Date of Award

8-2004

Level of Access

Campus-Only Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)

Department

Communication

Advisor

Kristin Langellier

Second Committee Member

Eric Peterson

Third Committee Member

Laura Lindenfeld

Abstract

This study analyzes the narrative performances of bulimic identity of five white, female college students between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five. The medical and psychological health communities first defined bulimia as a mental disorder in which a patient, obsessed with her weight, habitually binges and purges. I analyze how those diagnosed with bulimia nervosa perform and re-perform their understanding of bulimic identity in the United States.

I trace bulimic narrations through three discourses: stories that represent symptoms to diagnose and treat in medical and psychological research; stories that understand experience in narrative analysis; and stories that critique the patriarchal society’s demands on women in feminist criticism. U.S. discourses reiterate bulimia as a narrative about loss of personal control and as a grotesque and stigmatized identity

I audio-recorded each interview and invited each woman to structure her own story, to choose where to begin and end without interruptions from me, the interviewer. I then analyzed how variance in tone, pitch, narrative structure and audience interaction constitute the identity of these bulimic women. This study understands the bulimic women’s personal narratives to be performances of identity in which the narrator and audience co-constitute the meanings of bulimia within the time and space of the narrative act. It recognizes that every interaction both reiterates preexisting meanings and is vulnerable to reinterpretation.

Three different performances emerged to constitute bulimic identity: the performance of story, the performance of other, and the performance of self. I analyze how these performances reiterate and resist the structure of the master bulimic narrative, which originates from the U.S. medical and psychological health discourses. The performance of story reconstitutes the shared understanding of the narrator and audience of the stigmatized identity of bulimia nervosa. Next, I examine how the women perform their stressful relationships with other characters as explanation of their disordered performances of identity. A final chapter analyzes how the women perform four different identities in order to resist the unfeminine femininity associated with bulimia: a storyteller who is the authority on the story performed, a narrator who guides the action, a disordered character situated in the past, and an audience member who reflects and responds to her own words with the interviewer. Through their co-constituted performance the narrator and audience divide the storyteller embodied in the present from the stigmatized character in the past.

This study concludes that bulimia is not a natural mental disorder with physical ramifications for medical and psychological health professionals to diagnose, but a constitution of the dominant patriarchal medical and psychological health communities that is reiterated across U.S. discourses, and then mistaken as the singular truth. The feminist performance of identity perspective holds all societal members responsible for the stigmatized, incurable, mentally ill identity of bulimic women in the U.S. and places communication as the site of struggle over personal and social beliefs, meanings, understandings and realities. It empowers storytellers and listeners to resist existing realities that stigmatize and marginalize persons with bulimia and to co-constitute new identities through interaction.

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