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Book Review: Abject Relations: Everyday Worlds of Anorexia by Megan Warin

Woman standing in waterSummary:
Warin, an anthropologist, takes an entirely new approach to anorexia, looking it from a purely cultural and anthropological perspective.  She spends a couple of years interviewing women with anorexia at various points in the life of the illness from early treatment to recovery to relapse.  In this way she analyzes not just the culture of women and men suffering from anorexia but also how anorexia is a response to the culture these people find themselves in.

Review:
This was my first read from the holdings of my new workplace.  The instant I saw the title and book cover, I knew I needed to read it.  The anthropology of anorexia? How fascinating!

It’s interesting that I feel I actually learned a bit more about anthropology than anorexia from this book, but perhaps that is because I am more familiar with the latter than the former.  From my work in psychiatry and as a mental illness advocate, I was already aware that people suffering from anorexia have their own culture.  I still highly valued seeing this presented in an academic fashion with a respect for the people involved.  I commend Warin for her ability to interact with these women and glean a sense of how they came to be who they are now with a respect for them as people that is all too rare to see in this type of work.

So what of the anthropology then?  What are abject relations?  Over the course of the book I learned that abject relations are ambiguous relations.

What is abject is in between, ambiguous, and composite. Abjection is thus contrary to dualist concepts because it undermines and threatens that which is separate. As such, abjection is fundamentally concerned with the complexities and contradictions of relatedness. (page 184)

Whereas most books about eating disorders attempt to say THIS definitively caused it, this book’s premise is that the etiology is entirely ambiguous.  What caused it, what makes it persist, what it is to suffer from anorexia.  Nothing about it is clear-cut.  That is the powerful statement of the book.  There are no easy answers to anorexia, but we can do much more to understand it both as its own culture and as an aspect of our own.

This focus on anorexia as a response to the mainstream culture and a formation of a new culture leads Warin to question a lot of the inpatient treatment techniques.   Warin sees anorexia as frequently about women attempting to assert a right to control over their own bodies that goes horribly awry, ripping the control out of society’s or tormentor’s hands, into their own, into ana’s hands, then into the hands of an authority figure again at treatment.  Warin sees value in helping people suffering from anorexia recover in the context of society.  Instead of feeding them alone in a single room have them cook and eat together in a group.  This reenforces the cultural and connecting aspect of eating that they have been denying for so long.

It is an interesting idea to look at anorexia as an abject cultural response, but I don’t think it’s one that is quite as unique or revolutionary as Warin seems to think.  Whereas there have always been those who think anorexia is the ultimate kowtowing to what society deems feminine, there have also been those who view it as women protecting themselves from being perceived as feminine, from having unwanted interactions with those who would objectify them.  Perhaps it is really both, which is what makes it so hard to treat.  I believe this is what Warin is trying to say, although she is often not as clear as she could be.  She gets caught up in academic jargon.  She is at her strongest when simply organizing her interactions with the women into themes and presenting them to the reader to do with what they will.

Overall, for an academic look at anorexia this is unique in that it is an anthropological study instead of a psychiatric one.  Looking at a group of people who are a group simply because they share the same illness and studying their anthropology is a truly fascinating concept.  The book is scientific, but it is social science and is thus easy enough for the mainstream reader to follow.  It provides the human aspect of anorexia without sensationalizing.  Anyone with an interest in eating disorders or anthropology will enjoy this book.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Work Library

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  1. May 13, 2012 at 2:23 am

    Sounds like an interesting read. I have read another book towards the challenge while I was away on holiday, another Linda Gillard book actually, my review will be up Friday.

    • May 13, 2012 at 3:39 pm

      It was certainly unique in the world of literature on anorexia.

      I saw the Gillard bookcover in your monthly summary! Looking forward to the review. 🙂

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