiences physical sensations, a ‘“vague sensation of fullness” and ‘“suffering after commencement of the repast.”’’[9] Certain foods are omitted from the diet and there is evidence of hyperactive behaviour. In stage two there is physical deterioration, yet the patient becomes the centre of attention owing to her food refusal and is thereby pleased with her condition and does not wish to ‘get better’. This is what Lasègue termed ‘“pathological contentment”’.[10] In the final stage, he noted severe emaciation and amenorrhea and ‘“[t]he young girl begins to be anxious from the sad appearance of those who surround her, and for the first time her self-satisfied indifference receives a shock”’.[11] From this report, it can be seen that since the anorexic girl is respondent to others, her family and friends act as a reflection of her own physical condition. The patient’s body image becomes distorted to such a degree that she only realises the extent of her emaciation when others exhibit signs of alarm.

By classifying the behaviour and symptoms of anorexia, Gull transformed an existing condition into a disease. Taking control of the patient’s volitional self-starvation, he translated the behaviour as a ‘mental perversity’[12] subject to treatment, indicating his wish to regulate undesirable female conduct by diagnosing it as an abnormality. This objective to manage disease is evident in Gull’s lectures and writings, the language of which is couched in terms of control. In his ‘Address on the Internal Collective Investigation of Disease’ delivered in 1884, he states that medical investigation requires a ‘combination of exact observation and record, with refined criticism and analysis’.[13] Meticulous in his diagnosis, Gull advised his fellow physicians that:

we must, in many instances, have the life-histories of the parents or more remote ancestors, before we can fully unravel the course of irregular menstruation, hysteria, anorexia, uterine flexions, and the like.[14]

Gull stressed the need for medical practitioners to carry out diagnoses in a uniform manner, in order that illnesses could be systematically classified and the problem of disease ‘settled’. Allbutt also suggests a way in which control should be exercised, especially in the case of anorexia which displays ‘objective symptoms’ that can be measured, treated and brought within patriarchal power: ‘[t]his anorexia nervosa is no whimsical malady, no inconsistent nor irregular indisposition, but is a definite complex, consisting, in part, of objective symptoms.’[15]

Thwarting Gull’s desire for a neat and methodical diagnosis, however, anorexia resisted classification. Firstly, its cause was problematic. Allbutt writes that ‘[s]ometimes, the distaste has taken its origin in a mere shirking of food – in the fear of growing stout, or in a nobler avoidance of self-indulgence’,[16] while Lasègue believed that anorexia occurred ‘as the result of some “emotional cause” which the patient might either “avow or conceal.”’[17] These emotional causes outlined by Lasègue included ‘inappropriate romantic expectations, blocked educational or social opportunities, struggles with parents.’[18] Adding to this catalogue of possible origins for the condition, in an 1888 issue of the Lancet Gull attributed ‘perversion of the “ego” being the cause and determining the course of the malady’,[19] crediting his patients’ refusal to eat to a psychological, rather than a physical affliction:

[t]hat mental states may destroy appetite is notorious, and it will be admitted that young women at the ages named [sixteen to twenty-three] are specially obnoxious to mental perversity.[20]

A decade later, William Smoult Playfair asserted that lack of appetite is caused by neurasthenia: ‘“the excessive disgust for food, which is so striking a feature, is only one of many coexisting indications of a profound alteration of the nervous system.”’[21]

Copyright © 2011 Victoria Fairclough


[1] W.W. Gull, ‘Clincal Observation in Relation to Medicine in Modern Times’, Address dekuvered at a meeting of the British Meidcal Association at Oxford, August 7th, 1868, in Theodore Dyke Acland (ed.), A Collection of the Published Writings of William Withey Gull (n.p., September 2010), p.54

[2] W.W. Gull, ‘Clincal Observation in Relation to Medicine in Modern Times’, Address dekuvered at a meeting of the British Meidcal Association at Oxford, August 7th, 1868, in Theodore Dyke Acland (ed.), A Collection of the Published Writings of William Withey Gull (n.p., September 2010), p.54

[3] W.W. Gull, ‘Clinical society of London, Friday October 24 Sir William Gull read a paper on anorexia hysterica (apepsia hysterica)’, Medical Times and Gazette, 2, (1873), 534-6, in Vandereycken and Deth, From Fasting Saints to Anorexic Girls

[4] W.W. Gull, ‘Anorexia Nervosa’ (apepsia hysterica, anorexia hysterica), Transactions of the Clinical Society of the London 7 (1874), pp.25-6, p.25, in Brumberg, Fasting Girls: The Emergence of Anorexia Nervosa as a Modern Disease (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), p.118

[5] S.O. Habershon, ‘Lumleian Lectures on the Pathologies of the Pneumogastric Nerve (Concluded)’, The British Medical Journal vol.1, no.805 (Jun 3, 1876), pp.681-682, BMJ Publishing Group, p.681 [accessed 30.06.10] <http://www.jstor.org/stable/25237255&gt;

[6] Ernest Charles Lasègue, ‘On Hysterical Anorexia’, Medical Times and Gazette (September 6, 1873), pp.265-266, Original French report in Archives Générales de Médicine (April 1873), p.266, in Joan Jacobs Brumberg, Fasting Girls, p.125

