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On anorexia nervosa and the violence of refusal.

  • May 19 2021
  • Lara Verena Bellenghi
    studied Fine Art at Oxford University and completed her MA in Art History at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. Earlier experiences in museums include the Peggy Guggenheim Collection and the Biennale di Venezia and Oxford's Ashmolean Museum and she currently works for the education department at the Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien. Sites, objects and in particular the human body as a social construct have informed both her work within the institutional context as well as her practice outside the museum.

Please note: The following is a reflection of my own experience. I am not a clinician, specialist in eating disorders, or a therapist of any kind but do hope to raise awareness about topics that I have found to be intertwined in the larger picture of disordered eating.

Ours is a world bathed in ambivalence. An existence nourished by controversy is bound to elicit paradoxical behaviour. We oscillate between extremes. As far as my own observations and experience go - though I suspect several readers will agree with me on this - neglect lies at one end of the spectrum. On the other end lie impositions. Enmeshment within the familial realm and entanglement on a wider socio-economic scale turn freedom into an increasingly utopian thought. Family, society, and institutions leave little margin for self-determination yet we are raised to believe these forms of compliance are for our own good. No wonder that we have arrived at a collective generational and national clash. It is in this vein and as a child of my time that I would like to spotlight a few factors inherent to anorexia nervosa as one of the numerous symptoms of our comorbid age. It is, in this sense, just one variation on a theme. While traits of this condition have occasionally surfaced in my own life for over a decade now, it is a symptom that has recently seen an alarming rise in cases and is predicted to affect society in the future to come, adding further stress to an already overstrained public health sector. Destigmatization, while already underway, could use a second helping, while blaming could use clearing away.


"Willpower, then, becomes a weapon in the fight for self-determination. When a sense of perpetual invasion dominates, anarchic undercurrents surface."

Being aware of the enormity of the topic, this contribution can only serve as an approximation to expand readers’ understanding of the condition in question. For the purpose of clarity, my reflections here will centre on anorexia nervosa as a political act, however unconsciously executed, rather than simply as a medical issue. Paradoxically, anorexia’s self-destructiveness is born as a coping mechanism aimed at self-preservation. Emaciation offers emotional retreat; numbness becomes a protective shield. Touch, sight, scent, or sound can all be undesired but so can more abstract forms of invasion. Hierarchy, nation, generation, or indoctrination too can determine an individual’s life against their will.
Willpower, then, becomes a weapon in the fight for self-determination. When a sense of perpetual invasion dominates, anarchic undercurrents surface. Highlighting the pervasiveness of ambivalent relationships between the self and one’s environment, I hope to debunk some of the misconceptions that anorexia is typically subject to. Like any symptom, its causes have deeper roots.

Before embarking on what here can only be a condensed interpretative journey, I wish to emphasise that my own narrative should be taken with a pinch of salt. While there may be the occasional cross-over in the behavioural patterns and socio-cultural backgrounds amongst those affected, the biography of anyone with a clinical diagnosis of anorexia nervosa must always be studied on an individual basis. Nevertheless, I hope to offer a few approximations and, with a bit of luck, reveal how anorexia is potentially analogous to other forms of distress.


Mastery and Art: On the Imbalance between Giving and Taking or The Tragic Encounter Between Generosity and (In)Acceptance

From the plethora of themes that demand discussion in relation to anorexia nervosa, I would like to focus on the fundamentally existential issue of exchange and suggest how it connects to anarchic undercurrents. Communication and gesture form the base of how we interact with the world. It takes little imagination to comprehend that, as social beings, we strive to be understood. Finding and perfecting our medium in reaching this goal successfully can, based on character and circumstance, vary in difficulty and, consequently, despair. 

Raised as a polyglot and parented by multiple caregivers - an increasingly common trend nowadays - I have experienced and observed how misunderstanding and the manipulation of language is bound to impact long-lasting damage on individuals and their respective environments when ignored. When verbal and other expressive misattunements prevail over time, conflict tends to escalate. It is not unusual that, after having been left to ferment in their neglected state, they end up resurfacing as either social unrest or as psychosomatic emblems on our minds and bodies. Either way, the root of the problem is the potential of language - or its absence - to be employed aggressively if it finds no creative outlet. 

