“Sinless, foodless”: The purging of desire in Eavan Boland’s “Anorexic”

Anorexia-nervosa_art

Eavan Boland’s “Anorexic” never fails to give me goose bumps, no matter how many times I read it. The speaker of the poem has fallen hard for Friedan’s Feminine Mystique and Wolf’s Beauty Myth (depending on which wave of feminism you’d like to ride), trying to destroy her desire (sexual and more of bodily needs) and her femininity through starving herself or purging whatever she does eat. Regardless of whether you look at the poem from a critical perspective or merely for entertainment purposes, reading this poem has a visceral impact on the reader quite unlike many poems I’ve read (and I read a lot of poetry; if you’ve read any of my previous stuff, you may have noticed that I’m a nnneeerrrrddd).

Here’s the poem. If you’ve ever had an eating disorder, brace yourselves; this shit is raw:

Flesh is heretic.

My body is a witch.

I am burning it.

 

Yes I am torching

her curves and paps and wiles.

They scorch in my self-denials.

 

How she meshed my head

in the half-truths

of her fevers till I renounced

milk and honey

and the taste of lunch.

 

I vomited

her hungers.

Now the bitch is burning.

 

I am starved and curveless.

I am skin and bone.

She has learned her lesson.

 

Thin as a rib

I turn in sleep.

My dreams probe

 

a claustrophobia

a sensuous enclosure.

How warm it was and wide

 

once by a warm drum,

once by the song of his breath

and in his sleeping side.

 

Only a little more,

only a few more days

sinless, foodless.

 

I will slip

back into him again

as if I have never been away.

 

Caged so

I will grow

angular and holy

 

past pain

keeping his heart

such company

 

as will make me forget

in a small space

the fall

 

into forked dark,

into python needs

heaving to hips and breasts

and lips and head

and sweat and fat and greed.

 

Jacqueline Belanger looks at “Anorexic” through the lens of Boland’s place in the larger Irish literary tradition, arguing that Boland uses extremes of female bodily experience to illustrate how far the image of Ireland-as-woman is from Irish women’s experience with and within their own bodies.[i] Belanger problematizes Boland’s attempt in her poem, stating rather than resisting the Ireland-as-woman idea, Boland contributes to the trope by using anorexia to make a larger political point[ii], potentially obscuring the actuality of physical pain that actual anorexics suffer. I don’t want to look at the poem in the Irish context, but thought Belanger’s work was worth mentioning because she is one of the more well-known contributors to Boland scholarship, at least for this poem in particular. I first encountered this poem a few years ago for a Modern British Literature class. I didn’t pay too much attention to it at the time, especially because I had myriad other readings on my plate, but every once in a while, I find myself re-reading it, and re-reading it, etc. As I have mentioned in previous posts, inspiration is partially stemmed from our mind’s desire to work something out. I keep coming back to “Anorexia,” so I figured I might as well purge the demon and say something about it. What I find so fascinating and disturbing every time I come back to this poem is how completely the speaker has internalized societal expectations not only for her body to look a certain way, but to conform to an identity wholly associated with or in relation to men.  forkforest

Susie Orbach is one of the first feminist scholars to read anorexia as a metaphor for contemporary Western life, saying, “the starvation amidst plenty, the denial set against desire, the striving for invisibility versus the wish to be seen—these key features of anorexia—are metaphors for our age.”[iii] The risk, of course, in using anorexia as a metaphor for a larger Western problem is it potentially ignores or downplays the suffering of people actually suffering from eating disorders. I think what Orbach, and even Boland, is trying to do though is draw attention to the similarities between the factors leading to eating disorders and some of the overarching stressors that women may face in Western society regarding their body, sexuality, and relationships with men. Even if you don’t go to the extent of being hospitalized or having to go to support groups to grapple with your relationship to food, there is such persistent scrutiny of the female form that even the most confident woman can’t help but feel self-conscious at some point. The poem goes to the extremes of the anorexic woman’s starving, sexless body to comment on the personal hells women can create for themselves when they have internalized negative messages about the pressure to be thin.

