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Feminist Perspectives On Eating Disorders

P. Fallon, M.A. Katzman & S.C. Wooley (Eds.) (1994) Guildford Press, London. 412pp. £25.00 $37.50 Hardback.

This is a very welcome and impressive collection of writings from North America feminist, most of whom are practitioners working with women who have eating problems. The book is divided into five sections: starting with historical and social issues, the body and body image, treatment issues, reconstructing the female text and preventive measures. The names of many contributors will be familiar to those concerned with inter-relationship between gender, mental health and 'disordered' eating: Susan and Wayne Wooley, Esther Rothblum Naomi Wolfe and Ruth Striegel-Moore. The chapters are well written and accessible to a wide range of readers, from undergraduates to postgraduates as well as those without particular background.

As a researcher and practitioner in this field, some chapters in particular stood out to me. For instance, Esther Rothblum offers a very thoughtful critique of way in which negative assumptions about fatness of obesity still prevail in the USA (and one could draw many parallels with European culture) and remain central to the marketing of women's body images. Becky Thompson's chapter (labelled 'multiculturalism') provides an important reminder of the ways which the 'eating disordered client' is constructed from work with a mainly white middle class and heterosexual group of women. Not only does it reflect a paucity of research which is inclusive of a wider population, this type of approach serves to reinforce particular diagnostic criteria and cultural; norms. Again, there are parallels to be found in Europe. Ruth Striegel-Moore's concluding chapter makes suggestions for framing feminists research on eating problems. She lists four criteria which she sees as essential:

  1. affirming positive view of women
  2. taking a 'contextual' approach
  3. utilising a broad spectrum of research methods
  4. considering the implications of research findings of social change

While I found this book informative and wide-ranging in its approach to the subject matter, and an important representation of North American feminist literature in this field, it fails to critique it's own approach to the topic. Indeed Susan Wooley's chapter on 'The Female Therapist as Outlaw' is quite unbearably self-congratulatory. there is no analysis of the different theories informing the feminist beliefs which the contributors espouse although it is obvious that many write from an 'essentialist' perspective (e.g. women and men are fundamentally different). Further, in talking about 'women', there is an assumption on the part of the authors that there is no need to deconstruct this category, thereby replicating the very issues which Thompson highlights. I recommend the book.

Colleen Heenan,
Eating Disorder Centre,
Salford Health Authority,
Manchester UK.