A History Of Eating Disorders, From Holy Anorexia To Demi Lovato

Eating Disorder Awareness Week

fasting girl eating disorder history

Eating disorders aren’t a recent development; reports of behaviors like purging and restricting food have been documented for centuries. But what’s more surprising than how long men and women have been battling these diseases is how much they’re misunderstood. Until recently, they’ve been viewed as everything from holy manifestations of God to hysteria caused by endocrine disease. So how did we get to where we are now?

It’s not until the last few decades that doctors, health advocates and the general public have even begun to understand the pathology and causes of disordered eating, and how it relates to self-esteem, cultural pressure, and expectations of the female (and male) body. It wasn’t until 1979 that bulimia was even characterized as a disease, and not until this most recent edition of the DSM that binge-eating disorder was even considered as an addition.

Even now, the restrictions on who and who isn’t “really” anorexic (requirements like lack of menstruation, and being at least 85% below one’s “expected” weight) are contentious and problematic–but at least there are public figures (like Demi Lovato) who are speaking out their experiences.

Need a reminder of how far perceptions of eating disorders have come? Flip through this gallery to remember the days of “holy anorexia,” fasting girls (like Mollie Fancher, the “Brooklyn Enigma,” pictured above) , and wasting diseases blamed on wandering uteruses.

Image courtesy of Google Books, from Mollie Fancher, the Brooklyn enigma: An authentic statement of facts in the life of Mary J. Fancher by Abraham H. Dailey

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    • cathy

      i remember reading a fascinating book by a great feminist scholar of the middle ages, caroline walker bynum, “holy feast and holy fast”. really excellent cultural history.

    • Eileen

      Ooh, yeah, Caroline Walker Bynum is great. I’d also recommend (if it’s not mentioned here – haven’t looked through all the pictures yet) Joan Jacobs Brumberg.

    • Martha

      Here is a book that can be very helpful:

      “The Oxygen Mask Rule: How My Lifetime Battle with Anorexia Nervosa Taught Me How to Survive” by Martha L. Thompson offers hope for fellow anorexics.

      This book and reviews are available f online at Amazon.com and other channels.