Notice in the poem the split between the first and third person, separating mind from body (always a bad idea). The speaker puts herself at a distance from her own body, saying with satisfaction that her body is a “witch” (2) she is “burning” (3), declaring “she has learned her lesson” (17) about desiring earthly pleasures such as food and sex. The first person speaker is the one who has drunk the Kool-Aid, so to speak, about not only being thin, but also being completely defined by her relationship to men. I’m going to sound a little like Luce Irigaray, minus the genius, but the poem’s speaker has been completely affected by the patriarchal culture that holds up men as the ideal form. When she looks in the mirror, she doesn’t see an ideal woman to identify with, but instead seeks to rid herself of her femininity, to return to her role as Adam’s rib, to become merely a cog in the machine of men and their wants and intentions rather than an emancipated agent with her own dreams and identity. In becoming sexless, the speaker hopes to obscure her difference from men.[iv]

Boland indeed explores the anorexic woman’s treatment of her own body, attempts at self-control, feelings about her sexuality and her relationship to men, all through referencing the Biblical story of Eve being made from Adam’s rib.[v] By referencing both the Bible and the witch burnings of the early modern period, Boland emphasizes that the crisis the anorexic speaker faces is not a modern phenomenon, but has plagued women through the centuries (although not necessarily in the exact same way). Witch burnings may be imposed from the outside, but as mentioned, the speaker has internalized the notion that the female body is sinful. She doesn’t need anyone to tie her to the stake, because she has already done it herself.

In “Anorexic,” flesh is associated with sin, while thinness is equivalent to holiness. That flesh is sinful is definitely not a new theme in Christian imagery.  Boland calls sexual and physical needs “python” (45), suggesting that not only are physical needs sinful, but are in fact the ultimate evil because they are serpentine, and thus linked to Lucifer himself. Thinness as holy milk and honeyis also not necessarily a new thought connected to Christianity, or many other traditions. Fasting is a spiritual practice in many religions, and the concept of denying yourself earthly pleasures in pursuit of divine ones is a popular religious notion. Although Boland’s speaker believes that by once more becoming Adam’s rib she will be “angular and holy” (35), this renunciation is one that has serious consequences. She renounces “milk and honey/and the taste of lunch” (10-11) in her pursuit of thinness. However, the Exodus allusion of milk and honey, which refers to Israel’s fecundity, implies that in her giving up milk and honey, she gives up fertility, freedom, and literally the promised land.

Boland’s “Anorexic” illustrates the split that occurs between the body you want and the body you have, between the desires of the mind over the body, and what it means to be feminine when you are always defining femininity through the male gaze. By kicking it old school and referencing the story of Adam and Eve, Boland suggests that female body anxiety is not something new but continues to be a persistent problem women struggle with. I find “Anorexic” a striking illustration of the self-hatred and shame associated with eating disorders, while also providing a springboard for discussing more general issues of female embodiment and gender relations.

[i] Belanger, Jacqueline. “‘The Laws of Metaphor’: Reading Eavan Boland’s “Anorexic” in an Irish Context.” Colby Quarterly. 36.3. (2000): 22-252. Accessed 25 August 2014, 242.

[ii] Ibid, 249.

[iii] Qtd in Belanger, 243.

[iv] Vanbuskirk, Alison, Kendall. “Anorexia as a Path to Redemption: An Examination of Boland’s Anorexic.” The Explicator. 66.1. (2007): 55-58. Accessed 1 August 2014, 58

[v] Ibid, 56.

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One thought on ““Sinless, foodless”: The purging of desire in Eavan Boland’s “Anorexic”

  1. What a powerful poem about body image disorder, and as always you see all the deep connections being made. Makes you wonder… How much of society is painted by the patriarchal system that has been imposed? How much is genuine? What can we trust, and what is unhealthy? What is beauty? Is it something that should be worked on, or is it something that comes far more naturally?
    Great poem. Great post. I loved it, as I usually do. Keep up the great scholarly work.

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