The Secret American Jewish History of Bulimia?
In ancient Rome, people purged through vomiting in order to to eat more. But this was not the medical condition know as bulimia nervosa, which British psychiatrist Gerald Russell first diagnosed in 1979. In the August 1979 edition of Psychological Medicine (Vol. 9, No. 3, pp. 429-448), Russell described 30 patients who had: “i) an irresistible urge to overeat (bulimia nervosa), followed by self-induced vomiting or purging; (ii) a morbid fear of becoming fat.”
Three years prior, in 1976, Marie Brenner published her Jewish chick-lit novel, Tell Me Everything (New York: Signet). I had first heard of Tell Me Everything from anthropologist Riv-Ellen Prell’s work, specifically her chapter in historian Joyce Antler’s collection, Talking Back: Images of Jewish Women in American Popular Culture, and her book Fighting to Become Americans: Assimilation and the Trouble between Jewish Women and Jewish Men. Prell examined Tell Me Everything, along with other novels by Jewish women authors in the 1970s such as The Launching of Barbara Fabrikant by Louise Blecher Rose, Fat Emily by Susan Ries Lukas and Sheila Levine is Dead and Living in New York by Gail Parent.
All of these books, along with Erica Jong‘s more famous Fear of Flying, featured female Jewish protagonists who were concerned with their weight. According to Prell’s interpretation, the authors of these books were “fighting back” against the vicious stereotypes of the Jewish Mother and the Jewish American Princess (JAP), stereotypes crafted by Jewish men due to their anxiety over assimilation in America, an exemplified in sexist jokes and in the works of Philip Roth and Bruce Jay Friedman. Though these Jewish protagonists worried about their weight, and may not necessarily have been feminists, they were intelligent and witty and ambitious and decidely not JAPs.
I think Prell’s interpretation has a great deal of merit to it. But what caught my eye was a graph on the back cover of Tell Me Everything. Marcie Laster, one of the main characters, “has a very secret and definitely shocking way of staying slim.” On page 145, Brenner treated readers us to a description of Laster vomiting after a recent eating binge. On the next few pages, Laster describes her slimming technique to her friend Florida Burns.
“The point is, do you want to be liberated from food or not? Because why the hell not give yourself the space to be able to stuff your guts till you want to die, eat everything you ever wanted? Tamales, Baskin-Robbins, blintzes, bagels, lox–well salty foods are harder to throw up, I don’t know why, but chocolate chips, Sara Lee, quiche, once I ate two whole pies, and what about… pizza!? Why deny yourself? Why run that guilt trip?” She paused, then started again. “I know what you’re thinking? You’ll die, you’ll choke to death.. it’s so unhealthy. Well… crap! The Romans did it. Actresses do it. At St. Francis’ everybody did it, that’s why WASPs always stay so thin. It’s actually quite healthy. Like fasting, only you get to… eat.” She turned on me. “You mean you’ve never before met anyone who does it?”
“Well, they probably just don’t admit it. The dirty little secret… food without guilt forever!” (emphasis mine)
Here is a decidely Jewish interpretation of bulimia. Though Marcie Laster presents it as something, Romans, actresses and WASPs all do (all gentiles), she gives it a Jewish spin, referring to Jewish foods, the familiar Jewish ritual of fasting, and most importantly, guilt. Here was a way to enjoy food and avoid guilt, the dark cloud looming over Jewish lives.
I have no idea how prevalent this was in American popular culture of the 1970s. I have no idea whether non-Jewish women wrote about this as well. I’ll have to do more research, and think about this more. But it’s interesting that even before doctors classified bulimia as a disease, it popped up in an American Jewish popular novel of the 1970s.