McAnulty College and Graduate School of Liberal Arts
Russell A. Walsh
alexithymia, bulimia, eating disorders, feminism, psychodynamic, qualitative research
In light of research demonstrating that eating disordered women have difficulty recognizing and expressing emotions, this study began by critiquing the popular conclusion that bulimic behavior signifies an arrest at the separation-individuation phase of development. Since the prevalence of bulimia nervosa has increased dramatically in the past thirty years, socio-cultural factors must also play an important role. This investigation therefore attempted to illuminate how dominant cultural ideologies perpetuate stereotypic, gendered family structures, which in turn shape the intra-psychic and interpersonal psychodynamics of bulimic women.
This multifarious approach towards understanding the construction of bulimic subjectivity necessitated that the present study use a layered, interpretive methodology. Empirical data, gathered through semi-structured interviews, embodied reflexive process notes, and the Rorschach protocols of four bulimic women were interpreted through an explicitly articulated feminist socio-cultural analysis of their developmental histories and familial relationships. Specific analyses of the emotional, relational, and embodied aspects of the participants' discourse yielded repetitive themes. The researcher's interpretation of these themes suggested that the participants' difficulty with recognizing and expressing their emotions is directly related to personal conflicts over dependence and autonomy. Although these conflicts were often enacted in their relationships with their mothers, they are also supported through cultural mores which seem to place young women in double bind situations as they desire to become subjects in a world where they are treated as objects. The participants demonstrated their struggle through these double-binds as they often alternated between intense immersion in private subjective experiences and critical self-objectification. The researcher concluded that their vacillation between these two polarized perspectives analogizes to an internalization of other culturally-determined binary oppositions, such as mind vs. body, and that bingeing and purging on food can be seen as a way to negotiate the boundaries between such binaries from within.
This alternative understanding offers the bulimic individual more agency than do etiologies that cite developmental arrest or faulty genetics as the cause of her behavior. The research also has clinical implications, as it highlighted the intersubjective and emotional experiences of bulimic women, thereby calling into question the utility of the current treatment of choice: cognitive-behavioral therapy. This research suggests that interpersonal and experiential therapies that focus on the emotional aspects of the therapeutic relationship should be integrated into treatment protocols for bulimic women.
Pollack, D. (2005). Negotiating Boundaries from Within: A Feminist-Psychodynamic Investigation of Bulimia and Emotional Expression in Context (Doctoral dissertation, Duquesne University). Retrieved from https://dsc.duq.edu/etd/1054