What I was unable to communicate by speaking - owing in part, I suspect, to the dilution of growing up with five languages - I ended up conveying into action. At age 9, fencing became my sport of choice (perhaps an all too symbolic replacement for my battle against verbal articulation). As a teenager, I spent most of my time on stage reciting and singing and in university I studied fine arts. Since age 15, my search for some authentic expression of my inner world has been interspersed with self-destructive processes: a bit of giving, eliminating, adding, subtracting, overwriting, erasing, stuffing, scraping, scrubbing, polishing, piercing, and moulding. An overachiever since I could think, I disproportionately beat myself up for minor failures. How would I be able to relate to anyone if I was of so little use to myself? 

Related inquiries and struggles between the individual and their environment, the performer and their audience, or two lovers trying to find common ground are also the focal subject in Franz Kafka’s Hungerkünstler. (1) Kafka’s protagonist is a hunger artist performing emaciation, a common craft from the 18th-20th centuries in Europe and the United States. Wandering from town to town, the hunger artist experiences isolation as more sensational forms of entertainment upstage his art form. As the public eye gradually directs its attention away from him, the clarity with which he deems society corrupt crystallises. This heightened awareness in turn comes at a high price: his understanding of society as a corrupt system nourishes, if anything, his tendency to retreat. Accepting that he is forever doomed to remain an outsider in his ascetic craft, vanishing becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy resulting in his eventual death. This death can be read in two contradictory ways: the tragic result stems from a communicational mismatch between the individual and society while also being a form of liberation from society.

When questioned about the reason for his self-induced starvation, Kafka’s Hungerkünstler replies:

 “Because I found no meal which I enjoyed. You can believe me that, had I found it, I would not have made a spectacle of myself and indulged just like you and everyone else.” (2) 

He despairs not over the unavailability of nourishment but over the wrong kind: with die Speise he does not mean an actual meal. As his craft is left unreciprocated, his chest fills with unbearable sorrow; the lump in our throat when we are about to cry. The weight on his heart, mind, and shoulders is too great a distraction to notice a rumbling stomach. Agony upstages physical hunger, sorrow dethrones satiety. When the communicative environment between giver and taker is tainted with mistrust and hesitancy, there is little space for balanced acceptance and generosity. For Kafka’s Hungerkünstler, this unfortunate mechanism translates into the chronic refusal of nourishment to the point of death. 

Similar to my understanding of anorexics, the hunger artist’s behaviour is radical because it is rooted in his promethean nature. Unwilling - and unable - to compromise on his medium of choice, he exercises the starvation-performance come what may. Kafka’s focus on the imbalance between his protagonist’s sacrifice and the audience’s inability to comprehend it make A Hunger Artist a timeless tragedy. It is a tale of one individual’s refusal to accept corruption at all costs. In the final act of death lies truth: prolonged states of misattunement between the individual and the world will always exist. It’s only a pity that catharsis often comes too late.

Articulation and Self-Determination in Recovery

There is always some knowledge that demands mentioning, always some comparison in the back of my mind that I feel compelled to share in order to offer a more nuanced view of the world. Some of us have been fortunate enough to learn early on that the world is not black or white. Being informed, however, is both a blessing and a curse, yet another oscillation between extremes. Some of us, myself included, find turning a blind eye to be foul business. I’ve always failed at the conceal-don’t-reveal game. Looking for - and finding! - the right words to reflect the complexities and uncertainties that life throws at us is an artistic and liberating process that calms me down. Raised between five languages, the continuous readaptation of each one as I move between countries helps me maintain what I consider to be my natural habitat. Silence me or impose a different language and I risk vanishing, just like the Hungerkünstler. I’ve tried and, thankfully, it didn’t work.  

Now that I’m still here and would like other fellow “Rexies” to survive, I will take the liberty of sharing my thoughts on the subject of being fooled. If my body is my medium of choice, then I have already embodied something that has to be released again. That’s not rocket science, it’s called balance. Or exchange.

