Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry

, Volume 42, Issue 1, pp 159–179 | Cite as

Distinct and Untamed: Articulating Bulimic Identities

  • Karin Eli
Original Paper


Bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa are inextricably linked, with substantial clinical and epidemiological overlaps. Yet, while anorexia has been analyzed extensively in medical anthropology, bulimia remains under-theorized. This is, perhaps, because, compared to self-starvation, binge eating presents a logic of practice that is difficult to reconcile with culturally reified notions of self-control, transcendence, and hard work. Thus, although anthropologists have analyzed anorexic subjectivities as imbued with a sense of cleanliness and purity, moral superiority, and heroics, similar analyses have not been extended to bulimic subjectivities; instead, bulimia has been subsumed, as a tangential disorder, into analyses of anorexia. In this paper, I aim to move bulimic identities from the margins to the centre of anthropological analysis. Based on participant narratives, I analyze bulimic identity as articulated by six Israeli women who identified as bulimic and received treatment for bulimia. The women’s narratives show that bulimic identity is aligned with concepts of distinct selfhood. For these women, to be bulimic was to be framed as ‘abnormal’; but this ‘abnormality’, albeit a source of social stigma and shame, held meanings that went beyond pathology. Through the claiming of bulimic identity, the women positioned themselves as untamed, non-conforming subjects, who acted against gendered and classed expectations—and even against the limitations of the body. Their constructions of bulimic distinction highlight the need for anthropological work that situates bulimia not as a footnote to anorexia, but as a structurally and culturally meaningful condition in its own right.


Bulimia nervosa Eating disorders Illness narratives Israel Medical anthropology 



The 2011 phase of the study was funded by the Oxford University Press John Fell Research Fund.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflicts of interest

The author declares that she has no conflict of interest.

Ethical Standards

The study received ethics approval from the University of Oxford’s Social Sciences and Humanities Inter-Divisional Research Ethics Committee (under the auspices of the University of Oxford’s Central University Research Ethics Committee) in 2005 and 2011, and ethics approval from an Israeli Kupat Holim (health care) fund Helsinki ethics committee in 2005 (Helsinki ethics approval was not needed in 2011). Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study. All procedures performed in the study were in accordance with the ethical standards of the University of Oxford’s Central University Research Ethics Committee and the Kupat Holim Helsinki ethics committee, and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of Social and Cultural AnthropologyUniversity of OxfordOxfordUK

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