Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Eating disorders as a form of suppression in Literature: outdated Victorian form of control or a modern one?

For this week’s blog I was inspired by a recent article called “5 reasons to date a girl with an eating disorder”, placed up on an internet forum which I’m sure has incited many to anger. This article outlines what the “author” believes to be perfectly acceptable reasons for choosing a girl suffering in this way over others: she is good at sex, she costs men less money, she is often rich, she is vulnerable and she will be more likely stay thin and “pretty” than other girls. Not only does this have the potential to encourage or “trigger” many girls to furthering their own disorders, or subliminally placing the idea into their unconscious, but it also adheres to antiquarian views on women.
When one considers the Victorian novel, in particular upper-class Victorian women, one cannot help but construct the image of a fainting, pathetic figure falling into the arms of a sturdy man. Literature has progressed from this ideal, however society doesn’t seem to have done so.
Wuthering Heights is a key example of the wasting-away of a woman until her death in Victorian fiction. This form of death is alluded to in many novels from this period, without much thought being given to it by the modern reader. However, in this case, as well as more discreetly, Cathy, the key female character in the novel, reaches a point of hysteria (“coincidentally” driven to this by men) at which point she breaks down and refuses to eat. This mission of starvation incapacitates her to such an extent that she never recovers. Her fragile and vulnerable state does indeed endear her rival lovers to her, but not because she is somehow more attractive, but because they know it will kill her. This novel is over 100 years old and yet manages to understand the concept of an eating disorder better than the modern understanding in that article.
Indeed, modern literature has moved away from the idealisation of a skinny white woman and has begun to accept people of all sizes as attractive. A key example of this is in Delillo’s White Noise (published 1986). The key protagonist’s descriptions of his wife are nearly always concerned with her socially “unacceptable” size as she is overweight. However, this does not paint her in a negative light; she is beautiful. All of his descriptions of her size come paired with his lust for her body and her mind intertwined to create who she is as a person.
This is where modern texts and thoughts should be situated, in a place in which size does not matter in terms of the integrity of a person. Jack, the protagonist mentioned above, has also married several other people whose weight has not been discussed. This is because the author understands the modern world: someone’s weight is not a necessary factor in who they are. The important point about women and their shape in this text is that it is transient: women can be who they want to be and for as long as they want to be. It is not down to men to categorize whether a woman’s weight is “good” or not, it is up to women to have that control.

This is an example of how modern fiction has moved away from the physical constrictions on women of the Victorian era. Not only are women free to utilise their bodies sexually in the way in which they desire, but they also should be free to develop their bodies in the way in which they desire. Neither should they, nor would they, have to be constrained in an ideal modern world, however social constraints, particularly those enforced by males, as well as the marketing industry are attempting to trap women of our generation once again and thus are unfortunately subverting the literary move towards a modern representation of women. 

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