Disordered eating: Food and Identity Formation

Jen WEBB, Jeri Kroll

Research output: A Conference proceeding or a Chapter in BookChapterpeer-review


Eating disorders have developed an international profile, in Anglophone countries in particular, during the past forty years. Confessional memoirs, self-help books, research studies and cinematic treatments have presented some of the common faces of anorexia and bulimia. Writers of literary fiction, the literary essay and poetry have attempted to unearth the complexities underlying eating disorders, not by oversimplifying but by acknowledging the diverse psychological profiles of sufferers, and embodying the physical consequences of their illness in language that offers readers aesthetic pleasure. In such literature—whether written for adults or for younger readers—food is a palpable absence: an absence that takes on a material presence. The food that the character/s will not eat survives in their minds and their motivations, with the result that their identity is, in a sense, formed around a core of absence. The texts we read in this chapter treat a range of ‘disordered’ attitudes towards food, with characters engaging in various ways with the anxiety toward, or the never-resolved fascination with, the variety, quantity, sensuality, or cooking methods of food. In the texts we have selected, those suffering from eating disorders are all girls or young women, but while members of this group are more likely to fall into the situation where they structure their identity around (no) food, boys and men, as well as older women, can also develop eating disorders. In the literature examined in this chapter, some sufferers still desire (while rejecting) food, and others do not. Some welcome hunger as an experience enhancer. Others use anorexia as a weapon in familial contexts; relatively powerless individuals exert the only control they have—their ability to refuse food.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Routledge Companion to Literature and Food
EditorsDonna Lee Brien, Lorna Piatti_Farnell
Place of PublicationNew York and London
Number of pages9
ISBN (Print)9781138048430
Publication statusPublished - 2018


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