Food, Bodies, and the “Stuff” of (Not) Eating in Anorexia | Anna Lavis


Abstract: The diverse materialities that form part of lived experiences of mental ill-health and its treatment have been largely overlooked in research. Arguing that such a focus is key to enhancing understandings of eating disorders, this article engages with food-centered practices in anorexia nervosa. Against the background of work that has recognized the desire to maintain their illness among some individuals, the article suggests that holding onto anorexia is a dynamic process enacted through eating as well as by avoiding food. blurred intersections between eating and not eating, edible and inedible. hat is experienced as eating may not look like eating and vice versa. As contingent forms of eating thereby emerge and dissolve through anorexia-focused practices, vectors of ingestion and assimilation come to be remapped and eating delineated as an act that may take place across corporeal surfaces and among multiple bodies. While such an engagement with materialities offers key insights into anorexia, it also contributes to a wider theorizing of the act of eating within food studies literature; the article asks what eating is, as well as what forms it takes. This problematizes taken-for-granted relationships among eating, bodies, and food. Their dislocations demonstrate eating to produce and reconfigure, as well as displace or break down, materialities.

Keywords: anorexia nervosa, corporeality, desire, eating, (im)materiality, self-starvation


With a focus on the materialities and immaterialities of bodies and food, this article explores (not) eating practices among individuals with anorexia. Through these it asks two key questions: How might an attention to material encounters between bodies and food offer insights into key aspects of the experience of anorexia? And, in turn, how does tracing these encounters within the specific context of anorexia enhance critical understandings of eating? The former, then, calls for an attention to the often-overlooked role of materialities in lived experiences of mental ill-health, while the latter seeks to contribute to food studies literature by interrogating the act of eating and theorizing its myriad forms.

To explore these questions, the discussion draws on data from two qualitative studies within large National Health Service (NHS) inner-city mental health trusts in England: The first involved participant observation and interviews with individuals being treated in an eating disorders inpatient unit (EDU) (2007–8) and the second comprised interviews with users of eating disorders outpatient, daypatient, and inpatient services (2013–15). Alongside these, the article draws on anthropological participant observation and interviews conducted on pro-anorexia websites (2005–13) as well as on academic and media discussions of eating disorders.

The aim of this analysis is not to unearth the causes of eating disorders. Rather, acknowledging anorexia to be profoundly dangerous and distressing, this article extends a recent recognition of the “desire” (Lavis 2011, 2016) to hold onto their existing anorexia among some individuals. This has illustrated that not eating maintains an illness that is profoundly dangerous and distressing and yet that may offer a painful and precarious way of coping with day-to-day life and distress.

Such desire gives rise to a very felt and lived paradox, which underpins the following discussion: to be anorexic one must eat as little as possible and yet to hold onto anorexia (if that is desired) one must also eat enough to stay alive. Situating our analysis within this moment of contradiction elucidates that holding onto the illness is a dynamic process enacted through practices which draw into encounter the messy and malleable materialities of food and anorexia. Through these, eating is constantly reconfigured so that it may feel as unlike eating. These affective navigations of food give rise to fractures and multiplicities of eating; it is disassembled and reassembled, and takes multiple forms.

Thus, having begun by asking what anorexia is, the article unfolds by increasingly problematizing what eating is. It does this by engaging with the three forms that most frequently emerge from participants’ narratives: bodily incorporation; eating through the skin; and shared eating. These are presented in a narrative sequence that increasingly problematizes what eating is and does, as well as its relationship to food and bodies. Beginning with a normative imagining of eating as the individual taking of food into the body, it is first spatially repositioned to take place across bodily surfaces before becoming an act that can be shared among bodies. These permutations illustrate that eating may be agential or fearfully accidental, and they demonstrate individuals’ struggles with both food and anorexia, as each is extremely distressing.

Paying attention to food in relation to an illness more habitually framed in terms of its absence thereby offers a way to trace how body/food encounters are simultaneously positioned outside, and yet central to, anorexia. This has significant implications for understandings of the complexities of anorexia. Acknowledging these, throughout its analysis, the article importantly maintains a focus on the realities of living through the illness—the slippages and losses of agency, the fear and suffering. It comprises a recognition of the way in which not eating may not be fully agential, or even desired, and yet it balances this with an engagement with the voices of individuals themselves. To disallow either to overshadow the other, the article seesaws between these diverse forms of eating and consists of an exploratory feeling around the edges of eating, food, and bodies, rather than an analytical fixing of their boundaries.

