Categories
Eating Disorders History

The Shut Mouth & Forced Ingestion: Women’s Suffrage

On the 5th of July 1909, Marion Wallace Dunlop initiated a hunger strike in Holloway Goal. Suffragettes famously embarked upon this strike in order to protest their confinement 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.1

Rather than taking notice of and meeting the hunger strikers’ demands, however, the authorities responded with forced-feeding. 

Women ought to eat less than men, while certain foods were considered altogether unsuitable

These hunger strikes 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 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.

The suffragette movement campaigned for sexual equality and to alter patriarchal perceptions of women, an agenda to which bodies were central.

The nineteenth-century woman was defined in terms of her body and imprisoned within the domestic space of the home. Her exclusion from the ‘masculine’ social and political spheres was justified by men who pointed to the female body’s natural physical weakness. According to the Victorian patriarchy, a woman’s energy should be preserved for bearing children.

Women’s bodies that had been exploited for their reproductive capacities were thereby reclaimed by the suffragettes, who, like their mothers and grandmothers before them, aimed to achieve emancipation from domestic life.

The suffragettes therefore endured hunger and forced-feeding in order to improve the lives of other women. Their capacity to maintain their fasting, despite the violent force-feeding, glorified them as strong, determined individuals.

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 reasons 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.2

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.

A report published in 1909 states that they are fighting for a political idea:

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.3

By diagnosing suffragette behaviour as criminal, the government was able to discount women’s appeal for political power. Women’s efforts to challenge the status quo through political protest or by attempting to gain ownership of their bodies were therefore dismissed, and their actions defined as abnormal, dangerous and requiring imprisonment and medical treatment.

Hunger striking was extremely uncomfortable. It was referred to by one suffragette, Lady Constance Lytton, as ‘“the weapon of self-hurt.”’4 The experience is described by Sylvia Pankhurst who speaks 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 she:

has grown thinner, that the bones are showing out more and more clearly, and that the eyes are grown more hollow.5

Following release from prison, many suffragettes continued to experience problems with digestive functions and suffered from headaches and nervous symptoms.6

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. and 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 in 1909. The Home Secretary stated that ‘force feeding was instituted to keep the prisoners in health.’ and assured that it was ‘unattended by danger or pain,’7 yet both were found to be untrue. It was in fact was injurious and painful.

By utilising forcible-feeding, patriarchal authorities refused to acknowledge the political dimension of the suffragettes’ starvation. 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.

Authorities only saw emaciated bodies that could die under their supervision

In the struggle against political exclusion, the suffragettes’ bodies were bruised and battered in their arrest; then 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’ (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.’8 This procedure was often carried out by women. 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.9

The prisoner’s arms that were ‘held firmly, so that she could not move’10 represent the restraints placed upon women by early twentieth-century society; while the bruises are visible marks of their suffering, both mental and physical.

This process also had many side effects such as headache, earache, neuralgia and severe gastric pain. 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:

When 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.11

During the feeding the lips, inside of the cheeks, and gums were frequently bruised, sometimes bleeding and sore for days after.12

Instruments used for forcible-feeding

The mouth was therefore 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.

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’.

Emmeline Pankhurst

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.13

Suffragettes used their bodies to fight for their minds: they were ‘women fighting for a great idea’.14 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.15

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:

The 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.16

The suffragettes who engaged in the hunger strikes of 1909 did not act in vain because in 1928, women over the age of twenty one were granted the vote.


  1. Susan Kingsley Kent, Sex and Suffrage in Britain 1860-1914 (London: Routledge, 1990)
  2. Norquay, Voices and Votes, from K. Roberts, ‘Some Pioneers and a Prison’ (1913)
  3. C. Mansell Moullin, J. S. Edkins, L. Garrett Anderson (October 9th 1909) ‘Fasting Prisoners and Compulsory Feeding’ 1098 The British Medical Journal Vol. 2, No. 2545
  4. Lytton, Constance and Jane Wharton, Prisons and Prisoners: Some Personal Experiences (New York: George H. Doran, 1914)
  5. Marcus, Suffrage and the Pankhursts, Sylvia Pankhurst, 11th April 1914
  6. ibid
  7. Savill and Horsley, ‘Preliminary Report on the forcible feeding of Suffrage Prisoners’
  8. Williams, McIntosh and Sayer, ‘Forcible Feeding of Suffrage Prisoners’, The British Medical Journal Vol.2, No.2701 (October 5th, 1912)
  9. Savill and Horsley ‘Preliminary Report on the forcible feeding of Suffrage Prisoners’
  10. Norquay, Voices and Votes, from K. Roberts, ‘Some Pioneers and a Prison’ (1913)
  11. Savill and Horsley ‘Preliminary Report on the forcible feeding of Suffrage Prisoners’
  12. ibid
  13. Emmeline Pankhurst, ‘Why We Are Militant’: Speech Delivered in New York, October 21st, 1913 in Marcus, Suffrage and the Pankhursts
  14. Marcus, Suffrage and the Pankhursts, Sylvia Pankhurst, 11th April 1914
  15. ibid
  16. Norquay, Voices and Votes, from K. Roberts, ‘Some Pioneers and a Prison’ (1913)

Categories
Dieting Eating Disorders History

Why Women? Theories of Anorexia Nervosa

Cases of eating disorders have risen dramatically over the last decade. Between 1.25 and 3.4 million people in the UK are affected by an eating disorder.1 The majority of these are women.

