Anorexia nervosa is a complex disorder with causes that are not completely understood. But what is well documented is the effect on the body that results from the cycle of self-starvation and purging food, such as sallow skin, brittle bones, loss of hair, tooth decay, and, in some cases, heart failure. Females are most susceptible to anorexia, and it is usually adolescent girls or very young women who become victims of this disease. Most recent studies have pointed to a stressful family upbringing as a possible cause for many girls to become anorexic. Research indicates that parents who hold their daughters to high or unreasonable expectations while at the same time discouraging their daughters’ independence, create an emotional burden that the young girls cannot resolve. Many turn to self-hatred and, eventually, self-destruction as a form of punishment for not being “good enough.”
Eavan Boland’s poem “Anorexic” offers a different reason for the existence of this disorder in the lives of women. Instead of placing the blame on parents, the poem points a finger at society in general and at men in particular. The poem is based on the premise that the culture in which a woman lives places undue expectations on her physical appearance, mandating that the “ideal” woman be beautiful and thin. The speaker in the poem is so deeply affected by social pressure that she wants to destroy her “inept” physical self and return spiritually to the inside of a man’s perfect body— metaphorically, Eve returning to Adam as the rib from which she came. What is especially interesting about the speaker’s obsession with self-annihilation is her focus on destroying the most intimate parts of her body, eradicating her sexuality and all the features particular to a healthy woman. As a result, “Anorexic” is a mixture of allusions to both female sexuality and to the biblical story of creation.
On the web site WM’s Story, an anonymous woman relates her battle with anorexia nervosa, beginning her story with these words:
“Obsession. Hunger. Fraud. Vice. Crutch. Need. Weakness. Selfish. Milk-fed. Stupid. Fat. Worthless. Lazy. Sloth. Me. No matter which word you select, they were all my name at one point or another, yelled at me by that ferocious taskmaster that used to be my conscience.”
This grave list of self-loathing words could easily come from the poem’s speaker, but she has created a list of her own: “hips and breasts / and lips and heat / and sweat and fat and greed.” The lists are similar, and both contain the word “fat,” but the anorexic woman in the poem aligns the sexual parts of a woman’s body (hips, breasts, and lips) with descriptive words that are both erotic (heat and sweat) and distasteful (fat and greed). She compares female voluptuousness to a sin—in this case, gluttony.
From the beginning of “Anorexic,” the speaker spells out the sinfulness of the flesh. Her own “is heretic” and her body “is a witch.” From this Puritanical imagery, she goes immediately into a list of the specific body parts that are most heretic, the sensual “curves and paps and wiles.” Why would she single out her most intimate features for “torching” with no mention of the more benign fingers, toes, legs, arms, and so forth? Why would she make a point of calling her body “curveless” after she has “vomited / her hungers” and announced that “the bitch is burning”? The answer most likely lies in the second half of the poem, which introduces man, who plays the dual role of savior and destroyer in the woman’s life.
The story of human creation through Adam and Eve appears in a variety of similar versions throughout the history of theology and mythology. Typically, it involves a benevolent creator, an opportunity for everlasting happiness, and a “fall” from that happiness through surrendering to temptation. But the study of religion or myth has little, if anything, to do with Boland’s “Anorexic.” Instead, this poem uses the familiar figures of Adam and Eve to symbolize the difference in society’s treatment of men and women. It is a difference, the poet contends, driven by a male-dominated power structure that allows men the freedom to be and to look however they naturally are. That same structure, however, sets up a standard for women to meet, especially when it comes to their personal appearances. In the poem, the speaker despises her own sexuality and the parts of her body that most represent it. As she slips into the identity of Eve, however, she calls Adam’s ribcage “a sensuous enclosure,” a pleasurable description from the same woman who abhors sensuousness within herself. She thinks of his heart as a “warm drum,” his breath as a “song,” and his “sleeping side” as a comforting, safe haven in which she used to exist. Compare these engaging descriptions of the man’s physicality to the words the speaker uses to describe her own, and the contradiction is obvious. The point here is that society’s inequitable treatment of the two sexes is so all-encompassing that some women themselves begin to accept—even embrace—their lower position.
