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  • Anorexia Nervosa, the Visceral Body, and the Sense of Ownership
  • Michelle Maiese (bio)

In this insightful and well-argued article, Osler aims to provide a more fine-grained, phenomenological account of anorectic bodily experience. She notes that although anorexia nervosa (AN) often is understood in terms of a distorted body image, this approach does not exhaustively or accurately reflect many subjects' bodily experiences, and also unduly privileges a third-person perspective over first-person accounts. In addition, focusing primarily on body image gives rise to the impression that AN is a form of radical dieting gone wrong as a result of misperceiving or misjudging one's body size or shape. Osler emphasizes that AN is not a static disorder, but rather involves numerous stages. To account for the complex bodily experiences of individuals with AN, she distinguishes between the body-as-object, the body-as-subject, and the visceral body.

The body-as-object is a physical object that has a spatial and temporal location. We can experience our bodies as objects in moments when we use our senses to examine them in the way that we might examine another physical object in the world, for example via visual perception. However, the body is not just an object, but also a subject who does the perceiving. Indeed, rather than attending to our bodies as objects, we more typically attend to things in the world; and we experience our body-as-subject as the medium through which we have a world. Possibilities that the world offers refer to my bodily abilities, so that the world offers itself up as a bodily "I can." The absence of the body-as-object in most instances is precisely what makes walking easy, whereas paying too much attention to the body-as-object would disrupt the smooth flow of bodily activity.

The visceral body is a physical body, but one that is different from things such as cups and chairs. It is an organic object, one with needs, feelings, and affectivity. Here, Osler points to the work of Leder (1990), who highlights the inner body as an important aspect of bodily experience. The visceral body-as-object is experienced as something that makes demands on the body-as-subject. When we are hungry, for example, the body-as-object not only calls attention to itself, but also makes demands upon the body-as-subject. The body-as-object has a "voice" and its demands can be experienced as felt, noisy, and even threatening. Thus, as Osler rightly notes, the body-as-object and body-as-subject are intertwined, but not in perfect harmony. In the event that I suddenly have a pain in my knee, for example, the body-as-object disrupts my bodily "I can" and replaces it with a bodily "I can't." This often is accompanied by an [End Page 63] experience of the body-as-object as alienated or distanced from the body-as-subject. But we also can experience the visceral body impinging upon the realm of body-as-subject not by appearing object-like, but by demanding action on the part of the subject. The body-as-object then can be experienced as threatening to the body-as-subject's agency and sense of self-determination insofar as it compels the body-as-subject through its needs. In such instances, the physical body stands out to the subject, thwarts her projects, and breaks her seamless engagement with the world.

During the early stages of AN, the "I must" of the visceral body comes into direct conflict with the autonomy of the body-as-subject. In order to quell the demanding voice of the body-as-object, the subject with AN embarks on a project of objectifying the body, asserting her dominance and power as a body-as-subject, and bringing the physical body under the command of the subjective one. Self-starvation can be understood as an act of body-control enacted by the body-as-subject to protect her sense of agency and autonomy from the noisy, visceral demands of her physical object-body.

I am largely sympathetic to Osler's account of AN as a project...


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pp. 63-65
Launched on MUSE
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