This gender bias is especially true of anorexia nervosa, which is one of the most common psychiatric disorders amongst young women.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSMV) informs that ‘[m]ore than 90% of Anorexia Nervosa occurs in females.’2 There are also more women diagnosed with bulimia nervosa, the National Eating Disorders Association reporting that 80% of sufferers are female.3

More than 90% of anorexia nervosa occurs in females

While men do suffer from eating disorders, there are significantly fewer reported cases. For more details on this, please click here.

Cases of anorexia amongst males are also believed to have different causes, and are differently expressed to those experienced by the female population. This concept is supported by theorists such as Joan Jacobs Brumberg who writes that men with anorexia ‘exhibit a greater degree of psychopathology, tend to be massively obese before becoming emaciated, and have a poorer treatment prognosis.’4

Historically, anorexia has presented more commonly in women. The reasons for this can be discovered by exploring the origins of this type of eating disorder.

There is evidence of abnormal food-related behaviours throughout the ages: from the fasting female saints of Medieval Europe to the hunger striking Suffragettes.

It was not until the end of the 1800s, however, that anorexia was formally diagnosed simultaneously in England and France. While the French Earnest Lasèque named the condition anorexie hystérique, the term anorexia nervosa was coined by English physician William Gull.

Dr Gull claimed that anorexia resulted from a perversion of the ego

Gull’s description of extreme self-starvation first appeared in a medical journal in 1874.5 He claimed that anorexia resulted from a ‘perversion of the “ego”, and credited his patients’ refusal to eat to psychological affliction. 

Modern medical conceptions of anorexia continue to draw on this work. While the current edition of the DSMV now distinguishes two sub-types of anorexia: binge-eating/purging type; and restricting type which does not involve binging or purging, these behaviours are still attributed to a pathological cause.6

According the modern diagnostic criteria for anorexia, there must be evidence of:

  1. ‘energy restriction leading to significantly low body weight’7
  2. ‘fear of weight gain or behaviour interfering with weight gain’8
  3. ‘disturbance in self-perceived weight or shape’9

In addition, the individual must refuse ‘to maintain, or to reach, 85% of the expected body weight for someone of that age and height.’10

The severity of the condition is based on Body Mass Index (BMI). For an adult, a normal BMI score ranges from 18.5-24.9.11 Mild cases of anorexia are classified as having a BMI score of more than 17, while at the other end of the spectrum, extreme cases have a score of less than 15.12

The term anorexia is misleading, however. This is because the Latin word anorexia literally translates as ‘lack of appetite’; or, in the case of anorexia nervosa, ‘loss of appetite owing to nervous causes’.

Women diagnosed with anorexia, however, are not necessarily lacking in appetite. On the contrary, most individuals who engage in self-starvation experience incessant hunger and are constantly preoccupied with food; resulting in a desperate battle to suppress these urges.

Women diagnosed with anorexia are not necessarily lacking in appetite

Even though they were initially identified as predominantly medical conditions, eating disorders have subsequently been viewed using a variety of non-pathological discourses.

In their attempts to ascertain a cause, theorists have developed several concepts of eating disorders including:

  • psychosexual
  • familial
  • sociocultural

PSYCHOSEXUAL THEORY

At the end of the nineteenth century, a new diagnosis of anorexia emerged that used psychoanalytic technique.

Equating lack of appetite with loss of sexual desire, the psychosexual model was propounded by the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. He conceived the idea that food refusal derived from a desire to maintain the body in a state of pre-sexual adolescence.

In 1895, Freud wrote that anorexia was ‘“a melancholia where sexuality is undeveloped.”’13 His theory relating loss of appetite to disturbed sexual development was reiterated in his report of 1918, where he states ‘“[i]t is well known that there is a neurosis in girls…which expresses aversion to sexuality by means of anorexia.”’14

Freud believed that his patient’s rejection of their bodily appetite was communicated through self-starvation. This resulted in an extremely slender figure, whose postponement of womanhood symbolised a lack of physical desire for both food and sexual interaction.

Food refusal was interpreted as expressing anxieties and and fantasies of a purely psycho-sexual nature, such as fear of pregnancy

This psychoanalytic model continued to be drawn upon throughout the twentieth century. In the 1970s, food refusal was once again interpreted in terms of Freudian theory ‘as expressing anxieties and fantasies of a purely psycho-sexual nature, such as fear of pregnancy or of attracting the sexual attention of men.’15

In 1978 feminist writer Hilde Bruch described ‘genuine anorexia’ as ‘characterized by the avoidance of any sexual encounter, a shrinking away from any bodily contact.’16 Fearing sexual maturation and impregnation, at the onset of bodily changes during puberty ‘[t]he girls react with severe anxiety to what they sense are indications of losing control.’17

Lack of sexual desire is also associated with anorexia nervosa in the modern DSM which states that ‘[w]hen seriously underweight, many individuals with Anorexia Nervosa manifest depressive symptoms such as…diminished interest in sex.’18

Contrary to Freudian theory, however, I would argue that this reduced sexual desire is a result of self-starvation and greatly reduced body fat. It is a symptom of starvation, rather than a cause.

