Occult Anorexia
: The Unseen Forces of Anorexia Life-Writing

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This thesis argues that existing interpretive frameworks of anorexia, particularly the clinical archetype and those models dependent upon the anorexic body, are no longer useful. Consequently, I propose an alternative model: occult anorexia. The new modes of reading anorexia narratives I propose here are not meant to comprise a comprehensive explanatory model of anorexia. Rather, this thesis offers a set of complementary vantage points and interpretative processes from which to unearth and apprehend some of the highly idiosyncratic attributes, behaviours and other epiphenomena of anorexia that have historically been distorted, downplayed, disregarded or deleted outright from the record. My argument, then, is that only by frustrating and actively refraining from totalising models of anorexia can we achieve access to the neglected affect of anorexia and the host of reading and writing practices that make up the enigmatic literary elements on which this thesis focuses.

There have been sustained attempts to explain what many writers on the subject of anorexia have identified as curious affinities between anorexia and reading, writing and ‘literariness’. These accounts have not been able to offer complete and compelling accounts of why these correspondences and significances arise, despite these links having been made (or noticed) and discussed without resolution for several decades.

Thus, in this thesis I begin to trace what of anorexia so many cannot or do not see — what horrors people shut their eyes to, or turn away from, what has been secreted in the interstices of popular discourse, or actively hidden in the shadows of overbearing cultural touchstones. Reading in ways that recognise the hidden anorexia stories, and recognises their hiddenness as a key attribute of anorexia, allows us to find things hitherto unseen — important, distinct phenomena that, in addition to providing new ways to think about the sui generis aspects of anorexia that can make it so difficult to treat, may also go some way to explain the very self-reinforcing mimetic regurgitation that maintains the archetype itself.

Anorexia life-writing, far from comprising an overfull library of essentially fungible accounts of recovery after a relatively short adolescent illness (as some sceptics claim), each reduplicating the archetypal model of anorexia that suffuses the popular imagination, is a diverse, capacious archive. Its full contents, below the surface level, reveal what falls into the shadow of the archetype and has been largely hidden from public view: this is the anorexia that has no positive outcome, has no pretty face. This anorexia is what I call ‘occult anorexia’.
Date of Award1 Jan 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorJane Elliott (Supervisor), Brian Hurwitz (Supervisor) & Jon Day (Supervisor)

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