Unlike sociology, anthropology paid much attention to the human body, starting from the 19th century. Historical analysis shows that in the early stages of its development, anthropology detected a tendency to raising issues that are related to the universal nature of a man. The fact is that in the context of European colonialism, it constantly dealt with the problem of ontological universals, primarily because of the diversity of social relations. Accordingly, the body became in the center of the ontological perspective. According to Debevec and Tivadar (2006), ‘in many parts of the world, food is a social jelly, a substance that binds people together and separates them’ (p. 5). It can serve as an indicator of social status, religious affiliation, people’s similarity or difference. Sutton (2010) considers food as a marker and a source of social distinction (p. 213). The relevance of the study of anorexia nervosa is defined by its high prevalence and significant morbidity, especially in recent years, the challenges of treatment and rehabilitation, as well as certain pathomorphism of this disease, which manifests itself in quickening its options that significantly reduce the level of social and labor adaptation. The fact of mental illnesses that are referred to eating disorders constitutes a fascinating sphere of the study because of its growing coverage of the population in the modern world. Mukhopadhyay, Ganguly and Mishra (2014) state that modern society gives preference to thinness, and thus, it discriminates obese individuals (p.1). ‘Eating disorders are characterized by abnormal eating habits’ (Mukhopadhyay & Ganguly & Mishra 2014, p. 1). They involve extreme or insufficient food intake, which affects both psychological and physical health. Talking about anorexia, anthropology emphasizes on the link between search activity of the individual and anorexia nervosa. In this case, the main reason for the failure of food intake is the presence of a man in an active struggle with obstacles, challenges that throw the appetite, and everyone, who are trying to force him to eat normally.
Anorexia nervosa is a disease that manifests itself by deliberate and excessive weight loss by the patient. The popularity of anorexia is gaining momentum. The disease is accompanied by changes in the brain, the mind, affects the physical health, contributes to a significant depletion of the body and may even be the cause of death. Espindola and Blay (2013) state that anorexia ‘is relatively rare among the general population and rather common among young women’ (p. 1). Severe cases of the disease require hospitalization. The relevance and urgency of the problem is explained by the fact that anorexia leads to mortality (Epindola & Blay 2013, p. 1). Common causes of anorexia include distorted perception of the body as well as the conviction of the plumpness, even in the absence of obvious physical signs of excess weight. Reasons of this disease include personal and cultural, biological, genetic, age, family, or anthropological factors. Anthropological factors are closely linked with the struggle of people for their opinions. Defending of the reluctance to eat causes a distorted sense of self-confidence, increases self-esteem, adds significance to a man. Refusal of another bite of food can be considered a victory over oneself and the character, nature, complexes and fears.
Such struggle manifests itself in the activity search, in which the process is more important than the result. In this case, the helplessness is a rejection of the search. It is a capitulation to the challenge that is thrown by the life in all important spheres. Then, an area, in which a man managed to escape from the surrender and stay active, acquires special significance. Anorexia is a daily process of overcoming, original search behavior, and struggle. It presents a special value to patients. Such desperate, ongoing struggle restores their self-esteem, which has been lowered by previous surrender. The existing fear of a return to the normal food intake is not the fear of losing control. It is a fear of losing this challenge that makes their life complete. Thus, each piece of food that was not eaten is a victory. This victory is more valuable, when the struggle was more intense.
Warin (2003) emphasizes that anorexia is often referred to ‘slimmer’s disease’ that means a diet, which has gone ‘too far’ (p.77). American Psychiatric Association supports such definition by referencing to fear of becoming fat or gaining weight’ (Warin 2003, p.77). Warin’s research showed that participants ‘embodied the emotional aspects of food’ through the sense of guilt for eating fat and high-calorie food (Warin 2003, p.77). It proved their fear of fat. The main symptoms of anorexia include progressive weight loss, panic fear to get weight, denial of maintaining low weight, constant feeling of plumpness, particularly in specific parts of the body, catering (eating standing up, breaking the food into small pieces), sleep disturbance, sense of guilt for fasting and eating, social isolation, and depression.
Bordo provides example of will’s triumph over the body: one woman felt polluted after eating sugar (Warin 2003, p. 78). Warin shows many examples of experiencing eating disorders. Thus, Jacinta used to wash her hands after she has touched food as she considered them dirty. Trudy argued that eating was dirty (Warin 2003, p.80). It did not refer to being thin or fat. Therefore, the problem was not in the perception of the weight but in the attitude to eating process. ‘Coming into contact with food was described as a dangerous liaison, as it was a polluting substance that crossed bodily boundaries’ (Warin 2003, p.81). ‘Calories were attributed an insidious nature because of their perceived smallness, invisibility and potential to move’ (Warin 2003, p. 84). Every extra grams of weight are perceived as offensive and irreparable obesity. In contrast, each piece of uneaten food is seen as a victory over oneself and approach to the ideal, if the ideal is considered bony body without a single attractive roundness and haggard appearance. In fact, a person who constantly refuses from food intake shares similar features with a drug addict. Unlike drug addiction, when the pleasure is received after substance abuse, anorexics enjoy failure to eat meals. Ferreday (2012) emphasizes that anorexics have the life in ‘the popular representation as a figure of abjection’ (p.143).