In order to address the sociocultural dimensions of disorderly eating, new concepts were developed throughout the 1970s and 80s. During this period, there was a resurgence of interest in eating disorders, and the psychosexual model was joined by Family Systems Theory and various feminist interpretations

FAMILY SYSTEMS THEORY

This theory regarded self-starvation as ‘a sign of disturbed structure and interactions within the family.’19 It is unclear, however, whether this disturbance was considered to be a cause or an effect of self-starvation.

 Amongst feminist accounts of Family Systems Theory, focus is often upon the mother-daughter relationship. Hilde Bruch ‘argued that the anorexic’s home was often “too good” because her mother often anticipated her daughter’s needs.’

This ‘led to the development of dysfunctional feeding practices and the child’s self-awareness of hunger and satiation did not fully develop.’20 Anorexics therefore remained dependent upon their families, particularly upon their mothers. 

A decade later, Susie Orbach (1986) confirmed Burch’s argument, stating that anorexics have difficulty ‘with developing an independent identity that is separate from her mother’s.’21

SOCIOCULTURAL THEORY

Feminist analyses of the late 1970s were therefore amongst the first to challenge dominant pathological interpretations of eating disorders. Departing from traditional medical conceptions, they proposed alternative theories that focused on women’s social position within the Western world.

External pressures and judgement of the body came into consideration as possible causes of female anxiety. It is possible to argue that disorderly eating originates in the patriarchal subjection of women and the pressure to accord with an ideal vision of the female body.

Self-starvation was a form of protest in response to oppressive social structures

Early feminist interpretations drew on social theories. Susie Orbach (1978) argued that eating disorders, particularly self-starvation, were a form of protest in a response to oppressive social structures.22

I would say, however, that patterns of disorderly eating are not a protest against these structures, but are symptomatic of their internalisation.

The story of the cultural ideal regarding women’s bodies over the past century is deeply political. Women’s increase in power throughout history correlates to an increasingly slender ideal. The thin ideal serves as a backlash against the feminist movement: it an ideal that aims to keep women thin, frail and weak.

This backlash has been expressed through society’s efforts to influence and control the shape of women’s figures and consequently, their eating behaviours. This therefore results in a power struggle over the female body.

Disorderly eating and food obsession is so culturally widespread that it has become a normal part of female existence. These requirements of body shape and weight are imposed for the purposes of female subordination and socio-economic gain.

While eating disorders are a product of external oppression; women are themselves the agents of its enforcement, moulding their own bodies in a desperate attempt to accord with sociocultural ideologies. Why do we adopt society’s vision that thin is better? Because of its physical and social rewards: because we want to belong.  

Why do we adopt society’s vision that thin is better?

One critic, however, argues that the ideal of slenderness can also be a source of female power. This theory is proposed by Hesse-Biber in her work, Am I Thin Enough Yet? Here she writes that ‘dieting and physical fitness are not methods for the subordination of women, but ways that women can feel powerful’.23

Yet, other feminists, such as Susie Orbach, argue that while women who conform to the slender ideal perceive themselves as powerful, they are in fact subordinating themselves to a masculine ideal which connotes thin with attractive and ‘good’, and fat with unattractive and ‘bad’. These associations are internalisations of patriarchal forms brought about by the prevailing norm of representation.

Orbach continues to argue that fat is feminist because it opposes social and cultural norms of the attractive, slender body.

The feminist approach to body size lies in women’s ability to choose to shape their bodies according to their own volition

However, uniting Hesse-Biber and Orbach is the belief that whether fat or thin, the feminist approach to body size lies in women’s ability to choose to shape their bodies according to their own volition.

NOT ALL WOMEN DEVELOP ANOREXIA

Women within the Western world are exposed to the same cultural environment, yet not all women develop an eating disorder. Some are more vulnerable to social influence than others. The extent to which a woman is affected by ideologies of bodies and female beauty depends upon the individual.

There is no institution solely responsible for creating patterns of disorderly eating: they arise from various factors, including economic, psychological, familial and biological.

Eating disorders are embedded in a discourse of femininity

The fact that women are more affected by eating disorders than men suggests that these disorders are culturally, rather than pathologically created. Eating disorders are embedded in a discourse of femininity, arising from the pressures upon women to accord with a physical ideal.

From a cultural standpoint women are more judged in terms of their physical appearance and, according to Susan Bordo are ‘more tyrannized by the contemporary slenderness ideal than men are.’24

Therefore, until we are able to resist the social ideal of thinness, as women we will continue to be more obsessed and dissatisfied with our bodies.


