The cult - and culture - of anorexia
Monday, 4 June 2001
A new study into anorexia has found people with this condition often form secretive "cults" with other anorexics in order to feel as if they are part of a group.
Megan Warin, a PhD student at Adelaide University's Department of Anthropology and Social Inquiry, has spent the past three years researching the day-to-day social effects anorexia has on 46 women and men in Australia, Canada and Scotland.
Her research is particularly important and distinctive as it is believed to be among the first of its type in the world.
"The main theme of my research was how these people dealt with anorexia in the context of their everyday lives," she says. "I wanted to go beyond the shallow, media-generated stereotypes of anorexia and see just how it affects people and the way they interact with the world around them."
One of her central findings was that participants did not always experience anorexia as a debilitating psychiatric illness; rather, it was an empowering process that opened up a whole new way of relating to the world.
This was most apparent when people came together in treatment settings, where they often formed highly secretive "cults" or "clubs" with other anorexia "sufferers", a coming together which gave them a powerful feeling of connection or belonging. They related to each other through a bevy of secret knowledges and practices, though allegiance, hierarchy, language and bodily markers.
"What I found was that people with anorexia transform many of the things that we might consider to be fundamental to social relationships," Ms Warin says. "These are things like relating to family, friendships, the sharing of food, and sharing space with others - all of these are a very large part of how we normally live our lives, but for people with anorexia these things are often negated.
"Many talked about feeling alienated from their families. Nearly all refused to eat with others, and they often refused to engage in social activities, especially with families. They often lived alone, and spent a lot of time in private spaces, like bathrooms and bedrooms."
This negation of social relationships manifested itself most startlingly in people's attitudes to death: it was seen as being desirable, the ultimate negation of being sociable.
"The best anorexic, people told me, was when they were dead," Ms Warin says. "These people consider themselves to be the winners."
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Mr David Ellis
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