Where Did Anorexia Stereotypes Come From? - Deepstash
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Anorexia and Hysteria: A Shared History

Anorexia and Hysteria: A Shared History

  • Before modern medicine, unexplained women's behaviors and illnesses were diagnosed as hysteria.
  • Symptoms of hysteria included fever and physical pain, as well as behaviors that didn't fit female stereotypes of passivity, feebleness, and fragility.
  • Mood swings, anxiety, and depression were all considered symptoms of hysteria.


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Separating Anorexia from Hysteria

  • Psychiatry asylums played a role in anorexia being recognized as its own medical condition separate from hysteria
  • At first, psychiatric institutions were places where people with mental illnesses were looked after, but not treated
  • This changed with a mental health reformation
  • People began to see mental illness as either curable or at least manageable through kindness and therapy
  • Psychiatric institutions began offering treatments and rehabilitation to the poor, and accountability came with it.


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Modern Misconception

  • Since the mid-1800s, we've gained a deeper understanding of why anorexia develops, but its early associations with hysteria have been difficult to escape
  • Anorexia and hysteria are not the same illness
  • In a 1982 Life Magazine article, it was claimed that "hysteria has almost disappeared, but if there is an equivalent today it is ANorexia, the psychosomatic disorder of young, middle-class women who won't eat."
  • A 1988 article from Harvard scientists still suggested that both illnesses were caused by female cultural stereotypes.


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Psychosomatic Disorder

  • A psychosomatic disorder is a condition where observed physical symptoms don’t have medical explanations.
  • These symptoms are instead attributed to psychological things (e.g., stress, emotions, and personality).
  • Many times, we just haven't found medical explanations for them yet.
  • However, because we are beginning to find a medical explanation for why anorexia develops (particularly genetics and neurochemical dysfunction), we can't call it a purely psychosomatic condition.


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Medical Explanations for Psychosomatic Symptoms in Anorexia

  • Alexithymia is a personality trait that makes it difficult to identify our feelings, describe what other people are feeling, and to think imaginatively.
  • Illness denial is more difficult to find a medical explanation for, but emerging neurological explanations suggest that people with anorexia are not denying their illness out of stubbornness.


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