  1. https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/how-many-people-eating-disorder-uk
  2. Abraham M. Nussbaum, M.D., The Pocket Guide to the DSM-5 Diagnostic Exam, American Psychiatric Publishing (Washington; London, 2013)
  3. https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/anorexia-nervosa
  4. Bruch, Hilde, Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia (Vintage: 2000)
  5. E.L. Bliss and C.H. Hardin Branch, Anorexia Nervosa: Its History, Psychology, and Biology (New York: Paul B. Hoeber, 1960)
  6. Abraham M. Nussbaum, M.D., The Pocket Guide to the DSM-5 Diagnostic Exam, American Psychiatric Publishing (Washington; London, 2013)
  7. ibid
  8. ibid
  9. ibid
  10. http://www.b-eat.co.uk/about-beat/media-centre/facts-and-figures/
  11. http://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/assessing/bmi/adult_bmi/
  12. Abraham M. Nussbaum, M.D., The Pocket Guide to the DSM-5 Diagnostic Exam, American Psychiatric Publishing (Washington; London, 2013)
  13. J. Strachey (ed.), The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud Vol. 1, Pre-psychoanalytic Publications and Unpublished Drafts (London, 1996), pp.200-201, in Brumberg, From Fasting Saints to Anorexic Girls
  14. Jacobs Brumberg, June, From Fasting Saints to Anorexic Girls
  15. Bordo, Susan, Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body (University of California Press: London, 1995)
  16. Bruch, Hilde, The Golden Cage: The Enigma of Anorexia Nervosa (Harvard University Press: Cambridge MA, 2001)
  17. ibid
  18. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 4th Edition, Text Revision (Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association, 2004)
  19. Jacobs Brumberg, June, From Fasting Saints to Anorexic Girls
  20. Julie Hepworth, The Social Construction of Anorexia Nervosa (Sage Publications, 1999)
  21. ibid
  22. ibid
  23. Hesse-Biber, Am I Thin Enough Yet?
  24. Bordo, Susan, Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body (University of California Press: London, 1995)

Categories
Body Image Dieting Eating Disorders Exercise Fitness Competitions History

Is Your Body Alien?

In her book, Unbearable Weight, Susan Bordo writes that ‘[m]any body-builders, like many anorectics, unnervingly conceptualize the body as alien.’1

Individuals who push themselves to their physical limits with restrictive eating disorders or extreme training regimes often view their bodies as separate from their true selves: as alien.

This division between body and ‘self’ has dominated Western thought for thousands of years. Greek philosopher Plato was the one of first to distinguish the mind as being separate from (and superior to) the body.2

This idea was later reinforced by René Descartes’ in 1641 when he famously wrote

‘I think, therefore I am’

Descartes confirms his existence based on the fact that is able to think. This statement therefore echoes Plato’s concept that what constitutes the self resides in the mind, rather than in the body.

Also like Plato, Descartes asserts that the body is inferior to the mind, claiming that it prevents the acquisition of truth and wisdom.

The notion of body’s inferiority has long been an element of patriarchal culture. In our modern society, the rhetoric employed by women to describe their bodies is still founded upon shame and disgust. During my research on this topic, I interviewed 50 female fitness competitors, who all spoke of their bodies in these terms, describing them as ‘swollen’; ‘gross’; ‘fat’; and ‘all wrong’.

A weight that burdens the soul

Throughout history, the body has been subject to various interpretations. It has been seen as a prison within which we are incarcerated; a being that rages beyond our control; a weight that burdens the soul; and an enemy against which we must do battle.

Competitors I spoke to perceive their bodies in many ways: as functional machines; as projects to be moulded and sculpted; and as physical symbols of their hard work.

Yet the idea that our bodies are separate from our true selves remains constant.

THE BODY AS MACHINE

During my research, I asked participants to complete the sentence ‘my body is…’

Some referred to their bodies as ‘machines’ or ‘tools,’ viewing them in terms of their functionality. They used positive language to describe them such as, ‘awesome’, ‘amazing’ and ‘extremely efficient’.

This type of mechanical body can also be controlled by the individual, who is able to improve the way it functions with the correct training and nutrition.

Input = food; output = muscle

In order to achieve the best results, competitors calculate the optimum number of calories and macronutrients that they need to consume. They therefore perceive their bodies as machines that are able to transform food into flesh, in a simple equation of input = food; output = muscle.

THE BODY AS PROJECT

We work on our bodies. Whether we are dieting, applying cosmetics, or literally working out, our bodies can, to a certain extent, be moulded according to our volition.

Bikini competitors I spoke to referred to the body as an art project: as a ‘canvas’, and a ‘form of artistic expression’; an object that was being ‘chiselled to perfection.’

Because of this, most competitors I interviewed spoke about their about their body as a ‘work in progress.’ One bikini competitor related that her body was ‘always under construction’ because her ‘mind is never happy.’

The sense of the mind being dissatisfied with the body was a recurring theme. Others stated that there is ‘always room for improvement’ and revealed that they are constantly working towards ‘evolving’ their physique.

In the competition world, bodies are built up, then stripped down. Right before a show, they are dried out, slathered with orange tan, and finally adorned with bright stage jewellery and a glittering bikini.

Fitness competitors are judged on the outcome of these projects. Their stage ready bodies are the final result of months, maybe years, of hard work.

THE BODY AS SIGNIFIER

The body is a bearer of signs. The clothes we wear, the posture we adopt, how we style our hair, our musculature, whether we have tattoos, piercings or other physical modifications tell the world something about us.

As Susie Orbach writes in her book Bodies:

Our body is judged as our individual production…our calling card, vested with showing the results of our hard work and watchfulness or, alternatively, our failure and sloth.3

And whether we like it or not, we are always being judged on our appearance.

In the world of competitions, athletes display their bodies for the sole purpose of being judged. Their lean, muscular physiques are signifiers of their hard work, will power and dedication.

Miami Pro European Championships, 2015. I am second from left

When I asked bikini competitors what their bodies symbolised, one said that her phsyique is crucial to how she is perceived. Others agreed, revealing that their body is a reflection of their choices, and a visual marker of their achievements.

Placing value upon the body looking a certain way, however, can also have drawbacks. If your body changes this can cause various psychological problems such as body dysmorphia, low self esteem, and disorderly eating.