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Very often, anorexic is a young girl, who begins to show symptoms of anorexia simultaneously with the occurrence of a particular family situation: conflict, parents yield on pension, etc. The most emotionally sensitive member of the family takes the role of the center of problems and develops some kind of mental disorder. It can be psychosis, depression, phobias or anorexia. At the same time, the attention of the family and all its energy are shifted shifts to the patient, and other conflicts remain behind. In addition, the patient suddenly becomes a very important member of the family, to whom all attention is directed. Often, the family system becomes chaotic, lacking basic guidelines. Nevertheless, the main feature of anorexics is incredible ability to self-control and faith in oneself. They develop these traits, resisting the environment, in which they live.
Typical anorexic is a woman with high intellectual abilities, but emotionally very sensitive. She can experience difficulties in controlling emotions. The slightest anxiety is difficult and disturbing. Patients with anorexia are often in a constant fear of failure, in the sense of frustration, self-doubt, but, in fact, they perfectly cope with work or school. Trying to control their sensitivity, patients with anorexia accidentally discover that when they focus their attention on something, such as not eating, they manage to escape from the emotionality. Thus, refusal to eat is becoming a kind of anesthesia for them. Fasting becomes a solution to the problem of excessive emotionality, from which it becomes impossible to refuse because anorexics do not know any other way to control their emotions and thus are constantly at risk of experiencing emotional upheavals. Abstinence is not limited to food, and refers to any pleasant experience. Anorexia patients suffer from real terror before any emotional experience associated with pleasure, because they are afraid of losing control. Thus, their illness becomes the best way to achieve emotional balance. For this reason, anorexics are often rigid and resistant to change.
When the weight falls below a certain level, there is a particular physiological effect: the body produces certain neurotoxins that cause a narcotic effect that is similar to that caused by cocaine and amphetamines. Such effect manifests itself in a state of extreme excitement, inexhaustible energy and is accompanied by the apparent calmness. In addition to the emotional anesthesia, refusal to eat allows anorexic feel better than other people, because they manage to do that is very difficult for most people. In other words, due to the disease, they are able to guarantee an exceptional success that they would like to. Gooldin (2008) states that ‘the etiology of anorexia is triggered by the cultural imagery of consumerism’ and cult of thinnest (p. 276). The term ‘anorexia nervosa’ appeared in the 1870s and denoted loss of appetite. Nevertheless, psychiatrics found that many anorexics used to live with hunger (Gooldin 2008, p. 280). Gooldin talks about Mia, 16-years old girl, who suffers from anorexia. The girl states that she even enjoys being hunger (Gooldin 2008, p. 282). In this case, hunger is referred to a sense of success, achievement, and defeating physical difficulties.
By framing anorexia through concept of relatedness, Warin (2006) emphasizes that anorexia is viewed as desirable (p. 46). People with such diagnosis often ‘strove towards this goal’, so their relatedness to the disease was made through their desire (Warin 2006, p. 46). Warin (2006) presents an example of Amanda, who wanted to be the most anorexic as she wanted to be noticed (p. 46). Warin (2006) found that people could personify anorexia as an enemy or a friend, a source of support or replacement of physical contact (p. 50). One of the participants of Warin’s research said that ‘anorexia is your little mate’ (Warin 2006, p. 50).
In recent time, modern society constantly discusses ‘ideal image’ of TV stars, photo models in magazines and newspapers. It encourages all young girls imitate them. A lot of girls around the world hope to be close to these standards of the beauty and pace themselves with diets. As a result, it leads to anorexia nervosa. Gordon argues that the desire to anorexia is popularized by the media through publicizing, glamorizing, and romanticizing it (Warin 2004, p. 97). Warin (2004) found that some people, who suffered from anorexia, considered their illness unique, heroic, and even an achievement (p.101). Being the thinnest is compared to being the most successful (Warin 2004, p. 101). Some people even compare anorexia to sport achievement: ‘it’s like the Olympics – whoever is the thinnest has won the gold medal’ (Warin 2004, p. 101). Through paying attention to the connection of ethnography and journalism in the relation to anorexia, Warin (2004) argued that ‘anorexia is presented as a spectacle of thinness’ (p. 102). It has literal and historical genealogy.
O’Connor and Esterik (2008) conducted the research, in which they found that 16 of 22 participants grew up with the value of healthy eating. Later, they obsessively exaggerated most restrictions that were inherent in healthy eating (p. 8). O’Connor and Esterik (2008) empathize that ‘anorexics are not culturally but bioculturally constructed’ (p. 8). Starving draws on capacities that have been developed for years. The attempts of family or friends to solve the problem usually only complicate the situation. Relatives usually try to control and force anorexic to eat. Since this disorder is associated with the pleasure of the unlimited self-control, the ability to resist the temptation despite the insistence of family and a sense of pride in the willpower are only fueling frustration.
Due to etiology, long history, and progressively multipurpose epidemiology of anorexia nervosa, this disease has become a biocultural illness that has a great importance for medical anthropology. Anthropological factors of the development of anorexia characterize the state of health of the person, his inner resources. They also include a psychological preparedness, the will to live, moral standing, active manifestation of activities, which will depend on the prevalence of positive or negative emotions and behavior, physical endurance, adaptation to climatic conditions, and the availability of skills to survive in an autonomous existence.