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The Prehistory of Eating Disorders

December 11th, 2005

Although eating disorders are generally considered to be a relatively recent development, various disordered eating behaviors have been documented throughout history.

An interesting article on the history of eating disorders by Jules R. Bemporad, M.D. originally appeared in The Newsletter of the Psychosomatic Discussion Group of the American Psychoanalytic Association around 1997, looking at the growth, decline, and growth of anorexia, over-eating, and other behaviors during various eras.

In contrast to the relative rarity of self starvation during the “Dark Ages”, anorexic behavior seemed to have reached almost epidemic proportions during the Renaissance, particularly in Southern Europe where urban centers, and their concomitant sophistication and wealth flourished. … In his book, Holy Anorexia, Bell (l985) cites 26l cases of female starvation for religious reasons between 1206 and l934. Of these 26l fasting women, l8l (more than two-thirds) lived between l200 and l600 A.D. with many being elevated to sainthood. …this form of behavior diminished greatly as the more mundane world of the Reformation reshaped European values.

This trickle of cases of anorexia swelled to a respectable stream of self starvation in the l9th century, leading to their description by Leseque and Gull in l873…At this time, the industrial revolution produced a return of a moneyed and urbane middle class with cultural and aesthetic aspirations. As Veblen (l899) noted in his Theory of the Leisure Class, a corpulent woman no longer was evidence of her family’s prosperity. Since women were now joining the labor force, a frail, thin woman proved that she did not need to work because of her father’s or husband’s financial success.


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