Competitors often experience anxiety about losing their lean competition physique

After the competition season is over, athletes enter what is known as the ‘off season’, or ‘bulking season’. During this time, calories are increased in order to facilitate muscle growth. This also leads to an increase in body fat, which can cause distress since competitors are anxious to maintain their competition physique.

Since they fear they will be judged negatively if they are no longer stage lean, during the bulking season, competitors often conceal their bodies in loose clothing.

Anxious that they are gaining too much body fat, some engage in rituals such as constant body checking; and may even begin to restrict their calorie intake.

CONTROL OF THE BODY

Individuals who diet and exercise in preparation for a competition treat their bodies as separate from the self. The body becomes an object to be regulated and controlled.

Control is facilitated through mental discipline:

Both individuals with eating disorders and competitors aim to free themselves from physical urges, such as hunger and fatigue, that may prevent them from achieving control of the body.

This control often attracts admiration and respect. Kim Chernin writes:

We admire the success of their efforts to impose upon the natural body a shape and form which is the product of culture…[and] not appropriate for it.4

This praise, however, further reinforces the resolve to subject our bodies to punishing exercise and nutrition regimes.

Pushing ourselves to our physical limits in these ways exacerbates the disconnection between the mind and body. Rather than paying attention to our bodies’ requirements, we continue to train when injured; we ignore signs of fatigue; and we become disconnected from our bodies to the point where we are unable to recognise our hunger and satiation cues.

Since we refuse to give our bodies what they need, after a time, we don’t even know what that is.

RECONNECTING WITH OUR BODIES

In order to bridge the gap between mind and body, we have to listen to what our bodies want. This may include having rest days from training so that muscles can grow and recuperate; stretching after a work out; having a sports massage; and taking taking time off to recover when injured.

In terms of nutrition, eat what works for you and feels best for your body. You can do this by paying attention to how your body reacts to certain foods. Avoid restricting calories, cutting out food groups, or creating rules around food e.g. no sugar, no food after 6pm. Otherwise you will experience hunger and cravings, which may lead to feelings of guilt if you break your self-imposed ‘rules’ and have a takeaway.  

We need to reconnect with our bodies. Instead of trying to control them and force them into an unnatural shape, we should instead work towards appreciating what they do for us; and the way that through them, we are able to experience our lives.


  1. Bordo, Susan, Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body (University of California Press: London, 1995)
  2. Plato, Phaedo, in Five Dialogues, trans. by G.M.A. Grube, 2nd edn (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 2002)
  3. Orbach, Susie, Bodies (Profile Books: London, 2009)
  4. Chernin, Kim, The Obsession: Reflections on the Tyranny of Slenderness (Harper Collins: New York, 1994)

Categories
Body Image Fitness Competitions History

The Hourglass Body

I spent years of my life trying to attain a curvaceous, yet also slender physique. And in 2014, when I was awarded the status of Pro Bikini Athlete, my figure was a near perfect hourglass with a 32” bust, 24” waist and 33” hips. This is the silhouette that is also favoured in the beauty pageant world.

When I researched this preference for the hourglass figure, I asked 50 women which they considered to be more more important: their body’s shape, or its weight. Most women chose shape, with 88% of them more concerned about their silhouette than the number on their scale.

88% of women are more concerned about the shape of their body, rather than its weight

The explanation for society’s preoccupation with this particular body type lies in the shape’s symbolic meaning. The hourglass figure is desirable as a biological and social signifier: its voluptuous curves accentuate the difference between male and female bodies.

In addition, scientific research proves that the narrow-waisted figure serves an evolutionary, as well as social, purpose. This preference originates in the desire to attract a mate since, according to Nancy Ectoff’s  Survival of the Prettiest, ‘men are automatically excited by signs of a woman who is fertile, healthy, and hasn’t been pregnant before.’1

The waist is one of the body’s best indicators of hormonal function

Within a theoretical context, this body is the result of biological attraction since ‘[t]he waist is one of the body’s best indicators of hormonal function.’2 Women with ‘a waist-to-hip ratio below .8’ are twice as likely to conceive and bear children than those whose waist-to-hip ratio rises above this figure.3

The constricted waist, for example, has been ‘considered highly erotic by men’ owing to its suggestion of weakness and vulnerability.4 This is often the case with women’s appearance norms since other aspects such as extreme slenderness, high heels and tight clothing also indicate submission.

Maintained in a state of passivity by their restrictive apparel, it could be said that women are thereby more easily subject to masculine control. As David Kunzle notes in Fashion and Fetishism:

‘[s]ylph-like delicacy of body and fragility of waist have exercised an almost archetypal attraction for man…It is both foil and invocation to his superior socio-sexual power.’5

The hourglass body, with its emphasis upon full bust and hips contrasted with a narrow waist, simultaneously suggests sexual innocence and reproductive potential.

Within the modern world of physique competitions, this hourglass figure is exaggerated in the bikini class where models are expected to have wide shoulders, glutes and legs, offset by a tight waist.

This body type represents the fitness industry’s standard of beauty. When I asked female competitors which aspects of a woman’s body they considered to be beautiful, they described the hourglass shape, preferring a figure with a ‘peachy bum and big breasts’ that is also ‘lean with curves.’