[7] Ernest Charles Lasègue, ‘De l’anorexie hystérique’, Archives Générales de Médicine, 21, (1873), 385-403. Translation: ‘On hysterical anorexia’, Medical Times and Gazette (2), 1873, 265-6, 367-9, in Van dreycken and Deth, From Fasting Saints to Anorexic Girls, p.157

[8] T. Clifford Allbutt , ‘The Gulstonian Lectures, on Neuroses of the Viscera’, The British Medical Journal vol.1 no.1212 (March 22, 1884), pp.543-547 BMJ Publishing Group, p.546 [accessed 30.06.10] <http://www.jstor.org/stable/25265955&gt;

[9] Lasègue, ‘On Hysterical Anorexia’, in Brumberg, Fasting Girls, p.127

[10] Lasègue, ‘On Hysterical Anorexia,’ in Brumberg, Fasting Girls, p.130

[11] ibid, p.131

[12] W.W. Gull, ‘Anorexia Nervosa’, p.25, in Brumberg, Fasting Girls, p.118

[13] William W. Gull, ‘An Address on the Internal Collective Investigation of Disease’, The British Medical Journal, Vol. 2, No. 1233 (Aug. 16, 1884), pp.305-308 published by BMJ Publishing Group, p.305 [accessed 30.06.10] <http://www.jstor.org/stable/25267200&gt;

[14] Gull, ‘An Address on the Collective Investigation of Disease’, p.143

[15] Allbutt, ‘The Gulstonian Lectures, on Neuroses of the Viscera’, p.546

[16] ibid>

[17] Ernest Charles Lasègue, ‘On Hysterical Anorexia,’ Medical Times and Gazette (September 6, 1873), pp.265-266, Original French report in Archives Générales de Médicine (April 1873),  Brumberg, Fasting Girls, p.127

[18] ibid

[19] W. Gull, ‘Clinical Notes’, The Lancet, March 17 (1888), p.517

[20] Gull, ‘Anorexia Nervosa’, p.25, in Brumberg, Fasting Girls, p.118

[21] William Smoult Playfair, “Note on the So-Called Anorexia Nervosa,” Lancet (April 28, 1888), p.818, in Brumberg, Fasting Girls, p.147

Copyright © 2011 Victoria Fairclough

Select PhD Bibliography: Nineteenth Century, Women, Food, Hysteria (Criticism and Theory)

8 Aug

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Adburgham, Alison, Shopping in Style: London from the Restoration to Edwardian Elegance (London: Thames and Hudson, 1979)

Adler, K. and M. Pointon, The Body Imaged: The Human Form and Visual Culture Since the Renaissance (Cambridge University Press, 1993)

Alexander, C., The Early Writings of Charlotte Bronte (Oxford: Blackwell, 1983)

Archimedes, S.M., Gendered Pathologies: The Female Body and Biomedical Discourse in the Nineteenth-Century English Novel (London: Routledge, 2005)

Auberbach, N., Women and the Demon: the Life of the Victorian Myth (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982)

Barber, P., Vampires, Burial and Death. Folklore and Reality (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988)

Beauvoir, S. de, The Second Sex, ed. by H.M. Parshley (London: Pan Books, 1988)

Bell, R.M., Holy Anorexia (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985)

Bordo, S., Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1993)

Borickman, R. et al. (eds.), Corrupt Relations (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971)

Beeton, I., Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861 London: Chancellor Press, 1982)

Bliss, E.L. and C.H. Branch, Anorexia Nervosa: its History, Psychology and Biology (New York: Hoeber, 1960)

Branca, P., Silent Sisterhood, Middle-Class Women in the Victorian Home (London: Croom Helm, 1977)

Bronfen, E., Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity and the Aesthetic (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1992)

Bronfen, E., The Knotted Subject: Hysteria and its Discontents (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1998)

Brook, B., Feminist Perspectives on the Body (London: Longman, 1999)

Bruch, H., The Golden Cage: The Enigma of Anorexia Nervosa (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1978)

Bruch, H., Eating Disorders: Obesity, Anorexia Nervosa and the Person Within (New York: Basic, 1973)

Brumberg, J.J., Fasting Girls: The Emergence of Anorexia Nervosa as a Modern Disease (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988)

Butler, J. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity ­(London: Routledge, 1999)

Carter, R. B., On the Pathology and Treatment of Hysteria (London: John Church Hill, 1853)

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Ectoff, N., Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty (New York: Random House, 2000)

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Flanders, Judith, Consuming Passions: Leisure and Pleasure in Victorian Britain (London: Harper Press, 2006)

Foucault, M., The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, An Introduction, trans. by R. Hurley (Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1981)

Foucault, M., Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, trans. by R. Howard (London: Routledge, 1997)

Frank, K., A Chainless Soul: A Life of Emily Brontë (New York: Ballantine Books, 1992)

Frude, N., Understanding Abnormal Psychology, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2000)

Gallagher, C. and T. Laqueur, The Making of the Modern Body: Sexuality and Society in the Nineteenth Century (Berkeley; Los Angeles; London: University of California Press, 1987)

Gaskell, E., The Life of Charlotte Bronte (London: The Penguin Group, 1985)

Gezari, Janet, Charlotte Bronte and Defensive Conduct: The Author and the Body at Risk (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992)

Gilbert, S.M. and S. Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven andLondon: Yale Nota Bene, 2000)

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