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Hysteria: the 19th century's answer to eating disorders?

Posted by a.marlow on November 25, 2012 at 8:00 AM

It has been claimed by certain feminist thinkers that the prevalence of Hysteria among women in the late 19th century and the prevalence of eating disorders inour current cultural climate are linked by the idea that both conditions represent an exaggeration of and protest against the prevailing social rolesavailable to women at the time. In the late 19th century, Hysteria represented a response to the view that women should be romantic and frail; in the late 20th and early 21st century, anorexia represents a response to the view thatwomen should, on a literal level, be constantly getting thinner and, on a symbolic level, be denying their own needs and putting those of others first, in the manner of the housewife and mother who makes her husband and children a priority above herself.

 

So goes the theory. But before we can evaluate its validity, we need to have a better understanding of what 'Hysteria' means in the context of psychoanalytic theory.

 

The core of 'Hysteria', according to many psychoanalysts, is a constant search for evidence that one is loved, a search that is rooted in the experience of early trauma in the form of a Mother who was unable to fulfil the needs of her infant child. In this sense, Hysteria comes about as a sort of defence mechanism against the threat of abandonment by the Mother (or, in later life, by a lover). The loss of the loving look and warm regard of the Mother in early life leads to a sensitivity in later life to the threat of being abandoned by a lover, to the loss of his/her loving gaze. This defence operates by means of an auto-eroticism, a sort of self-love that divorces the mind from the body and creates a reluctance to love another, external person. The Hysteric's mode of love is a purely sensual one that leads to a permanent dissatisfaction with all her lovers and a contradiction between her desire to bask in an eternal, absolute mode of love and her reluctance to give such love to the Other. It is common for a Hysteric to complain of being treated as a mere sexual object for use by men, while at the same time treating her lovers in just the same way. She fears abandonment as something that would put her 'ego', her 'self', in danger, while at the same time seeking out lovers who are just the kind of people who would subject her to the very abandonment that she fears. She will often identify with her lover one minute, as if he were the basis of her identity, and then unexpectedly show a cold indifference towards him the next, as if her love, which was so passionate seconds ago, had simply disappeared.

 

According to Jacqueline Lanouzière, Hysteria can be characterised as a sort of addiction to the love of the Other and, more specifically, to his look, to his gaze. The loving gaze of the Other acts as a drug for the Hysteric. Her choice of lover is based on needs that went unmet at a certain point in her life due to the inadequacy of her 'objects' at the time (in psychoanalysis, and particularly in the Object Relations school of psychoanalysis, the term 'object' refers to a significant other who has been unconsciously internalised into one's own mind and plays a decisive role in determining one's mental health). For the Hysteric, only the loving gaze of the Other can bring her to a sense of unity and oneness; otherwise, she feels like a divided person.

 

The irony of Hysteria is that the Hysteric often treats her own body as a sexual object. And it is here that the psychoanalytic account of Hysteria gets... weird. The above description of someone treating their own body as if it were a sexual object is more generally a description of the Freudian conceptof narcissism, which takes on a particularly weird role in the psychoanalytic account of Hysteria. Lanouzière claims that female narcissism comes about later than male narcissism, as the male genital organs are visible from birth while the female genitals are hidden away inside. They only really make an appearance in puberty, when the breasts start to form and periods start to occur. The late beginning of female narcissism gives it a character of uncertainty, and this is at the heart of Lanouzière's account of theHysterical condition. According to her, the fact that an infant girl spends much of her early life aware that, when others look at her, they will notice her lack of penis, leads to this girl overinvesting in her appearance and in ananxiety about how others see her. Her obsession with how others perceive her is almost a fetish for the Hysteric.

 

Indeed, according to Lanouzière, the gaze of the other is the only way that anyone ever becomes a narcissist. In her account, the mother looking at her newborn baby sees it almost as an extension of herself, and thus a mother's love for her child is an extension of her love for herself. This, so it is claimed, forms the basis of the baby's own narcissism that becomes her own self-love and self-esteem as she grows up. But the mother's gaze is different depending on whether the child is a boy or a girl: with a boy, the mother's loving gaze will be centred on the penis, while with a girl, he rgaze will cover the whole body, leading to a sort of exhibitionism seen in Hysterics in particular whereby the whole body becomes a sort of eroticised show for the whole world to see. While such exhibitionism is common during adolescence in most people, the Hysteric maintains it into adult life.

 

The failure of the early maternal gaze to provide a look of unconditional love leaves the Hysteric feeling invisible, a feeling she tries to get rid of through making a show of her body, for example by using bright clothes to attract attention and adoration. In this way the Hysteric engages in a desperate quest for perfection and beauty- because for the Hysteric, she is literally nothing without the loving gaze of the Other.

 

This is basically a summary of the account of Hysteria given by Lanouzière in the work referenced below. You might have noticed that I have constantly used 'she' throughout this blog post, and that is deliberate. Hysteria is and was always seen as a female condition, for some of the logically spurious reasons given above. The psychoanalytic account rests heavily on 'penis envy' to explain why Hysteria occurs in women rather than men, as this (somehow) explains why the Hysteric makes an exhibition of herself when her female narcissism finally comes into bloom in order to compensate for a childhood of lack.

 

But, look, this is psychoanalysis, so don't take it too seriously, okay? It's obsessed with sex and has little evidence to support any of its claims, so don't get thinking this is how the human mind actually works. Most modern psychologists have abandoned it to the coffin of history as an embarrassing relic of the 1950s when psychology wasn't so scientific, and although I do think that sometimes it can come up with some profound insights lacking from the more experimental branches of psychology, this is not one of those times. It really isn't. I have only included it here so that you can understand the concept and see if the feminists are right when they say that the Hysteria of the late 19th century is in some way related to the prevalence of eating disorders in the late 20th/early 21st century. I'll leave you to reach your own conclusions on that one.

 

In other news- I've just yesterday completed my final examination for the Eating Disorders course I've been taking with the British School of Yoga so, assuming I haven't failed, I am now/soon-to-be a qualified Complementary Therapist for Eating Disorders. And when they send me the exams for the other courses I'm taking with them, assuming I pass, I'll also be generally qualified in Psychotherapy and in Vegetarian/Vegan NutritionalTherapy- so if any of you out there feel you would benefit from my services in these areas, get in touch. I'm sure there's a 'contact' section somewhere on this website. I'm currently living in Rennes in France, and plan on moving to Bangor in Wales next year.

 

References:

Lanouzière, J., 2010. "L'hystérique et son 'addiction'", in: Marinov, V., et al., 2010. Anorexie, addictions et fragilités narcissiques. Presses Universitaires de France: Paris. pp. 131-157

 

 

Categories: psychoanalysis, feminism, hysteria

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