As I mentioned in Keeping Up With The Body Ideal, the hourglass physique has been popular throughout history from the wasp-waisted Victorian lady to the 1950s housewife.

Its modern silhouette, however, holds a specific attraction. In September 2014, Vogue magazine declared ‘We’re Officially in the Era of the Big Booty’6 as Jennifer Lopez (whose buttocks are rumoured to be insured for £17 million)7 was joined in the derriere hall of fame by a multitude of celebrities and fitness models. 7 years on, and big bootys still reign supreme.

With the return of the hourglass figure, it’s ‘All About That Bass’, as confirmed by Meghan Trainor’s chart topping single. Glutes have become the standard focus of a body-obsessed media, endorsed by celebrities such as Nicki Minaj and Kim Kardashian.

When Nicki Minaj released the single ‘Anaconda,’ her ode to the derriere, its shocking cover art presented her famous posterior, clad in the most minimal of bikini bottoms. The song’s raunchy video generated 19.6 million views in the first 24 hours of its release.

The music industry has since produced a multitude of songs that pay homage to the behind. Nicki Minaj appears once again in Busta Rhymes’ ‘#TWERKIT’; while ‘Booty’ by the original booty queen, Jennifer Lopez, features the curvaceous Iggy Azeala.

Most famous however, is ‘All About That Bass’, in which Meghan Trainor claims that she is ‘bringing booty back,’ having ‘all the right junk in all the right places.’ In 2014, the single was the UK’s longest running chart topper, selling over 6 million copies worldwide.8

Despite its popularity, however, the song was accused of anti-feminism. This was owing to lyrics that suggest the booty’s appeal lies in its ability to attract male attention. Despite Trainor’s protestations that her aim was to promote body-confidence, the single came under attack for thin shaming. This was owing to its reference to ‘skinny bitches’, and the singer’s claim that she ‘won’t be no stick figure silicone Barbie doll.’

J Lo and Trainor may sing about their ‘bootys’, yet the current queen of all things curvaceous is Kim Kardashian, with her voluptuous assets contributing to her $900 million dollar worth. While Kardashian insists that she has ‘honed her curves with gruelling training sessions’,9 many famous women, including Heidi Montag and Nicki Minaj, have undergone surgery to enhance their figures.

Minaj’s behind has even served as an inspiration to other celebrities, including ‘The Only Way Is Essex’ star, Chloe Sims. According to Reveal magazine Sims went to her doctor and said:

Give me the Nicki Minaj10

With cosmetic surgery becoming increasingly normalized, the most popular invasive treatment in recent years is the Brazilian Bum Lift. For those looking to create the hourglass figure, it is now possible to combine this treatment with ‘a fat transfer into the breasts.’11

This obsession with celebrity backsides is fuelled by social media. Typing ‘glutes’ into the Instagram search box yields 6.4 million results. This includes almost 376,000 ‘belfies’ (bum selfies). This is a trend that emerged within social media’s narcissistic world of self-photography. Allegedly instigated by singer Rihanna, the belfie is now a social media phenomenon.

In 2015, Cosmopolitan magazine published an article entitled ‘The Most Bubblicious Butts on Instagram’, which showcased 58 women who have apparently truly mastered the ‘belfie.’ One of Kim Kardashian’s voluptuous offerings went viral, with ‘more than 250,000 likes on Instagram after two hours of being posted’.12 Kim has since profited from her assets and launched her own range of shapewear in 2019. Her first collection sold out in minutes, earning her $2 million on the first day.13

When a celebrity is photographed with anything other than a perfectly sculpted (or posed) derriere, however, horror ensues. Pictures of Miley Cyrus’ less than toned bottom, snapped while she was ‘twerking’, became a media sensation and the subject of anti-motivation memes throughout the internet.

The belfie trend not only pervades the world of celebrity, but is also a dominant aspect of the fitness community. In a departure from tradition, Sports Illustrated’s 50th anniversary edition depicted models in a pose that showcased their behinds.14 The ab crunch has been replaced by the hip thrust, an exercise that was popularised by ‘The Glute Guy’: trainer and glute specialist, Bret Contreras.

Despite the current trend for curves, however, this fetish for the voluptuous does not normally extend to plus size women. Curves are typically desirable only if accompanied by low body fat and a tight waist.

For now, women are still kept restrained and powerless by a primal preference for an hourglass body that has been taken to cultural extremes.


  1. Ectoff, Nancy, Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty
  2. ibid
  3. ibid
  4. Rothblum, Esther D., Feminist Perspectives on Eating Disorders
  5. Kunzle, David, Fashion and Fetishism: Corsets, Tight-Lacing and Other Forms of Body Sculpture (Sutton Publishing Limited, UK, 2004)
  6. http://www.vogue.com/1342927/booty-in-pop-culture-jennifer-lopez-iggy-azalea/
  7. http://www.elle.com/uk/life-and-culture/articles/a30167/mariah-carey-jennifer-lopez-doly-parton-celebrities-insured-body-parts/
  8. Fraser, Deborah, Closer, 31st Jan-6th Feb 2015, Issue 632, Interview with Meghan Trainer
  9. Packer, Sarah, Closer, 31st Jan-6th Feb 2015, Issue 632, Sarah Packer, Kim blasts Amber: ‘I’m the booty queen – stop copying my curves!’
  10. madamenoire.com/446585/celebs-who-admitted-to-butt-injections/6/
  11. comparethetreatment.com/the-uks-top-cosmetic-surgery-trends-for-2015/
  12. www.mirror.co.uk/3am/celebrity-news/kim-kardashian-nearly-naked-picture-2461774
  13. hypebae.com/2019/9/kim-kardashian-skims-shapewear-sold-out-restock-earnings
  14. mamamia.com.au/wellbeing/sports-illustrated-swimsuit-cover-2014-butts/