This materially-informed analysis thereby also intersects with wider scholarly concerns. As the food-centered practices of anorexic participants problematize any easy assumptions regarding what eating is, this article seeks to contribute to food studies literature by theorizing the act of eating; it interrogates and challenges eating’s relationships with tasting, swallowing, and digesting, and explores the agencies of both eater and eaten.

It has been suggested that to take account of food as a nexus of material, symbolic, and political “stuff,” it is necessary to pay attention to eating bodies (cf. Abbots and Lavis 2013). Engaging with the food-centered practices of individuals with anorexia underscores a similar but further need to focus attention on that eating body—on “what bodies are and do when they eat” (Probyn 2000: 14) and, importantly, do not eat.

This elicits interrogation of the role of the eater, and non-eater, in the production of materiality as bodies and foods are made and displaced in relation to one another. Engaging with recent discussions of food’s “vibrant materiality” (Bennett 2010) and the ways in which objects become edible (cf. Evans and Miele 2012; Roe 2006), the article traces the many moments during which food slip-slides into what we might term, for want of a better word, “non-food,” and vice versa, as eatable and edible are drawn into conflict through the (non)eating body.

As such, these explorations of (not) eating elucidate the “liminality” (Turner 1967) of food as participants mobilize it across conceptual and corporeal thresholds by salivating and swallowing, viewing and chewing. This highlights the necessity of taking account of uncertainty and contingency in relationships among eating and bodily materialities, as these may become dislocated both in the context of anorexia and more widely. Recognizing that eating absents or materializes food, as well as anorexia, demonstrates how the very “stuff” of food and bodies is drawn into question through mundane moments of consumption and starvation.


What Is Anorexia? Desire and (Not) Eating

There is no doubt that anorexia nervosa is a painful, frightening and dangerous illness. Yet, while participants’ narratives are replete with distress and suffering, many also resonate with an ambivalent “desire” (Lavis 2011, 2016) to maintain the illness. Anorexia is often described as a “part of me” and during fieldwork, Eva, who was an inpatient at the time, illustrated this claim: “If a doctor took a scalpel and tried to cut him [anorexia] out, he’d just leave his shoelaces behind anyway.” Participants also frequently refer to the illness as a “friend” (see also Grahame 2009; Serpell et al. 1999), and in her interview Indira said: “I think it becomes a bit of like a friend, like it’s a… It’s almost like it’s a world that you live in, that’s separate from everybody else.” Many reasons have been put forth in interviews for describing anorexia in this way. Friendship is circumscribed with articulations of how it can be “helpful” and “protective,” and may even offer a “safe space” or a “cloud away from everyone else.” Such narratives are often interwoven with descriptions of the illness also as “torturing,” “awful,” and “hell,” with these juxtapositions occurring within the serrated space of the same sentence.

As such, participants’ accounts elucidate how anorexia can become an (extremely painful) way of being for some individuals with the illness. As “living through anorexia” is conceptualized in interviews as a way of “living through” day-to-day life or distress, the illness is described as a coping strategy. Participants can find it extremely painful, know that it is dangerous, and yet they may also want to hold onto it, at least temporarily. Anorexia can therefore be felt to be both an illness and a modality of caring for oneself (see Lavis 2015a).

Unlike the plethora of popular imaginings of anorexia as a quest for thinness against all odds, many research participants have not expressed a wish to become thin. Rather, the desire articulated by some individuals is, albeit ambivalently, directed at holding onto the illness. Against this background, thinness becomes important only as a temporally later way in which to visually check and measure the continuing presence of this “friend” anorexia (see Lavis 2014). Such a looking beyond thinness in analysis is in line with the work of other scholars who have also engaged with the practices, meanings, and subjectivities of individuals with anorexia (cf. Eli 2014; Gooldin 2008; Lester 2014). Reflecting on the desire to maintain anorexia thereby shifts our understanding of the illness. It highlights the necessity of acknowledging the extreme suffering that anorexia causes, while also suggesting that we need to take into account how it comes to be important to some individuals. Underpinned by subjectivities of anorexia’s protective “care,” it is this that sets in motion practices of (not) eating.

In her interview, Miriam said: “If you eat you’ve given in, you’ve stuffed yourself silly and… and that’s not right. You just shouldn’t do that.” She described eating as threatening—both to herself and anorexia. With this sense of threat in mind, it is clear how eating can come to be feared; in her interview, Lydia said:

If I was in a situation where I had to eat something that I was really uncomfortable with, erm…just to sort of, satisfy the people and keep it quiet I suppose, it could, it could play on me to the point of tears where I would get very, very upset and would not be able to sleep that night thinking about what I’d eaten.

