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“Hunger Hurts, but Starving Works”. The Moral Conversion to Eating Disorders

Abstract

This article aims to shed light on the self-perceptions of people with eating disorders in Malta and Italy through a deep understanding of their narratives. In contrast to the biomedical perception of the phenomenon and in opposition with the prevalent feminist theories on the subject, I consider eating disorders as the result of self-transformative processes. I suggest that anorexics, bulimics and binge eaters are actively and deliberately engaged in a project of moral self-transformation that is culturally defined. The moral transformations of women with eating disorders in Malta and Italy, the two considered contexts of this research, reflect the social expectations of women in these societies. The drastic changes in personal attitudes towards both food and the body that characterise eating disorders are the result of a complete dedication to the moral values embodied in thinness, namely the control of bodily needs and pleasure. The self-transformative process of people with eating disorders can be understood as a form of moral conversion along a continuum of increasing control over hunger: the higher the control, the higher the level of satisfaction and the degree of moral conversion achieved. Considering the general low recovery rates of people with eating disorders, this approach helps in the understanding of why people who are diagnosed with an eating disorder accept medical definitions and treatments to different extents.

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Notes

  1. The therapeutically program proposed at the centre is for five months. Patients can however prolong their stay, although only the first five months are free of charge and covered by the Italian health care system.

  2. Although I refer to costs and benefits when discussing the moral conversion of my informants, "assessing conversion costs is never easy, because the values by which she can measure the costs are not static” (Dees 1996, p. 567). This is to say that my informants’ choices in attitudes and behaviours reflect the acceptance of different moral values, perceived as core values, at different phases in life. In this sense, people diagnosed with an eating disorder do reflect on the costs and benefits of their conversions. However, they do so by reconsidering the hierarchy between the different universe of discourses determining their notion of “moral good”. Keeping in mind the already discussed notion of “indexical self”, such a process is therefore highly influenced by social interaction and contexts. This perspective is reinforced when considering the Belizean notion of “never leave yourself” (Anderson-Eye 2004). This concept, which applies to Belizean women, refers to a very protective attitude toward the self. Body control techniques (such as the ones characterising eating disorders) are therefore unacceptable and incomprehensible among the population because they are at odds with their particular embodied notion of self.

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Funding

The research work disclosed in this publication is partially funded by the Strategic Educational Pathways Scholarship (Malta). This Scholarship is part-financed by the European Union – European Social Fund (ESF) under Operational Programme II – Cohesion Policy 2007-2013, “Empowering People for More Jobs and a Better Quality Of Life”.

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Correspondence to Gisella Orsini.

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I, Gisella Orsini, author of the article “Hunger hurts, but starving works”. The moral conversion to eating disorders”, declare that I have no conflict of interest.

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All procedures performed in studies involving human participants has been approved by the Maltese University Research Ethics Committee and were in accordance with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

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Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.

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I, Gisella Orsini certify that I am the sole author of the article “Hunger hurts, but starving works”. The moral conversion to eating disorders”. I further certify that the article I have submitted to the journal for review is original and has not been published elsewhere. I also certify that the article was not submitted for review to another journal while under review by this journal.

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Orsini, G. “Hunger Hurts, but Starving Works”. The Moral Conversion to Eating Disorders. Cult Med Psychiatry 41, 111–141 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11013-016-9507-6

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Keywords

  • Eating disorders
  • Moral conversion
  • Narratives
  • Thinness
  • Body