Categories
Dieting Eating Disorders History

It’s Not Just Us! A Brief History of Restrictive Eating

Eating disorders are now a widespread problem. Between 1.25 and 3.4 million people in the UK are affected: around 10% of these suffer from anorexia nervosa.1

The current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSMV) defines anorexia as:

  • restriction of energy intake relative to requirements leading to a significantly low body weight
  • intense fear of gaining weight
  • persistent behaviour that interferes with weight gain.2

Restrictive eating practices are not new, however. Self-starvation has a long history, dating right back to the fifth century.

The first evidence of self-starvation comes from the Middle Ages. During this time, food restriction was commonly practiced a form of religious observance. This occurred 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.

In her book Holy Feast and Holy Fast, Caroline Walker Bynum explores the role of women role in divine practices that involved abstaining from bodily desire. This included renouncing their appetite for food.3

These women would fast in order to prepare themselves for Christ’s body and blood. They derived nourishment from prayer and the Eucharist, rather than from real food items.

In England this practice lasted until 1534. With the advent of the Protestant Reformation, worship of saints was abolished and ‘[t]he renunciation of food, once experienced and explained as a form of female holiness, was increasingly cast as demonical, heretical, and even insane.’4

A century later, however, the development of scientific and medical understanding shed new light on restrictive eating behaviours.

Rejection of food was thought to result from a lack of appetite caused by other illnesses

The first medical account of self-starvation is credited to the seventeenth century physician Richard Morton. He observed that rejection of food that resulted from a lack of appetite was the symptom of other illnesses, including tuberculosis and chlorosis (anaemia). Morton named chlorosis the ‘Green-Sickness’ and in 1694 described the case of an eighteen year old girl, ‘who resembled ‘“a skeleton only clad with skin.”’5

He writes that she: ‘fell into a total Suppression of her Monthly causes … her Appetite began to abate, and her Digestion to be bad; her flesh also began to be flaccid and loose, and her looks pale.’6

Further evidence of this green sickness came 150 years later in 1838. A 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.’7

The medical establishment responded by perceiving this susceptibility as a female trait and as further evidence that women were the ‘tender sex’. The advisor continues to observe that: ‘in the streets of large towns there are 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.’8

They had cravings for strange substances such as chalk, dirt, ashes, or vinegar

These symptoms were thought to result from the patient’s ‘capricious’ appetite. Sometimes they exhibited symptoms of pica, cravings for ‘strange substances such as chalk, dirt, ashes, or vinegar’. At other times they lost their appetite altogether, sometimes refusing to eat.9

Chlorosis was diagnosed in psychosomatic terms. It was thought to arise from ‘bad physical and moral education’, which was 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’ (!)10

At this time, other ‘morbid mortifications of the appetite’ began to be diagnosed alongside chlorosis. In 1840 physician Thomas Laycock added ‘“[b]ulimia and pica’ to the list and claimed that these conditions were all characteristic of the pregnant, chlorotic, and hysterical female.”’11

Even though Morton and Laycock established a specific pathology of self-starvation, however, anorexia would not be formally named for almost two hundred years.

In 1873, anorexia nervosa was simultaneously diagnosed in England and France

By the nineteenth century, the physicians’ social status and power increased as medical authorities grew secure in the scientific validity of their own assumptions. This coincided with the official medicalisation of appetite in 1873. This was when anorexia nervosa was simultaneously diagnosed in England and France by Sir William Gull and Ernest Lasèque.

Sir William Withey Gull

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). In an 1888 issue of the Lancet, Gull credited his patients’ refusal to eat to a psychological, rather than a physical affliction. He stated:

That mental states may destroy appetite is notorious, and it will be admitted that young women at of sixteen to twenty-three are specially obnoxious to mental perversity.12

Yet, while Gull noted the psychological cause of anorexia, he chose not to engage with his patients’ subjective mental states. By concentrating upon the physical effects of the condition, rather than psychological causes, Gull thereby dismissed the emotional states of his female patients.

In 1883, anorexia was divided into two sub-conditions: anorexie gastrique and anorexie mentale. Anorexie gastrique applied to patients with digestive complaints. ‘Hysteria was believed to cause a physiological disturbance leading to impaired gastrointestinal absorption.’ Anorexie mental, on the other hand, occurred in patients with ‘“pure” psychiatric conditions and involved mental rather than digestive problems.’13

Despite a more detailed definition of anorexia, however, this did not significantly alter methods of treatment, or the way in which female mental health was 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.

In conclusion, from this brief history of restrictive eating it evident that it’s not just us. Self-starvation and other similar eating practices have occurred throughout history in various guises.

