Mimetic Theory and Eating Disorders


I’m reading Rene Girard’s article titled “Eating Disorders and Mimetic Desires,” from the Spring 1996 issue of Contagion: Journal of Violence, Mimesis, and Culture. It’s online in a PDF file.

Besides being an insightful, engaging, and very provocative article on bulimia and anorexia, it also explores the cultural mandate to thinness, the irritatingly beatific view of excessive exercise, the role of gift-giving in culture, conspicuous non-consumption, a Seinfeld episode, a brief history of competitive dieting (Elizabeth of Austria, the wife of Emperor Franz Joseph, started it), religious asceticism, rampant imitation in “radical” art, all-or-nothing culture, etc.!  All in 20 pages.

A few comments to whet your appetite (pun intended), and some responses from me:

“The compulsive dieters really want to be thin and most of us are secretly aware of this because most of us also want to be thin. … The capitalist system is no more responsible for this situation than fathers are, or the male gender as a whole. The capitalist system is clever enough, no doubt, to adjust to the rage for thinness and it invents all sorts of products supposedly capable to help us in our battle against calories, but its own instinct runs the other way. It systematically favors consumption over abstinence and it certainly did not invent our dieting hysteria.”

“All we need, to understand the symptoms described by the specialists, is to observe our own behavior with food. At some time or other, most of us experience at least an attenuated version of the various symptoms that characterize our two main eating disorders. When things are not going well, we tend to take refuge in some form of excess, which turns into a quasi addiction. Since food is still the least dangerous drug, most of us resort to a mild form of bulimia. When the situation improves, we revive our New Year resolutions and we go on a strict diet. Feeling in control once again, we experience a psychological lift not unlike the exhilaration of the true anorexic. Between these ‘normal’ oscillations on the one hand, and bulimia and anorexia on the other hand, the distance is great, no doubt, but the path is unbroken. We all have the same goal, to lose weight, and, to some of us, this goal is so important that the means to reach it no longer matter.”

“In order to cope with the thinness imperative without getting involved in practices that endanger their health or destroy their self-respect, many people have a secret weapon: they exercise. Much of their time is spent walking, running, jogging, bicycling, swimming, jumping, climbing mountains, and practicing other horribly boring and strenuous activities for the sole purpose of eliminating unwanted calories. The irritating aspect of exercise is its politically correct justification in terms of outdoor living, communion with nature, the earth mother, Thoreau, Rousseau, ecology, healthy living, the plight of victims, and the other usual excuses. The only real motivation is the desire to lose weight.”

Whoa, Nellie! I differ from Girard here. First, since exercise supposedly releases chemicals in the brain that elevate mood (endorphins and phenylethylamine for two), and because it may distract us temporarily from stressful situations, it seems likely that we’re inclined to want to continue to exercise for its own pleasure factors.

Second, speaking from my own experience, walking is pleasurable for reasons other than as a weight maintainer: I like to wander, see what’s going on in my neighbourhood; and I would rather walk than drive to reach a destination because it pleases me to get someplace by my own steam, at what feels like a human pace.

Third, again speaking from my own experience, I lift weights regularly not to lose pounds or even inches but to become fitter, to have muscles, to be stronger, and to look firmer. In some respects I seek a slimmer, toner look (I don’t want to look flabby), which I guess is much like wanting to be thinner, and I also desire to be more physically able, capable of lifting heavy items (say, a 60# dog) on my own. Am I totally deluded?

“Mimetic desire aims at the absolute slenderness of the radiant being some other person always is in our eyes but we ourselves never are, at least in our own eyes. To understand desire is to understand that its self centeredness is undistinguishable from its other-centeredness.”

To abstain voluntarily from something, no matter what, is the ultimate demonstration that one is superior to that something and to those who covet it.”

Yes, oh yes. In my experience, this kind of abstinence is rampant in the culture now. Abstaining from anything — food and specific foods like meat, carbs, sweets, soft drinks; TV; sex; drink; buying non-local foods, using non-reusable containers, clothes made in sweat shops; the trends and fads of fashion; screaming at twits — is always a demonstration that I have the power to control and channel my desire. It may be other things as well — it may come more or less “naturally,” so that it doesn’t feel like a hardship, and it may be an abstinance that really matches my deepest values — but even then the power trip, the feeling of superiority because I can control my desire, is lurking. I’m always a step away from being condescending … even as I say this … Ad nauseum (no pun intended).

“Even in our society, there can be a competitive aspect to gift giving ….The normal purpose of exchanging gifts, in all societies, is to prevent mimetic rivalries from getting out of hand. The spirit of rivalry is so powerful, however, that it can transform from the inside even institutions that exist only for the purpose of preventing it.”

Again, yes. It’s hard to know sometimes, without a lot of introspection, to what extent we give from pure generosity, unconsciously motivated by having received so much ourselves, a deep-seated belief that everything is to be shared among everyone, an overflowing heart, and the like; and to what extent we give as part of an unconscious competition for superiority and control, to seem desirable to another, to stake our identity as impervious humans who are needful of no one and nothing, to seek to balance the scales when we feel too needy in comparison to others, to telegraph that we are good people because we give even when others aren’t worthy of our giving, and so on.  And that much harder to know others’ motivations for giving, except that sometimes we can feel a strong sense of oppression when we are the receivers.


“Our entire culture looks more and more like a permanent conspiracy to prevent us from reaching the goals it perversely assigns to us. No wonder if we are also the culture from which many people want to drop out, as a result of sheer exhaustion, and also, perhaps, of a peculiar kind of boredom. In the United States, obesity is even more on the rise than extreme slenderness, especially in those geographical areas and social classes which are less ‘with it’ than the rest of us. One cannot help feeling sympathy for all these drop-outs. In all aspects of life, the oscillation between all or nothing, which is the fruit of hysterical competition, is more and more visible. Even in Europe, where formerly, all classes still lived in all neighborhoods, the cities are dividing between dilapidated sections and the sanitized areas with the enormous houses and the manicured lawns.”

I’m not sure obesity is all about dropping out. Maybe partly. I do see evidence for his argument that we oscillate between all and nothing culturally, politically, individually.


Here’s a fun one for discussion!:

“Ultimately, however, everybody and everything tends towards the same absolute nothing which is now triumphant in all fields of esthetic endeavor. More and more critics are beginning to face up to the fact that vigorous novelty is drying up. Modern art is over and its end was certainly hastened, if not entirely caused, by the more and more anorexic temper of our century. … The new school [postmodernism] implicitly denies all permanent value of the past from which it borrows. It quickly regurgitates whatever it indiscriminately ingurgitates and the temptation is great for me to reduce the whole affair to the esthetic equivalent not of anorexia this time, but of our most up-to-date syndrome, bulimia nervosa. Like our princesses, our intellectuals and artists are reaching the bulimic stage of modernity.”


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