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Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa
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44 of 50 people found the following review helpful
Format: Paperback
I've become an avid reader of medical history. When in medical school for my degree in neuroscience, my favorite class was one that dealt with the neurological basis of psychiatric disorders. The professor had MDs come in with a patient with a particular problem (Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, anorexia) and we would have the opportunity to listen to them tell their own story and their frustrations with their illness.
When they brought in a girl who was probably 5'8" and weight 78 pounds, it was fascinating to see the guys in the class who were normally very vocal and aggressive, totally shut up! From behind she looked like someone from a Nazi concentration camp, yet she continued to consider herself 'fat'. When she left, the MD had the nerve to turn around and tell the boys, that basically...anorexia was the fault of men. All of us were stunned. He put up an obviously much used power point slide showing the weights of women in both Playboy magazines and in the Miss USA pageant from the beginning to that year (1997). The line was steep and steady from the upper left-hand corner of the slide to the bottom right corner of the slide. This was the change in weight of the women who were participating in these 'endeavors' that the MD said were run by men (it was a male MD). Then he went further and said...most women's magazines are still mainly male bastions, as is the fashion industry both here and in Europe. The men in the class were absolutely horrified (and the women were thrilled that someone had the nerve to say this to them!)
This outstanding book is a must read for anyone going into psychology, neuroscience, working with adolescents, education, public health, etc. I've read few books with such deep understanding as to the history and ramifications of social mores on young women and girls. Since I am a mother and a grandmother of girls, I have been truly horrified at picking up Bazaar magazine in the doctor's office and seeing what they are promoting as being beautiful. I told them to remove that magazine, because the models in it were way beyond Twiggy-skinny. When society promotes models whose bones are showing through their pelvic in whatever they wear, then something has gone desparately wrong in our society.
I am not a feminist per se, but I do believe in equal rights for all. Yet, viewing this particular disorder is a feminist need, and Brumberg does that magnificently, without overdoing it or carping on feminist thinking. I wish more 'feminists' would express deep concern and become activists to change our society from it's obviously deep-seated biases towards what constitutes beauty, for the sake of our girls. This is definitely more important in controlling and curtailing than almost any other societal gender-related bias...because it is literally killing our young women.
Brumberg's ability to write medical history is phenomenal. This is definitely one of the finest books I've read in this genre. Her research is meticulous; I was surprised and impressed with the sheer amount of information she provides concerning this problem during the 19th century. Many in the medical profession still believe that this disorder is something brought on by our society in the 20th century, but she shows that anorexia has been with us for a long time. I highly recommend this book!
Karen SAdler,
Science Education,
University of Pittsburgh
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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on May 8, 2002
Format: Paperback
This book was totally absorbing. I didn't want to put it down. Who would have thought that such a terrible disease would have its origin in the Medievel church, as women starved themselves for their beliefs and to become (as they believed) holy. But, like most things under the sun, it's all been done before, so there really shouldn't be any surprise that self-starvation has a very long history.
I really enjoyed the histories of the individual "fasting girls." And Ms. Brumberg's description of the Victorian middle class was priceless and eye opening, considering how that era is so romantizied by a lot of us today.
The book revealed so much about how culture (present and past) shapes our opinions of ourselves, especially us women. Reading the book brought out my anger that society and culture expect women to have "perfect" bodies..."perfect" everything, and the pressure that is on us, both as teenagers and adults.
I recommend this book to anyone who would like to know more about anorexia nervosa and its history. There is a great deal of fascinating information. Just keep your dictionary handy to look up all the medical terms Brumberg quotes (and for some of her own words as well). My only disappointment in the book was that it ended too abruptly. Her book had me hooked, and then, finally, it had to end. I think there is a great deal more to be said about this disease, and I hope that she keeps up with the history and maybe writes another volume. Kudos to you, Ms. Brumberg. Very well done.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on January 27, 2002
Format: Paperback
An extremely well researched and well written book, it examines the history of Anorexia Nervosa. During medieval period, a woman's fasting was seen as evidence of her deep faith. This perception, which continued to the Victorian era, placed tremendous pressure on women to be abstemious. Many women died of self starvation throughout centuries. A byproduct of this view was forced fasting by the families of some women who received special attention and financial consideration from society due to the fact that a woman in their family was pious enough not to eat. Containing excellent illustrations, including that of a woman who died when her weight dropped to 49 pounds, this book helps the reader in comprehending the enormity of Anorexia Nervosa. It is a must reading for anyone who wishes to know more about a disorder that until recently was mistaken for virtue.
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15 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on May 5, 2000
Format: Paperback
This is a fascinating survey of anorexia nervosa, and must reading for anyone interested in the history and "whys" of voluntary food refusal. It's not self-help or pop psychology, but rather, scholarship. Using obscure and fascinating source materials, case histories,and numerous contemporary accounts, Brumberg (one author, despite Amazon's mistaken listing) presents the reader with the history of anorexia nervosa: its roots in changing but always powerful popular notions of female attractiveness; religion; psychology; social relations, and class.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on March 28, 2008
Format: Paperback
The obvious strength of this book as a history of the development of Anorexia Nervosa comes from its unbiased approach. As a historian, the author has walked brilliantly the fine line between simply retelling the past and critically evaluating it. (Sometimes stupid ideas need to be called stupid ideas!) It is essential reading for anyone with an interest in eating disorders or nutrition.

