Communication Currents

Stories of Bulimia: Describing Normal Abnormality

February 1, 2008
Health Communication

Gorging oneself on huge amounts of food and then causing oneself to vomit is arguably a very unfeminine behavior. Yet, bulimia is thought of as a feminine disease, a disease diagnosed predominantly in women in an effort to appear thinner and more attractive. Women recovering from bulimia are faced with the challenge of communicating that despite their past behaviors they should now be accepted as feminine and normal--ordered rather than disordered.

A recovering bulimic is expected to affirm society's negative view of bulimia; to agree that her behavior is abnormal and damaging. Yet, in order to minimize judgment or disapproval from her audience she must also disassociate herself from her past bulimic behavior. To accomplish this difficult task a woman often describes the bulimic portion of her identity as a character in personal stories. By distancing this part of her identity from her normal, recovered self, a recovering bulimic can remain someone with whom she still identifies and wants others to understand. 

In five interviews with women between the ages of 18 and 25, each woman explained that she was recovering from bulimia. According to health professionals in our culture, one is never fully recovered from an eating disorder, always recovering--neither ill or cured. Labeled as recovering, the bulimic woman carries the responsibility of comforting her audience. She may provide comfort by affirming her listener's negative views of bulimia, stating that it is abnormal, unhealthy, and unacceptable and demonstrate the ability to manage this instability in order to ease the concern of those around her who may be worried for her. In this study by Julie-Ann Scott, each woman was asked to, "tell about their experiences with bulimia, to begin where they felt they should begin and end wherever they felt their story ended." Each of these interviews unfolded as a complex one-woman show full of stories of troubled characters who performers knew intimately and wanted their audience to feel compassion toward.

One woman used the words obsessed and anal early in the interview, emphasizing the absurdity of bulimic behavior, "And if I gained, like three fourths of a pound I was like, Oh crap! I need to lose that weight! I was obsessed I became anally, um, protective of my, um, (hesitation) habit."

Another woman demonstrated knowledge of her preoccupation with food, laughing at her intense response to food: "If anyone was in my personal space while I was trying to make my food or whatever I would like totally just like nut out on everyone (laugh)." A third woman also communicates her own understanding of the abnormality of eating disorders as she described her surprise regarding other high school students who attended an eating disorder support group:

"And, so we'd meet once a week. (pause) Um, I think it was on Thursdays for some reason... and there was a therapist there and people who I had known who had eating disorders -- people who I thought were, quote unquote, normal people had eating disorders (sarcastic)."

While each woman took the time to express her own disapproval of her behaviors, each also offered an explanation of how these self-proclaimed anal, abnormal behaviors materialize.

One woman explained,

"I usually have a very bad self-image anyway. I never feel attractive. I never feel good looking pretty or anything. (pause). I think it kind of builds over the years. A little bit at first. (pause) You know when you're in junior high and you start reading Cosmo. You start seeing all these thin beautiful happy people telling you how to be attractive and you realize you have thunder thighs and there's no way around it."

Others interviewed echoed the idea that an eating disorder develops as self esteem deteriorates. One woman said that she did not feel that she was attractive or smart enough. This sense of failure slowly overwhelmed her, turned into depression, and eventually into bulimia, "I really just hated everything about myself." One woman said that she often felt most unattractive when at a support group of women with eating disorders. Unlike anorexic women, those who engage in bulimia are most often average sized or overweight. She wondered if perhaps she had even failed at having an eating disorder, "I'm sitting there and I'm like, I'm just the fat kid. And thinking that they're sitting there thinking, trying to figure out who brought the fat kid."

Each woman expresses how she is now better, avoiding binging and purging and managing their emotions, often with the help of psychologists, nutritionists and counselors. Yet, each spoke of an ongoing process, as one woman put it, "Either you reconcile yourself with how you look and you learn to love yourself and accept yourself or you just fall apart (deep sigh). And hopefully, after falling apart you reconcile yourself with yourself (laughing-acknowledging her repetition), and that's something I've been working on - trying to like myself."

Another woman closed with the statement: "And as much as I'd like to say I love myself, I really don't think I do" (very quiet delivery). Another interview also ended with the words, "I'm still not recovered. I'm still struggling. I'm still maintaining." While another woman revealed, "And I guess there still is a great deal of self hatred, (pause)... Nobody sees it, it's just there (quiet tone)."

After some hesitation, one woman explained that when others can see her relapse with bulimia, there are consequences. She reveals she will be leaving school with "no degree in sight" per request of her parents and school officials:

"It's been real downhill, and people are noticing now more and more (sigh) that I'm not being myself... it's not something that you know... you do... and get the T-shirt. It's not like I've been there done that (sarcastic tone). It's an everyday struggle, everyday, you eat everyday... It's a process of dealing with it normally... you still want to do it sometimes (pause). I still do."

One may sense remorse over the stigma and negative judgment these women balance along with the pain and desperation that materializes in bulimic behavior. Perhaps our culture should rethink its conclusion that the presence of bulimia reflects an abnormality in those diagnosed. Perhaps, as a culture, we could acknowledge that our perceptions of bulimia come from stories told by health professionals and perpetuated through our media. Further, we should temper our expectations that bulimic women need to affirm and reiterate these stories or risk social ostracizing and judgment for their denial of their problem. Each woman interviewed, reiterated the stories expected of them to communicate acknowledgment of the disorder and continued recovery, to resist the beliefs of health professionals that would leave them vulnerable to suspicion of denial of their problem, and in turn, a continued disorder. In a society where both food and slim bodies are heavily marketed as enticing, the potential for people to struggle with desire, gratification, guilt, remorse and desperation over how to indulge in the food that surrounds us and maintain the slim figure that is so esteemed perhaps should not seem so abnormal. So, maybe we should not be so quick to compel those diagnosed as bulimic to ease our minds with their stories of how, now recovered, they manage their abnormality. Instead, maybe we should listen without judgment and look to these women to learn of ourselves and our culture. Arguably, to achieve femininity, resorting to what one may see as unbeautiful, unfeminine behavior is not disordered, but perhaps almost inevitable.

About the author (s)

Julie-Ann Scott

University of Maine

Doctoral Candidate