Rebel Girls: How Victorian Girls Used Anorexia to Conform and Revolt

by Amelia Robert

The Victorian Era, (c. 1837 and 1901), was a time of conservative morals. A strong divide between upper and lower classes was maintained by the pervading idea that upper class people were disciplined in their actions while lower class people were not.[i] In a variety of ways, Western culture projected onto the female body this ideology of discipline. Control over one’s ungodly, bodily desires was a display of familial stability, class status. The ideal Victorian body, as dictated by the fashion industry, was an hourglass shape with a tiny waist. Popular literature of the time praised women for their small appetites and denial of food, and girls often employed starvation as a means of coping with unrequited love. In Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Jane equates the marriage of her beloved Rochester to another woman with not being able to eat.[ii] Victorian conduct books advised women as to what should and shouldn’t be eaten in the presence of others. It is easy to see why such social pressures could drive the Victorian woman to develop what we now recognize as anorexia.

Anorexia is defined as a refusal to maintain a normal body weight and an intense fear of gaining weight that drives the afflicted to restrict her caloric intake.[iii] Self-starvation has been practiced throughout history for religious, political, and social reasons. Susan Bordo writes: “There is no ‘natural’ body… Our bodies, no less than anything that is human, are constituted by culture.”[iv] The popular fashions of the Victorian era practically mandated self-starvation. Dresses were designed to fit women with very tiny waists, and Victorian women had the corset at their disposal. Interestingly, according to fashion historians, many middle-class women aimed to keep their waists corseted so tightly that its size in inches did not exceed their age at the time they married (and most Victorian women married before the age of 21).[v]  However, the use of a corset wasn’t preferable, as it had physical repercussions. A corset restricted a woman’s breathing, leaving her red and gasping. In pursuit of a whisper thin waist, some women met their death. Said one conduct book on the subject of corsets: “Two or three beautiful women well known in society killed themselves last year by tight lacing. The effect of an inch less waist was not apparent enough to make this a wise sacrifice of health and ease of breathing”.[vi]

Anorexia’s medical “discovery” is attributed to Sir WilliamWithey Gull, though some accounts also credit Charles Lasègue, who was one of the earliest physicians to keep a detailed account of an anorexic patient.[vii] Withey Gull published a paper in 1873 titled Anorexia Nervosa (Apepsia Hysterica, Anorexia Hysterical ) in which he described his dealings with patients he called “Miss A” and “Miss B.”[viii]

The main shortcoming of Victorian cures for anorexia is that they tried to resolve a psychological issue through physical means. This problem is highlighted by Gull’s description of the disease, which focuses exclusively on physical symptoms like heart rate and appearance.[ix] If he were to ask why a woman was starving herself, the doctor would be unlikely to get an honest answer anyway. If she said anything at all about her condition, a woman might present complaints of throat and stomach pains, or even an inability to chew, as a means of satisfying both mother and doctor. Food refusal could briefly put a woman in a position of power over her family. However, when cures were offered and the patient still refused to eat, the doctor would demand that she be isolated, force-fed and weighed constantly.[x] The woman’s power, thus, was short-lived. Stickney Ellis shared her thoughts on the attention-seeking anorexic lady: “that capricious abstinence from food… which by certain individuals is thought rather lady-like and becoming. I doubt not but this may be the case, so far as it is… ladylike to be the object of attention—to be pleaded with by kind friends, and pitied by strangers…”[xi]

The development of Victorian anorectics was also deeply rooted in the social stigma attached to “corpulent” women. Excessive eating could cause the female body to develop erogenous curves, thus making a girl’s body tempting and sexual to men.  It was not uncommon for Victorian literature to equate a woman’s desire for food with her desire for sex. Laurence Talairach-Vielmas discusses Lewis Carroll’s use of food as an impetus for deviance in Alice in Wonderland at length:

“Because of woman’s binary construction as sexual and virginal, food marks the crossroads of woman’s double construction: delicate appetites match proper and chaste femininity, while gluttony signals monstrosity. Through its constant references to eating or being eaten, Carroll’s narrative intimates the dominant construction of woman as a body and the dangers of female corporeality.”[xii]

It may frighten some that Talairach-Vielmas asserts that Alice, a child, is acting out repressed sexuality by eating little cakes with whimsical effects, but Victorian society enforced diet restriction on Victorian girls. Strict Victorian mothers advised against or even forbade their daughters to eat a wide range of foods that were thought to make a girl more libidinous. This advice was not only social, but scientific; medical texts of the time claimed that a diet of “unstimulating foods” should be consumed during adolescence in order for a girl to safely move through puberty.[xiii]  The list of commonly forbidden foods includes chocolate, warm bread, raisins, and salted meats.[xiv]

A Victorian mother’s worst nightmare was for a man to see her daughter eating and enjoying food. Food consumption inevitably leads to defecation, and the proper Victorian woman was supposed to be a pure and unsullied being above the realm of gross, natural function. Food also stimulated a girl’s senses, so to be seen enjoying it could imply that the girl in question was an “easily stimulated” creature who might even enjoy sensual titillation. Sarah Stickney Ellis, in her book Wives of England, had this to say about food: “far better is it to eat the least morsel of plain food prepared every day, than to give the time, and the thoughts, too much to the preparation and enjoyment of food.” [xv]

Confusingly enough, the same culture that praised its women for remaining slim also stigmatized them for attempting to control their weight by not eating. It was during the Victorian era that the idea of the “middle class home,”[xvi] came to be a cultural concept. Victorians hoped to establish a home life in which the nuclear family lived together, each person happily and unquestioningly filling the role assigned by society. The role assigned to women was to maintain stability and decency. While eating very little was viewed as a moral accomplishment, for a wife, mother or daughter to refuse to consume food with her family would have been viewed as an offense to the entire family.