This discomfort—even fear—of food also illustrates how not eating may not always be entirely agential; in her interview, Kayley said: “It’s not exactly a choice, kind of. Well, it’s not like you’re just thinking, like, ‘Oh, I won’t eat because…’ It, it’s more, kind of, like, it’s more that you can’t, really.” In spite of this blurring of agency and its loss, it is clear what eating and not eating do in (and to) anorexia. But, it is less obvious what eating and not eating are, where the boundaries between them lie, and what counts as “food” in this context.

Participants’ narratives thereby illustrate the fundamental and viscerally felt tension of living with anorexia that I set out in the introduction to this article: to be anorexic you must eat as little as possible, and yet to hold onto anorexia, if that is desired, you must also eat enough to stay alive (see also Lavis 2013). From this, anorexia emerges as maintained not only by not eating but also, seemingly paradoxically perhaps, by eating. In this paradox lies the key to forging more nuanced understandings of anorexia, as well as of eating itself. It is this simultaneity of needing to eat and yet not eat that sees the act of eating perpetually reshaped and reconfigured because participants’ engagements with food suggest that eating needs to be made to be (and perhaps, fundamentally, feel) as unlike eating as possible; it needs to be contained and confined, squashed and reshaped. This underscores the practices explored throughout the rest of this article. Perhaps suggesting that reflecting on eating always necessitates a rather strong stomach, this tracing of eating’s various guises will begin by exploring how eating and bodies are turned inside out through vomiting.

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Editor’s Letter, Summer 2016

from Gastronomica 16:2

One of the greatest rewards of my position as editor of Gastronomica is that I have a front-row seat to the many developments taking place in studies of food. From the fascinating submissions and queries about potential submissions that I receive (sadly, there are always far more worthy and intriguing pieces than I can publish) to the new books that arrive in our book reviews office (again, far too many than we can feature or occasionally even fit on our shelves), and from the conversations that I have with established and emerging scholars, writers, and editors in the field to the many press releases I receive about all things food-related (innovative dinners, art exhibits, musical performances, among many, many events), it is clear that this is an ever-expanding field. This is especially gratifying given that when I first began my graduate work in social anthropology in the 1990s, food was largely considered an insignificant, even trivial topic. I still remember receiving reviews of grant proposals and early manuscripts in which reviewers suggested that I would be better served studying something more meaningful and weighty than food. Implicit—and sometimes explicit—in these comments was the message that food was too popular and too mundane to be a “real” scholarly topic.

At the same time, embedded within this criticism was what I understood to be a genuine concern that an overly focused orientation on food might be analytically limiting. For the case of the discipline of anthropology in the 1990s, there was recognition that simply collecting or describing cultural objects, recipes, and stories (i.e., what is often described as salvage anthropology) was not enough. Instead anthropologists argued for the need to think critically about the political, economic, and social systems in which those cultural artifacts existed and were made meaningful. In other words, food was intellectually meaningful not simply because of what it was but because of it what it might reveal.

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Editor’s Letter, Winter 2015

from Gastronomica 15:4

Retro food stands invoking 1950s and 1960s Moscow offer hot corn on the cob, drinks, and ice cream to passersby enjoying Moscow’s City Day along Tverskaya ulitsa.

I am writing this letter from Moscow, where I am spending a few days visiting friends. I was eager to return after a year away, not simply to catch up with loved ones but also to find out what was happening with Russia’s food scene following the bans on foreign food products that were instituted last summer and the recent reports about fake foods and the destruction of contraband food imports.

I arrived on the eve of Moscow’s City Day celebrations, and discovered that the anniversary themes focused on the city’s history as told through cultural, artistic, and technological innovations. For a city celebrating its 868th year, that is a lot of history and innovations, and much of that lengthy span was held together by placing a special emphasis on food in Russia’s capital city: the “Capital City Gastronomic Festival.” Neighborhoods all around Moscow were organized around subthemes that evoke the historical contexts of those particular regions: “National Supper” in the region closest to the federal and city government buildings; “Soviet Dinner” just outside Red Square and the Kremlin; “Farmers’ Dinner” in a square that was once a farmers’ market; “Theater Buffet” in one of the oldest neighborhoods with numerous theaters and the celebrated theater university; and “Literary Dinner” in the square ringed by the major newspaper and book publishing houses. At the center of each designated neighborhood was a cluster of food stalls, each decorated to look like peasant cottages and promoting regional food specialties, stages for musical performances, and organized activities reflecting the neighborhood’s assigned subthemes. In the “Literary Dinner” neighborhood, for instance, visitors sampled local food treats while receiving free issues and other goodies from the many Moscow-based newspapers and publishers. The focus was on both Eating Locally and Reading Locally. Along Tverskaya Ulitsa, the main boulevard that leads to Red Square and the Kremlin, visitors walked through the centuries of Moscow’s past and not only saw but had the opportunity to taste foods from “the past”—including cafeteria-style foods sold from a Soviet-era stolovaya (cafeteria).