For more information on how theories of anorexia continued to develop into the 20th century, please click here. {link to why women theories of anorexia when its published!}


  1. https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/how-many-people-eating-disorder-uk
  2. Abraham M. Nussbaum, M.D., The Pocket Guide to the DSM-5 Diagnostic Exam, American Psychiatric Publishing (Washington; London, 2013)
  3. Walker Bynum, Caroline, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (Berkeley, 1986)
  4. ibid
  5. 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)
  6. ibid
  7. Anon., ‘The Medical Adviser’, The Penny Satirist, iss.43 (London, 1838)
  8. ibid
  9. 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)
  10. Anon., ‘The Medical Adviser’, The Penny Satirist, iss.43 (London, 1838)
  11. 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)
  12. W. Gull, ‘Anorexia Nervosa’ (apepsia hysterica, anorexia hysterica), Transactions of the Clinical Society of the London 7 (1874)
  13. E.L. Bliss and C.H. Hardin Branch, Anorexia Nervosa: Its History, Psychology, and Biology (New York: Paul B. Hoeber, 1960)
Categories
Body Image Eating Disorders History

Keeping Up With The Body Ideal

Throughout history, women have been compelled to alter their bodies in order to meet variable standards of physical perfection.

With its tight mid-section and muscular curves, the ‘bikini body’ is the ideal to which we are currently told to aspire. A lean physique, however, has only become fashionable during the last century.

The ideal body was big and matriarchal, symbolising fertility and female power

Prior to this, voluptuousness was idolised and fleshy figures were prized in cultures all over the world. Evidence of this dates back to 21,000 BC, as portrayed by the Palaeolithic chalk statue, the Willendorf Venus. The ideal body was big and matriarchal, its swollen form symbolising fertility and female power.

This notion of beauty persisted until the 1800s when there was a marked shift in the female body ideal. It was during this period that slenderness first came into fashion: the ascetic model that graces our modern runways originated in the wasp-waisted silhouette of the Victorian lady.

The corset’s lacing and whalebone reinforcement caused gradual shifting of the internal organs

In 1893, one beauty journal claimed that ‘a slender, well-proportioned figure is the desire of most women.’ Replicating this aesthetic that was both slim and curvaceous required the use of a corset. The corset’s lacing and whalebone reinforcement caused gradual shifting of the internal organs to create the coveted hourglass figure with exaggerated bust and hips, offset by a narrow waist. Vogue magazine even featured a tightly-laced model on the cover of its first ever publication in 1892.

This move towards slenderness was the result of a change in women’s socio-political status. During the latter half of the nineteenth century the balance of power between the sexes began to change when suffragettes campaigned for the right to vote.

In the 1920s, dieting became a serious female preoccupation

During this period, the alteration in women’s appearance reflected their political aspirations for freedom and power. In the 1920s, female emancipation coincided with a new svelte ideal when the epitome of beauty became the boyish ‘flapper.’ As a consequence, dieting became a serious female preoccupation. This resulted in a marked increase in the number of women diagnosed with anorexia nervosa.

The following decades saw the return of the cinched waist, yet the ideal body retained the slenderness of the narrow-hipped, small-chested flapper. It was not until the 1950s that the hourglass figure returned in full force.

Glamorous celebrities such as Jayne Mansfield and Marilyn Monroe contributed to a voluptuous ideal that had echoes of Victorianism with its petite waistline. This was achieved by wearing a girdle, however, rather than a tightly-laced corset.

This beauty ideal was reflected in the immensely popular Barbie doll, which was introduced in 1959 and boasted a large bust, long legs and an impossibly small waist.

Since the 1960s, the figure possessed by models, playboy centrefolds and beauty contestants has become increasingly slim. This trend began with British model Leslie Hornby, nicknamed Twiggy, who stormed the fashion scene when she appeared in Vogue in 1965.

Twiggy quickly became a cultural icon of femininity with millions of women across Britain and America engaging in self-starvation in order to emulate her waif-like fragility. As the ideal body reduced in size, definitions of ‘overweight’ subsequently began to include ‘normal-sized’ women.

By the early 1980s, the fashion for delicate femininity was replaced by a more ‘toned’ physique. This was reinforced by an emerging culture of health and fitness. For the first time, the ideal female body had muscle.

Shortly afterwards, however, health gave way to self-destruction and dissolution since the 90s’ aesthetic was based around ‘heroin chic’. The look, characterized by pale, emaciated features and unkempt hair was propounded by fashion models such as Kate Moss, who found fame in 1993 after featuring in an advertisement for Calvin Klein.

In 2020, those androgynous angles and unsmiling faces have now been replaced with toned, feminine curves as magazine covers and Victoria’s Secret runways are graced with happy, healthy looking models. Fitness culture has returned, bringing with it a trend for bodies that are curvaceous, yet also lean.

The hourglass figure of the nineteenth century is back. Without a corset, however, women must work even harder to achieve the contradictory aspects of a tight waist and ample curves.

Throughout the centuries, self-comparison with the ideal female form has contributed to bodily dissatisfaction and disorderly eating. From organ-shifting corsets, to extremely restrictive diets, women have engaged in physically damaging practices for hundreds of years in an attempt to replicate a perpetually shifting ideal.

If we are to achieve freedom from this, we must remember that the concept of the ideal body is merely a concept. It is an idea, invented by culture and continually subject to change.

Striving to achieve the ideal body will inevitably lead to failure

Consequently, striving to achieve the ‘perfect’ physique will inevitably lead to failure. Today, we are told that we must aspire to have a curvaceous bikini body. Tomorrow, the fashion may change to a more androgynous figure and the hard work must begin all over again….