Not eating or tasting other ways to live: a qualitative analysis of ‘living through’ and desiring to maintain anorexia

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Whilst recent discussions of anorexia nervosa have recognised key aspects of the illness experience, such as control and emotion regulation, there remains a cross-disciplinary emphasis on body image concerns as central. In dialogue with clinical, psychological and social analyses, this paper draws on ethnography and qualitative interviews with individuals diagnosed with anorexia to offer an alternative perspective. Focusing on individuals' engagements with food and (not) eating suggests that material moments of starving, calorie counting, and thinking about food provide a critical lens onto what anorexia does for, as well as to, individuals living with the illness. Participants' narratives suggest that anorexia can make it possible to retreat into a numb and protective 'bubble.' The illness may thereby offer a way to be in the world that both responds to and ameliorates distress; some individuals describe the ambivalent 'safety' of living through their anorexia. As such, food practices are a modality of holding onto anorexia's valued safety. By outlining this relationship between practices of (not) eating and a desire amongst some individuals to maintain the illness, this paper contributes to discussions of treatment resistance. Intersecting with wider reflections on trauma, recovery and harm minimisation in mental health, the discussion considers how this desire might be approached ethically in both research and therapeutic practice. Individuals' narratives suggest the need to reposition attention away from anorexia itself to the distress and traumatic life events that may underlie both the illness and the desire to maintain it.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)454-474
Number of pages21
JournalTranscultural Psychiatry
Issue number4
Early online date30 Jul 2018
Publication statusPublished - 1 Aug 2018


  • anorexia
  • desire
  • distress
  • eating
  • food
  • recovery
  • trauma
  • treatment resistance


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