As the poem moves toward its end, the speaker, now Eve, becomes more and more entrenched in her quest to return to Adam’s body. And just as she had targeted the intimate parts of her own body to make suffer, she now alludes to the man’s sex organ to praise and to imitate. Back inside his ribcage, she “will grow / angular and holy.” Here, sexual imagery is directly associated with religious imagery. The phallic symbol, characterized as “angular,” is sacred, and the thinner, more “curveless” she becomes, the more she will resemble it. Eve’s need to lose herself inside the male body is evidence of how drastically social pressure has affected her. Her independence as a woman is so weakened that she wants to forfeit her own existence altogether. It is that existence that she refers to as “pain” in saying that she can grow “past pain” by sleeping next to Adam’s heart in the form of a rib. Her hope is that by doing so she can “forget / in a small space / the fall” from her secure, yet questionable, sanctuary.
References to the “fall” of humankind from the grace of God have been a very commonplace metaphor in writings of all kinds for hundreds of years. Its usage is trite in most instances, but in “Anorexic” the mixture of creation mythology and sexual imagery provides an interesting twist to an otherwise stale idea. Eve wants to forget that she was ever tempted by a snake, gave in, and, thereby plunged the human race into sin and suffering. She carries the guilt of introducing greed into the world, and her only salvation is to give up her “evil” womanhood and become a safe, benign bone in Adam’s body again. The “forked dark” and “python needs” conjure up frightening images of snakes and devils and people falling into bottomless pits. But the final three lines of the poem give new meaning to forked dark and needful pythons.
With the sexually-charged description of “heaving to hips and breasts / and lips and heat / and sweat,” the “forked dark” and “python” now become symbols of female and male genitalia. Once again, Boland reverts to sensuous imagery to emphasize the desire to destroy what is most womanly, what is prominently female. Had the description ended with “sweat,” the connotation might not have been so negative. Taken out of context, it might read as an enticing or, at least, expected depiction of human sexuality. But the final two adjectives are “fat and greed”—doleful reminders that the anorexic speaker loathes the idea of intimate pleasure, especially from inside a body she abhors.
Most of the poems collected in In Her Own Image are highly emotional and border on extreme responses to women’s issues, both personal and social. “Anorexic” is no exception. The language is extreme, the sentiment is extreme, and the speaker’s actions are extreme. While one could argue that severe thoughts and behaviors are typical of anorexia victims, a case may also be made for the poem taking things too far. On one level, the poem aptly depicts the distorted mindset of an anorexic woman and does a good job portraying the emaciated effects of starvation. On a deeper level, however, the placement of blame on a society dominated by males appears overdone in the references to sexuality and the destruction of the physical features most commonly associated with sexual behavior. The obvious sarcasm displayed in the annihilation of the female body and the praise of the male body serves only to add unnecessary hysteria to the work. Because the poem relies so heavily on sexual imagery entwined with creation mythology, it is especially important to control the voice to keep the already volatile material from dissipating into baseless emotion. “Anorexic” does not lose total control, but some expressions are overreaching in the attempt to make a feminist statement. Describing the phallus as “holy” and the female body as everything from a “witch” to a “bitch,” for example, is overly obvious sarcasm. In spite of a few lapses, however, Boland’s poem achieves its purpose by calling attention to the power of social pressure. Exaggerated or not, the pressure to be thin can result in anorexia nervosa, and the disorder is sometimes fatal. The speaker in the poem may be overwrought in her reasoning, but her battle is very realistic.
Jennifer Smith and Elizabeth Thomason, Poetry for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 12, Eavan Boland, Published by Gale Group, 2001.
Pamela Steed Hill, Critical Essay on “Anorexic,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.