Psychology Behind the Thin Woman

When it appears that increasing numbers of girls and women are being diagnosed as anorexic, and when so many girls and women suffered considerable distress in relation of eating, food and body-image, we need to ask whether any medical or quasi-medical notion of ‘anorexia’ as an individual pathology should retain its powerful hold over our understandings of ‘eating disorders’. For the notion of ‘anorexia’ as individual pathology precludes or at least limits our attempts to understand ‘anorexia’ within it socio-cultural, political and gender specific context. […] By presenting ‘anorexia’ as something located within the pathologized individual, this perspective limits the extent to which we can explore anorexia as a socially, discursively produced problem.

(p. x)

In one of the opening paragraphs (featured above) of  The Thin Woman: Feminism, Post-Structuralism, and the Social Psychology of Anorexia Nervosa, Helen Malson retorts the argument that anorexia is induced solely by its victim, introducing her thesis: anorexia in women is not a self-imposed disease but, rather, one caused by cultural views and social roles imposed on women. Helen Malson, a lecturer in psychology at the University of East London, combines feminism and scientific knowledge to better understand the relationship between women and anorexia. In addition, Malson’s work incorporates interviews with women who suffered from anorexia to strengthen her argument, allotting for an innovative take on how society’s generalizations and gender roles affect the prevalence of eating disorders in women. Malson takes us through her research in three parts: “Theorizing Women” in which she discusses philosophies of gender and gender roles; “Instituting the Thin Woman” in which she explains the medical history of anorexia; and “Women’s Talk?” in which she focuses on present day views of the anorexic body.

Before she began her work, Helen Malson asked her interviewees what they would want others to know about battling anorexia. Here were some of their responses:

LAYLA: […] To know that my stomach was empty gave me such a good feeling but now I can see about that these are just the surface […] decorations of it that I used to be in something […] socially acceptable so that I could live in that misery […] to convince myself that it was good.

SIMONE: […] it [anorexia] shouldn’t be looked at on the surface. It shouldn’t be looked at as an eating, just an eating problem.

NICKI: I think most people do’ don’t realize that it actually is. […] It’s such it’s such a deep thing that it’s all to do with a person’s control how they feel about themselves and how they’re coping. […] It’s very sad and it and it numbs you completely. If I wrote a book, I’d write one on how to get over it as it were.

(p. 2)

Our society, specifically women (as in the case of Malson’s study), is obsessive over body image, only further proved by  statistics showing “80 per cent of women in countries like the USA, the UK, New Zealand and Australia are dieting at any given moment” (p. xi).  The cause  of these startling numbers, Malson points out, are the various unspoken assumptions of women, including how it has become a woman’s right of passage to diet–to the point that it is seen as abnormal for someone not to watch her weight. Anorexia, Malson exclaims, is a “culture-bound syndrome.”

Anorexia nervosa, like some other illnesses can be viewed as a metaphor for, and a manifestation of, a multiplicity of socio-cultural concerns of the late twentieth century; concerns about femininity and feminism, about the body, about individual control and consumption within consumer society. Indeed, the following quote from Elle illustrates eating disorders have been taken as a metaphor for the very industry with which they are associated:

‘The fashion industry’s tirelessly voracious – frighteningly so for the girls who worked at the sharp end. It’s an industry that eats up trends and spits them out faster than a superbulimic.’

(p. 5)

This cultural fascination with eating disorders makes women desperate to be thin, constantly chasing after the perfect body. Helen Malson furthers this point in her interviews:

Was there something that say being thin meant to you?

WENDY: Yes, it made me feel successful as if I was kind of I don’t know in control.

ZOE: I felt like such a loser because I felt like I couldn’t control my weight because I was overweight[…]

(p. 121)

Both Wendy and Zoe affirm a sense of power associated with being thin. They agree that success and thinness are directly related–that their control over their appearance, or in some instances lack of, identifies with their control (or, again, lack of) over their daily lives. Lack of discipline leads to anarchy. They come to the conclusion that each pound gained adds to the chaos of their lives; the only way they can have power over themselves is through managing their weight. Fat represents the body, lured by the temptress of food. Women stress eradicating the body, or fat. As result, thinness trumps their desire to eat, becoming a sign of self-restraint–the ultimate sign of will power–and thus a sign of strength.


Malson, Helen. The Thin Woman: Feminism, Post-Structuralism, and the Social Psychology of Anorexia Nervosa. London: Routledge, 1998.


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