Material environments and the shaping of anorexic embodiment: towards a materialist account of eating disorders

Karin Eli, Anna Lavis

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Anorexia nervosa is a paradoxical disorder, regarded across disciplines as a body project and yet also an illness of disembodied subjectivity. This overlooks the role that material environments—including objects and spaces—play in producing embodied experiences of anorexia both within and outside treatment. To address this gap, this paper draws together two ethnographic studies of anorexia to explore the shared themes unearthed by research participants’ engagements with objects that move across boundaries between treatment spaces and everyday lives. Demonstrating how the anorexic body is at once both phenomenologically lived and socio-medically constituted, we argue that an attention to materiality is crucial to understanding lived experiences. A materialist account of anorexia extends the literature on treatment resistance in eating disorders and offers a reconceptualisation of ‘the body in treatment’, showing how objects and spaces shape, maintain, and even ‘trigger’ anorexia. Therefore, against the background of the high rates of relapse in eating disorders, this analysis calls for consideration of how interventions can better take account of eating disordered embodiment as shaped by material environments.

Original languageEnglish
JournalCulture, Medicine, and Psychiatry
Early online date7 Apr 2021
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 7 Apr 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The studies on which this paper reports were funded by the John Fell Research Foundation (Eli, 2011) and the ESRC (Lavis, 2006).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021, The Author(s).


  • Anorexia nervosa
  • Eating disorders
  • Embodiment
  • Ethnography
  • Materiality
  • Mental health

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health(social science)
  • Anthropology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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