With this in mind, I hope readers will find my take on punitive ‘treatment’ in eating disorder recovery more relatable and understand it as an invitation to speak up. It is my view that disciplining approaches in eating disorder recovery are bound to backfire in the long run, whether they come in the shape of force-feeding, unhealthy beatings, electroconvulsive therapy or social exclusion. All of these methods and others of the sort merely add insult to injury. Sadly, it is still a widely-held belief that corporeal punishment or vicious shaming can be used to discipline eating disorders or disorders in general. I beg to differ. No tugging, pulling, impatient shoving, tasteless comments or poorly placed needles during blood check-ups at the hospital ever helped me get any better. In fact, these early attempts at curing me only led my condition to take a chronic course. Before sustainable recovery could stand a chance by way of intuitive eating, my formerly self-destructive willpower had to first be rewired into a self-rescuing one. In her chapter “Bodies” Susie Orbach writes:

“What we eat, how we eat, whether the food is […] fed to us by a distracted or anxious carer […] whether we are held warmly or gruffly or not much held […]: the many variants in the ways we are related to form the physical ambience of our upbringing and shape the bodies we are.” (3)

Before I could even begin recalibrating my eating habits, I had to arrive at the understanding that my dietary inclinations were conditioned by culture and upbringing. The more complex the culture, the wider the gap between our actions and our visceral needs.

When we take something from an environment that fails to acknowledge us as we are, the danger is that whatever we accept is also registered as some sort of surrogate. We are hungry for food as much as we need emotional nourishment. Today, for families to be able to afford their daily bread and pay rent, the trend of children growing up - and eating - on their own is alarming. When children are left to themselves and education hardly appears on the priority list of political agendas, vulnerability to fake news spreading social media and false promises multiplies exponentially. Prone to mistaking manipulated portrayals of sexualised bodies as the recipe for success in life, youngsters are encouraged early to aspire to become unhealthy versions of themselves. As if these and counter-natural demands posed by our society of spectacle (4) were not hard enough to stomach, they also increasingly march in lockstep with abuse. Sensationalism is always on the look-out for extremes. What grabs attention today has to be extreme; subtlety has become radical.


"In a society continuously splitting itself into the ignorant and the overlooked, the cultivation of a mutually respectful dialogue is in order if we wish for future generations to be born into a world that has not abandoned them before they arrive."

Sensationalism, however, leaves little space and time for convalescence. Lack of time and awareness yield lack of empathy. But recovery demands empathy. It seems we only come to these conclusions once our bodies have kept the score for too long and the symptoms begin to surface. When emaciation is the visible symptom, comments however naive or even well-intentioned can have negative and long-lasting effects. Being likened to a concentration camp victim certainly interfered with how I went about recovering. It hardly takes any effort to imagine just how bizarrely flavoured that specific comparison was, given that it was delivered in Vienna. Tasteless words born of a silver spoon. Sadly, people who are affected by eating disorders are rarely spared ignorant and often hurtful comments of this kind. In its grotesqueness, numb ignorance nods to Sigmund Freud’s postulation that society and human nature stand in conflict with one another (5) as well conjuring up Erich Fromm’s indispensable hesitation to accept collective normalcy as actually healthy. (6) In a society continuously splitting itself into the ignorant and the overlooked, the cultivation of a mutually respectful dialogue is in order if we wish for future generations to be born into a world that has not abandoned them before they arrive.


Check out Lara Verena's youtube channel here.




Read this piece in print in the issue 16 "Food Eats the Soul", out now!

    (1) Franz Kafka, Ein Hungerkünstler, Neue Rundschau, Frankfurt (1922)

    (2) Franz Kafka, Ein Hungerkünstler in Franz Kafka: Gesammelte Werke, Anaconda, Köln (2012); Translation courtesy of the author.

    (3) Susie Orbach, Bodies, Profile Publ., London (2010); p. 57-58

    (4) Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, Zone Books, Princeton (1994)

    (5) Sigmund Freud, Das Unbehagen in der Kultur, Fischer Taschenbuch, Frankfurt (2009)

    (6) Erich Fromm “Can a Society Be Sick? - The Pathology of Normalcy” in The Sane Society, Fawcett Publ., Greenwich, Conn. (1955); p. 21-28

    Michele Bubacco, Prova D'Orchestra, 2019, Oil and collage on paper

    Michele Bubacco, La Diavola (Part 9/13), Oil, Acrylic and Paper on Aluminium, 2019

    Michele Bubacco, Where are the rags, 2015, Oil and collage on cardboard



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