Tag Archives: bulimia

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

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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