In order to play by the rules, young Victorian girls had to learn to eat the right amounts of the right foods. Often, she would turn to her good friend, the conduct book. Much like women’s magazines today, conduct books were intended to diminish social anxieties by detailing how “proper” Victorian ladies should behave in various situations. Famous conduct book author Sarah Stickney Ellis voiced this reproach to girls who refused to eat: “Fanciful and ill-disciplined young women are apt to think it gives them an attractive air… and thus they indulge the most absurd capriciousness with respect to their diet, sometimes refusing altogether to eat at proper times…”.[xvii] She then went on to express that Victorian anorexic girls may have just been victims of their culture: “It is a great evil in society, that the necessary act of eating is looked upon too much as a luxury, and an indulgence. If we regarded it more as a simple act…the business of eating would then be despatched as a regular habit, attention to which could afford no very high degree of excitement…”.[xviii]

The idea to restrict one’s eating was sometimes inspired by a girl’s friend group.[xix] In a way, food denial was the denim miniskirt of the Victorian era. Choosing not to eat at all, or to eat only “trendy” foods, was one way of asserting your adolescent femininity while irking your parents. The trendy foods in question were usually little pastries or “dainties” (much like Alice’s tiny cakes), and perhaps the small sweetness of the food was intended to reflect the nature of the girl herself. The idea must have been fairly widespread in order for Stickney Ellis to speak out against it. It brings to my mind an image of girls sharing self-starvation techniques in secret, a sort of twisted form of Victorian female bonding through rebellion. In the 1880s, infamous French doctor Jean-Martin Charcot (infamous for his treatment and documentation of hysterical women) treated a patient who kept a ribbon tied tightly around her middle so as to constantly be able to monitor her waistline.

It would be interesting to find first-hand records of the feelings of “cured” Victorian anorectics. Unfortunately, the closest things we have are images. Gull kept detailed drawings of all of the patients he successfully “cured” pre- and post- treatment. The pre-treatment pictures feature women with sunken eyes, while the post-treatment pictures feature women with fuller cheeks and, inexplicably, more hair. My favorite portraits, two of “Miss B,” feature a girl who, in her pre-treatment sketch looks defiant and sly, while in her second looks somewhat defeated and ashamed of her ample chin. Said one Victorian anorexic to her doctor upon recovery, “I saw that you wished to shut me up.”[xx]

 

 


[i] “British History 2: From the French Revolution to World War IITopic: “Majesties and Royal Highnesses”” 1) Introduction into Victorian Morality. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Mar. 2013.

[ii] Brontë, Charlotte, Fritz Eichenberg, and Bruce Rogers. Jane Eyre. New York: Random House, 1943. Print.

[iii] Eating Disorder Diagnostic Criteria.” DSM IV-TR. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association, 2000. American Psychiatric Association. Web.

[iv] Bordo, S. (1993). Anorexia nervosa: Psychopathology as the crystallization of culture. In C. Counihan & P. Van Esterik (Eds.), Food and Culture: A Reader (2 ed.). New York: Routledge. 165

 

[v] Summers, Leigh. Bound to Please: A History of the Victorian Corset. Oxford: Berg, 2001. Print.

 

[vi] “CHAPTER XVIII.COSTLY THY HABIT.” Manners and Social Uses. N.p.: American Ballroom Companion: Dance Instruction Manuals, n.d. N. pag. Print.

 

[vii] “Charles Lasègue.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. Feb. 201

[viii]  “Anorexia Nervosa.” – New World Encyclopedia. N.p., n.d. Web. Apr. 2013.

 

[ix] “Anorexia Nervosa History.” Dawn Center. Dawn Center for Treating Eating Disorders, n.d. Web. Feb. 2013.

 

[x] Brumberg, Joan J. “The Appetite as Voice.” (n.d.): n. pag. Rpt. in Food and Culture, A Reader,. Ed. Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2008. 141-61. Print.

 

[xi] Stickney Ellis, Sarah. The Daughters of England: Their Position in Society, Character, and Responsibilities. New York: D. Appleton, 1843. Print.

 

[xii] Talairach-Vielmas, Laurence. Google Books. N.p.: Ashgate, 2007. Print

[xiii] Smith-Rosenburg, Carroll. Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America. N.p.: Oxford UP, 1986. Google Books. Web. Feb. 2013

[xiv] Brumberg, 149

[xv] Stickney Ellis, Sarah. The Wives of England: Their Relative Duties, Domestic Influence and Social Obligations. New York: D. Appleton, 1843. Print

[xvi] Brumberg, 143

 

[xvii] Daughters of England, 134

 

[xviii] Daughters of England, 137

 

[xix] Brumberg, 147

 

[xx] Brumberg, 143