Anorexia nervosa is a disorder that occurs more often than most people think, yet it is odd in that it is self-inflicted. The “normal” human being would abhor the idea of giving himself or herself cancer, AIDS, or any other serious disease, but many of those same humans withhold proper nutrition from their own bodies for the sake of “dieting” or “getting into shape.” But there is a marked difference between individuals who carefully measure their fat grams and count calories and those who simply stop eating. “Anorexic” is not a poem about a woman who falls victim to a bad diet, but an examination of the overwhelming consequences of a female’s being so alienated from her own body that she wants to kill it.
From the outset of the work, with its angry tone and violent description, the speaker is engaged in a battle with her own physical being. The alienation from her body that she feels so strongly is stressed by her references to “it” and “her” and “she” instead of “me” or “mine” or “myself.” The “self denials” that “scorch” her feminine attributes—“her curves and paps and wiles”—are the result of self-hatred. She is incapable of loving or respecting herself as a woman, and the only solution she sees as viable is to destroy the part that makes her miserable. The “part,” unfortunately, happens to be her entire body.
Even when the speaker’s body has become so weakened by starvation that “she has learned her lesson” [italics mine] and fades into the “I” who sleeps and dreams, the self-alienation is still apparent. Now that the anorexic woman has gotten rid of her physical burden, she imagines that she is Eve and seeks to rejoin her identity with Adam, from whom she originated. By doing so, she can completely obliterate what little personal identity she had and can “grow / angular and holy” within the body of the man, reflecting his physical features. The theme of self-alienation is carried through to the end of the poem, as the speaker claims that closeness to Adam’s heart will make her “forget” that she had ever possessed the “hips and breasts / and lips” that made her a female. Instead of respecting those attributes as natural to womanhood, the victim of anorexia equates them with “sweat and fat and greed.”
Boland’s poem addresses two types of alienation in its themes. Once the obvious subject of self-alienation has been examined, it is equally important to consider the possible causes of it. People who are separated from and disgusted by their own beings may only be reflecting the estrangement and hostility that society has directed toward them. In the case of anorexia, it is most often females, usually teenage girls, who become victims of the disorder. While there have been varying opinions on why teenage girls are more susceptible to this disorder, the most prevalent belief is the one behind the poem “Anorexic”—the pressure to meet cultural expectations, which are unreasonable and unattainable.
The speaker in this poem hates herself. More particularly, she hates her physical self, and so she starves her body to punish it for its perceived ugliness. The key word here is “perceived,” for the anorexic person distorts the reality that she sees in a mirror. It is society’s unattainable perception of the perfect woman that she tries to achieve, inevitably failing, but taking the effort to a deadly extreme. Such cultural standards serve only to alienate females from their own societies. If their flesh cannot be perfect, they reason, then their “Flesh is heretic”—a sin for which the body must burn. But their “heresy” is not a sin against God; rather, it is a transgression against a society that shows no tolerance for imperfect females. “Anorexic” does not directly implicate society, or even mention “society,” but the scenario of Eve returning as a rib to Adam’s body represents the idea of a female so alienated from her culture that she must destroy her actual self to become a part of it. She must return to “claustrophobia” and the “sensuous enclosure” to please the world. Otherwise, she would be a free, independent woman with whom she equates “sweat and fat and greed.”
“Anorexic” is neither a “religious” poem nor an “anti-religious” poem, yet its main premise involves the biblical story of Adam and Eve. The poet’s personal views on a supreme being do not enter this work because the creation myth is used to provide a comment on human society, not religious doctrine. The speaker, or “Eve,” is a symbol of woman and “Adam” is a symbol of both man and society. Adam’s role is one of a sleeping, powerful god whose heart is a “warm drum” and whose breath is a “song.” Eve is a “starved and curveless” “foodless” rib. She needs to be “caged” within Adam because on her own she cannot measure up to the expectations of her culture. Outside of Adam, she is only a conglomeration of “curves and paps and wiles,” “hips and breasts / and lips and heat”— but none of it good enough.
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.