Tag Archives: family

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