The Contours of Womanhood: Living with "Eating Disorders" in Southern Italy

Date of Completion

January 2010


Anthropology, Cultural|Women's Studies|Psychology, Clinical




This dissertation investigates practices of food refusal among young, educated southern Italian women coming of age in “traditional” social contexts in the region of Calabria, southern Italy. By combining feminist theory and anthropological analysis, I provide an alternative approach to the study of “eating disorders,” disrupting prevailing psychological frameworks that pathologize women's experiences of food refusal. Moving away from biomedical understandings of “eating disorders,” the findings are grounded in women's narratives of suffering, illustrating that practices of food refusal are deployed by women to negotiate and contest gender and kin roles and ideologies. Focusing on how southern Italian women's social identities are constructed and negotiated through kinship and gender relations, this dissertation illuminates the ways in which daily food rituals act as a source of authority, prestige, and power for southern Italian women.^ Framed around the voices of women who engaged in practices of food refusal, the dissertation analyzes how disengagement from exchange networks that strengthen social identities and relationships enables a woman to change gender norms. Thus, food refusal becomes a conduit through which women can subtly disengage from being a “good” daughter, sister, niece, granddaughter, aunt, and/or fiancée, and contest social relations that inevitably operate to legitimize social identities that they reject. By focusing on the social reality where the mundane—the minutiae of daily life —are played out and where relations of power are enacted, it is possible to conceptualize food refusal as a practice through which young women vie for power and authority in their everyday lives. Ultimately, this research advocates for a rethinking of the categories “anorexia,” “bulimia” and other related “eating disorders” and towards a demedicalized understanding of women's practices of food refusal. ^