by Suzanne Jansen
A finished thesis is a tailor-made product: it has that perfect mixture of scientific knowledge embedded in lively ethnographic tales of the field. In my case not only my thesis itself was a tailor-made product. The people my research was about also turned out to be, or at least tried to be, tailor-made: I did research among women with anorexia.
Having had anorexia myself, I have been intrigued by its manifestations ever since: young girls, older women, girls that are walking all day, women who are not talking all day, women that purge, girls that don’t, scarily thin girls or women looking like the girl next door. Over the last ten years, I have seen anorexia in all shapes and sizes. One thing I thought I new for sure after all those years, was that anorexia did not look the same on any of these women, nor did their anorectic practices or meanings.
After reading medical, psychological and anthropological articles on anorexia for the past years and after conducting my fieldwork, linking these stories to my own experiences, I naively thought I had a monopoly on wisdom and knew what anorexia was all about. To be fair, looking back, I did not really have a clue what I was talking about. Yes, I had experienced anorexia, yes, I had fully recovered and yes, I did my research. But who was I kidding, thinking I knew everything, just because I had this lived experience of anorexia? As many of my professors told me over the past few years, knowledge is giving meaning because of its context. Well, same goes for a thesis partly based on your own experiences, it turned out.
Because after sending in my first draft, I received feedback telling me my thesis was not anthropological and ethnographic enough. I was gutted. I thought my thesis was almost finished and was longing for a summer holiday after four tough years of studying for my bachelor’s degree.
But the feedback was rightly so, because it was only when I conducted more thorough and in-depth research, from a different perspective, that my ethnographic writings really came to life and my own experiences were given meaning. Let me give you a short summary of my research and writing process, to show you just how much difference this embedment in extensive literature makes.
Anorexia is a medicalized phenomenon in the dominant research discourses. Up until today, most perspectives on anorexia are based on the assumption that anorexia is a mental illness. There has been phenomenological research on anorexia too though. Focussing on the active role people with anorexia play in designing their own illness, these researches heavily depend on theories of embodiment: how anorexia quite literally ‘embodies’ other problems. The aim of my thesis was to serve as a broker between the medical and phenomenological perspective: I wanted to make the argument that anorexia cannot just be seen as an illness, whereby the body is objectified and the symptoms are stigmatized. On the other hand, I argued, seeing anorexia as embodiment of other problems, without taking into account the influences of the medical perspectives, would be wrong too.
Well, the joke’s on me: without realizing it, the first draft of my thesis was unconsciously heavily influenced by the medical view and the things I was taught in anorexia treatments, thereby once again stigmatizing anorexia and offering quite a superficial scientific writing on anorexia. I was always told people with anorexia have certain characteristics, which in combination with triggers during their lifetime can result in emotional vulnerability, which in the end could lead to anorexia. In the figure on the side I have displayed how this may look. With support of literature, this was the conclusion of my thesis too.
After the, I must say, quite upsetting feedback, I had a good chat with my professor and start rewriting almost my entire thesis. Within days I saw my thesis change. The stories of my informants were done more justice then before and most importantly: my conclusion changed. Whereas the conclusion of my first draft now looked more like a high-school essay, stating that the results of my research were the same as what I was taught in treatment, the conclusion of my final version had the depth my professor was aiming at. My final conclusion took into account both perspectives, thereby stating why and not just that people end up specifically with anorexia instead of any other mental illness (or addiction). It is partly because of triggers during the lifetime as shown in the figure, but mostly because of the special function anorexia has to offer: it serves as embodiment for other problems, thereby placing inner, invisible phenomena in the outer, visible world.
My conclusion changed from stating that anorexia must be looked at individually, to being able to say something about the entire group, because of the rewriting and rethinking process. But most importantly this process made my research the anthropological and ethnographic writing it was supposed to be. A tailor-made product after all.
Suzanne Jansen recently finished her bachelor Social and Cultural Anthropology