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BOOK REVIEW: The Anthropology of Food and Body: Gender, Meaning, and Power

Reprinted from Eating Disorders Review
January/February 2000 Volume 11, Number 1
©2000 Gürze Books

(C. M. Counihan. Routledge Publishing; 256 pp; $19.99; paperback; 1999.)

This series of loosely connected essays portrays the evolving work of an academic anthropologist over the last several decades, initially concerning studies of "foodways" — beliefs and behaviors surrounding the production, distribution and consumption of foods in different cultures. Then the series looks more deeply into how gender, the sense of one's own body and oneself, and personal empowerment or oppression are impacted by who earns, makes, prepares and controls food in communities and households.

Based on fieldwork using qualitative ethnographic methods, the author's observations start in rural Italian homes in Sardinia and then Florence in the 1970s, and later include studies of American college students' journals, of children's beliefs regarding food and hunger, and of women in Pennsylvania interviewed during pregnancy and postpartum.

The first chapters review a broad literature in cultural anthropology addressing food, gender, power, and intimacy across numerous cultures, providing several schemes by which we can start to appraise the studies that follow.

The later research becomes more narrative, so that as the book progresses we're given more "stories," which are less academic and more human. The direct links to eating disorders are few. But Counihan has read and thought enough about these links, and offers nice review chapters on what it means to be fat, thin, and female. The author also comments on western women's "prodigious" fasting. These observations add voice to some important suggestions. "Objectification" of the body, as occurs in cultures such as those giving rise to "Holy Anorexia" in medieval Italy or to contemporary eating disorders in today's fashion-driven capitalist mercantile societies, is much more likely to lead to self-starvation than is the much more earthy, pleasure-linked "subjectification" involved in loving food, loving to eat, and loving to be loved by men who appreciate women who do both.

These essays could lend themselves to an enjoyable college elective seminar, whose participants should be required to verify some original field notes provided by several study subjects — six hearty, delicious-looking Italian recipes provided by Florentine women in the 1970s and 80s. Such data demands laboratory testing — in your own kitchen.

— J.Y.


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