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By Katie Dabin on

Collecting The Uncollectable?

There are some stories you read in the press that you immediately react to as a curator. For me recently it was reading about the first UK Service of Dedication for lives lost to eating disorders that took place at Southwark Cathedral.

Sensing an acquisition in sight, I contacted b-eat – a UK charity for people with eating disorders – to get hold of a copy of the Order of Service.

Recent acquisition. Order of Service from Southwark Cathedral dedicated to lives lost to eating disorders (Credit: Science Museum).

Eating disorders such as Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa are such prevalent mental health problems – affecting 1.6 million people in the UK alone – yet such experiences are barely documented through material culture at all.

Part of the problem is that there might not be any objects to collect. Can we document mental health experiences (depression for example) when they seemingly aren’t embodied in objects or expressed through stuff?

Why collect objects to represent such illnesses anyway?

With an anthropological hat on, documenting experiences and reactions to eating disorders reveals a lot about us as a society –  the significance of food and health, perceptions of beauty, and how our bodies respond to stress.

Historically, how societies have treated self-starvation is fascinating. Apollonia Schreier, a German woman, was credited with almost mystical abilities after refusing food for 11 months.

Engraving of Apollonia Schreier by Paullus Lentillus after her alleged fast of 11 months, at Galz, near Berne, 1604. (Source: Wellcome Library)

Of course we can’t treat such experiences as ‘Anorexia’ – the condition didn’t medically exist until the late nineteenth century. But by documenting historical and contemporary experiences through material culture, we can perhaps understand a little better why we treat illnesses today as we do.

A relatively recent mental health phenomenon? As this Lancet case report shows, doctors began to diagnose cases of self-starvation as Anorexia Nervosa towards the end of the nineteenth century. (Source: Wellcome Library)

Perhaps not all human experiences can be told through objects. Yet, I’d argue that material culture has a unique ability to connect you to stories and experiences even at a glance – so I think it’s worth a bit of lateral thinking.

Anyway, here’s a few other objects we could collect on the topic: size zero clothing, the personal effects of an individual who’s experienced an eating disorder (perhaps their weighing scale or diary for instance), self-help manuals, health education material etc. Other thoughts, suggestions or insights most welcome.

2 comments on “Collecting The Uncollectable?

  1. As you say, putting an anthropologist hat on, an interesting weight related phenomenon going on right now can be documented for posterity. I was noticing how I went from being a size 2 to a size 0 without losing any weight on a certain shop. Our clothes sizes are literally growing to accommodate our growing bodies without making us feel bad about it – does this subliminal technique have any effect on anorexia in years to come? Women sizes tend to vary across brands and can always be attributed to the different cuts but men’s sizes are pretty straightforward as they are measured in inches. Or are they? I found this piece on esquire that confirmed my suspicion and they even have a name for it: “Vanity sizing”

    (just as a side note, this might be an Anglo problem as my husband bought the same model of trousers from a well known italian brand both in England and in France and the English “size” was 2 inches below the french one. If you put the trousers on top of each other they’re exactly the same length and girth.)

  2. Vanity sizing is certainly prevelent in Spain and the US in my experience.
    As an artist/curator with and eating disorder I’ve often found myself wondering what material items connected to my ED I should keep – if any. And what meaning they might have. I have diaries, childrens’ size clothes, tape measures, favourite mugs and bowls, the hand warmers and extra cushion I used to have to carry everywhere, tons of paperwork from the Drs. They all are imbued with such personal totemic value and if I’ve accumulated them all I must feel a reason to not throw them out. The scale had to go though! I also read a lot about EDs and I find it interesting how explanations and treatments have changed, even in the last 20 years. I also have a guilty obsession with the womens’ weekly magazines sensationalist stories of Anorexia Nervosa sufferers. There seems to be quite a contrast betweent the media and scientific understanding of EDs. Anyway, interesting post, loving the blog. Thanks! 🙂

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