Moscow’s focus on food, and on local food, whether rendered as regional, historic, or national, is apparent elsewhere in the city, most notably in an explicit aesthetic of nostalgia. Ice cream carts and beverage vending machines from the 1950s and 1960s have taken up residence in food courts and along busy city streets. Food shop clerks are dressed in the blue-and-white aprons and hats that were more common during the socialist and early postsocialist eras in state-run stores. And noticeable among the Russian food products on store shelves is a return to Soviet-era packaging styles.

What are we to make of this? On the one hand, this effort can be seen as a glorification of food patriotism and food nationalism, a topic that is near and dear to my heart and that I have discussed before. On the other hand, it is important to remember that what seems to be very political can also be quite personal. It is equally possible that these food events are as much about familiarity and comfort, or even irony, as they are about making an international political statement. Foods contain and convey messages at multiple levels and to multiple audiences, and those messages may change according to the historical and cultural context or even with regard to how a particular audience receives and decodes them. For me, this is one of the most fascinating aspects of food studies: food makes us think and makes us question. Food is knowledge, and knowledge can be food. As one of Moscow’s bookstores put it in an advertisement in their window this week: “Books are pizza for the brain.” Perhaps by extension, pizza—or any other food—can be a book for the stomach.

Moscow residents celebrate Moscow’s City Day at the “Literary Dinner” square located at Tverskaya metro station, right in the center of the central media and publishing house district.

A 1950s/1960s–themed beverage cart offering flavored waters sits nestled alongside a hot food stand offering fajitas (fakhitas) and American-style barbeque.

It is this power of food to provoke, to inspire, to communicate, and to satiate that runs through the contributions to this issue of Gastronomica. These are, in many ways, eclectic pieces that touch on very diverse topics. As editor, I hope that every issue’s contributions are meaty and stimulating, but there is something about this particular issue and the diversity of topics and viewpoints that I have found especially thought-provoking. In various ways, each of the contributions has raised critical issues and questions that have challenged me to think differently. It is truly a literary feast.

Hungry Moscow residents grab a quick bite to eat in a Soviet-style cafeteria. Traditional cafeterias like these have quietly disappeared in Moscow as they have been replaced by sit-down restaurants and cafés.

The first piece is, naturally enough, pizza-related. Zachary Nowak presents a lively and detailed interview with Antonio Mattozzi about his recent book, Inventing the Pizzeria. Their conversation is not so much about a book as it is a history of a family and a culinary tradition that invites us to reconsider what we believe we know about pizza and family businesses. This interview is followed by a series of research briefs that raise new questions and offer new directions of research for food. Chika Watanabe’s essay on waste and philosophies of circulation forces us to think seriously about what a truly sustainable system of local agriculture might look like and whether consumers would be comfortable with their personal roles in sustainability initiatives. Watanabe also opens up possibilities for rethinking terroir and taste of place: when we take waste seriously, can we also talk about a “taste of person”? Anna Harris continues this thread of productive discomfort by suggesting that there are sensory deficits in approaching food through taste, smell, touch, and vision; and she asks what happens if we consider the sounds of food and food work. While sound has been important for food manufacturers in terms of how they design products, it has so far evaded critical inquiry among scholars and even ordinary consumers. Harris provides an entry point for thinking about a fuller sensory spectrum and the implications of paying attention to the sounds our food makes.

In their essays, Levi Van Sant and Ernesto Hernández-López tackle the political dimensions of the sensory qualities of food. For Hernández-López, it is about the legal, social, and cultural implications of the problems faced by the California-based company that makes Sriracha, the popular hot sauce, when local residents complained about the fumes believed to emanate from the factory, and by extension presented a political critique of the people associated with those sensory experiences. Van Sant takes on an equally charged topic by considering the racial politics contained within a culinary tradition constructed as part of a unique heritage culture: that of Lowcountry cuisine in South Carolina. By looking at constructions of heritage, taste, race, and class across popular cookbooks, Van Sant critically examines how tastes are deeply embedded in experiences of race and class. What makes this piece especially powerful is that the setting at the heart of Van Sant’s essay is Charleston, the site of recent horrific events that have laid bare some of the very issues that Van Sant explores.

