Lunchtime seminar series – 12th May: Emma Seaber

CHSTMSeminar Emma Seaber

Threat, terror and medical violence in young adult novels about anorexia nervosa

This paper discusses three young adult novels about anorexia nervosa.

These novels were written to educate readers about eating disorders, in an apparent drive to reverse the perceived negative influence of popular media on body image and eating attitudes. I argue that potential for harm lies in the texts’ execution of their didactic and discouraging purpose; close reading reveals these novels present a frightening and threatening picture of anorexia in which the reader, like the patient, is exposed to graphic and violent psychiatric treatment. I analyse some of the ways the novels defer to dominant (fear-based, coercive, violent) treatment practices. I discuss both direct and indirect processes of violence sanctioned by medical praxis and embedded in these narratives. I suggest these literary texts regurgitate the threat of violence inherent within anorexia treatment ideologies, thereby reinforcing several orthodox psychiatric beliefs about eating disorders.

Although young adult literature can be used to radical ends, it appears that on the subject of anorexia such narratives are too entangled with prevailing psychiatric norms. Thus, these novels seem to have no choice but to reaffirm the presence of violence within medical discourses about anorexia nervosa. Ultimately I argue that this uncritical echoing of enduring psychiatric ideology illustrates (and perhaps compounds) the impossibility of critical discussions about eating disorder treatment and thus in various ways contributes to the high level of stigma experienced by anorexia patients.

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