The subtle strength of this book is its format for discussing disease development in a social and political context. Anyone interested in disease etiology beyond simply the biochemical approach should also read this book, as a guide to how to put disease in a realistic context.

Brilliant all round!
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on April 23, 2002
Format: Paperback
This book brings up the issue of a modern subject, and takes it all the way back through the pages of history. It is a stunning account of the history of anorexia as it was once considered to be miraculous fasting: the utter paradox of a living being existing without food. Anorexic girls seem to transcend into a new evolution from symbolizing spiritual exaultment to the modern beauty ideal. A very interesting read, a must read for anyone interested in an in depth look at the disorder, and frankly for anyone with a daughter- to better understand her world and how it came to be.
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Format: Paperback
I am a clinical psychologist who recently finished reading, Fasting Girls, and WOW, what an awesome book!

The author talks about how anorexic-like behavior has been recorded since the middle ages when girls would fast to prove religious devotion. At the time, people thought this "anorexia mirabilis" was a miracle that demonstrated that certain holy individuals could exist without earthly food, simply living on "spiritual nourishment" from God.

When it got to the 1800s, when society was embracing both religious and scientific approaches, people (especially those who were medically- or scientifically-minded) would send in professionals to observe the "fasting girls" around the clock to see if it were actually scientifically possible for them to exist without food!

Later on, as the societal shift became more medical, the focus turned to describing the condition more thoroughly and getting the girls to eat and regain weight. It was then being assumed that anorexia was related to hysteria or some nervous condition, and the term anorexia nervosa (among some other terms, such as hysterical anorexia) started being used. The author describes how at that time, fasting was in part a reflection of family dynamics and various aspects of middle class Victorian society.

After spending much time talking about anorexia in the Victorian era, the author spoke about the disorder after the turn of the century and how fashion innovations (e.g., ready-made dresses, higher hemlines), increased information about calories and nutrition, attitudes by female athletes and celebrities, and other factors that influenced the more modern version of anorexia nervosa.

Overall, I found this to be a fascinating book, and I learned a great deal from reading it. I offer this book my highest of recommendations for clinicians and interested laypeople as well.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on July 6, 2011
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
Thanks to the author for such hard work! Anorexia is a disease causing an increased public interest today and, as a result, fouling a variety of rumors. This book sheds light on various aspects of anorexia - both medical and social phenomenon.
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on January 10, 2014
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
I read this book for research purposes and found much to support and augment my research. Beyond that however, this was such a compelling read! I love history, especially the 19th and 20th centuries, and found her assessment of women and their bodies through that time fascinating. Anorexia is present in my family so there is a personal connection as well. This is not a clinical medical book but a really interesting study of a disease, how knowledge of it has evolved and how it is influenced by certain times in history plus the influence of society. If you are interested in the history of anorexia or, on a broader scope, a unique history of women, I highly recommend this book.
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on September 20, 2014
Format: Paperback
This book is an interesting rebuttal of the idea that anorexia was "created" by our beauty-obsessed culture. Not true. The idea of withholding food from one's self to reach an ideal has existed for hundreds (if not more) years. But in our previous centuries, doing this was associated not with beauty but with purity and being one with God. Very interesting history of how this human belief that controlling the appetites and restricting something as basic as food intake has not really changed over the years. It is still done in the pursuit of "worshiping an ideal." It is merely what that ideal is that has changed.
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