The research essays continue this emphasis on provoking challenging and even difficult conversations. In the first research essay, Kimberly Nettles-Barcelón curates a conversation among a group of women chefs and food researchers about the experience and value of food work by Black women. From different perspectives and vantage points—some as scholars and some as professional chefs—the contributors to this conversation discuss important issues about how labor, expertise, authority, and voice in the food world are directly shaped by political systems of race and gender. This is an inspiring essay that nonetheless reminds us of the pervasive inequalities that continue to shape professional food work both inside and outside the academy.

In her essay, Tracy Bilsing brings a different perspective on gender and politics by introducing previously little-known work by Katherine Mansfield in which she reflects on the Great War. Bilsing not only provides a critical historical service by uncovering Mansfield’s less familiar work, but she also challenges us to reconsider the relationship between food and war and how these relationships are presented in different literary mediums.

Resituating history and heritage is also central to Gina Hunter’s essay on galeterias in Brazil. By discussing the resurgence of Italian-Brazilian culinary heritage as both a contemporary reworking of Italian immigration to Brazil and an outgrowth of culinary tourism, Hunter opens up new directions for thinking about how ethnic identities and histories are mobilized at different moments and for different cultural and economic purposes.

Moscow pedestrians enjoy the “Capital Breakfast” themed square, decorated with carts filled with pumpkins for autumn.

Emma McDonell asks the provocative question of how certain foods become “miracle foods”—or those foods that are valorized for their potential to save a community, a heritage, a society. In this case, McDonell considers how particular foods have, at different moments, been promoted through global development initiatives to prevent hunger or malnutrition but have ultimately failed. She focuses specifically on the development politics of quinoa and the tensions that play out between global development actors (both scientists and politicians) and local farmers and consumers.

Lastly, the creative reflections in this issue engage thoughtfully with questions and issues raised in the essays by turning more personal and contemplative, but in ways that are more attuned to the bodily and the sensory. Fa-Tai Shieh muses on how and what we think about the foods that we put into our mouths and bodies. Taking this question about ingestion further, Kiran Bhushi describes the experience of spending time at an Ayurveda Hospital in India and a personal realignment with the sensory attributes of food. Daniel Press takes issue with the perceptions implicit and explicit in the wine industry and shows how the power of suggestion and presentation directly influence sensory experiences and evaluations.

I invite you to come join me in this movable feast by journeying through time, space, and multiple sensory registers.

Melissa L. Caldwell
September 2015

Summer 2007, Volume 7, Number 3

Summer 2007, Volume 7, Number 3

from the editor
Food Politics | Darra Goldstein and E. Melanie DuPuis

Rumblings from the World of Food

orts and scantlings
Weighty Words | Mark Morton

feast for the eye
Vik Muniz’s Ten Ten’s Weed Necklace | Vanessa Silberman

Pomegranate | Meghan Adler

border crossings
Enemy Kitchen: An Interview with Michael Rakowitz | Liza Johnson

The Disappearance of Hunger in America | Patricia Allen

The American Farm | Jason Houston

the global market
The March of Empire: Mangos, Avocados, and the Politics of Transfer | Robert R. Alvarez

Angels and Vegetables: A Brief History of Food Advice in America | E. Melanie DuPuis
Kills a Body Twelve Ways: Bread Fear and the Politics of “What to Eat?” | Aaron Bobrow-Strain

Policing Pleasure: Food, Drugs, and the Politics of Ingestion | Craig Reinarman

photo essay
Tequila Shots | Marie Sarita Gaytán

Labor, Migration, and Social Justice in the Age of the Grape Boycott | Matthew Garcia

Can’t Stomach it: How Michael Pollan et al. Made Me Want to Eat Cheetos | Julie Guthman

Vertical Farming: An Interview with Dickson Despommier | Peter Platt

working on the food chain
Understanding Receptivity to Genetically Modified Foods | John T. Lang and Susanna Hornig Priest

Growing Resistance: Food, Culture and the Mo’ Better Foods Farmers’ Market | Alison Hope Alkon

Risky Food, Risky Lives: The 1977 Saccharin Rebellion | Carolyn de la Peña
“Saving” Soul Food | Kimberly Nettles

point of view
A Heretic in the Church of Food | Joseph Schultz

chef’s page
Ken’s Artisan Bakery, Portland, Oregon | Ken Forkish

the bookshelf
Books in Review

Happier Meal | Jocelan Hillton

Cover: Daniel Jackson, Pair, 2002. Oil on panel 13″ x 14″. Courtesy of Robert Desantis.