From the Archives

By Channah Leff

In this series, our contributing editors reflect on a set of articles from the archives of American Anthropologist that speaks to their research interests.


Alan H. Goodman. 2007. “Bringing Culture into Human Biology and Biology Back into Anthropology.”

Jonathan N. Maupin and Alexandra Brewis. 2014. “Food Insecurity and Body Norms among Rural Guatemalan Schoolchildren.”

Robert Desjarlais. 1994. “Struggling Along: The Possibilities for Experience Among the Homeless Mentally Ill.”


I have selected the following articles from American Anthropologist’s archives to demonstrate the various ways in which a cultural perspective complements topics traditionally viewed as more scientific. In my research on disordered eating, I explore how historical trends in biomedicine have contributed to modern system of diagnosis. Interweaving historical literature reviews with my own ethnographic data, I demonstrate that disordered eaters do not fit straightforwardly into diagnostic categories, as is often presumed. Instead, findings indicate that individuals express different combinations of symptoms that range across diagnostic divisions. This type of research aligns well with the following articles that also apply sociocultural analysis to topics generally attributed to biology.

The first article I have chosen is by Alan H. Goodman, a prominent biological anthropologist and president of the American Anthropological Association from 2005 to 2007. Goodman has spent his career exploring and teaching about biocultural perspectives on nutrition, race, and human biology. In his 2007 AAA presidential address, Goodman reminds us of culture and biology’s influences on one another. “Typically theorized as separate from—even in tension with” one another, he explains how “culturally specific readings of biological variables . . . in turn, have biological consequences” (359). While culture and society are often viewed as flexible and existing separately from the absolute laws of nature, understanding of the body is traditionally allocated to the category of biology. One example he offers is the growing field of genomics and the dangers of defining human variation in terms of DNA. In other words, a focus on genetic predisposition to things like disease may distract from underlying social phenomena that are at play. It may also create seemingly fixed categories around very complex and fluid categories of people. Equating race to genetic variation, for example, could lead to false conclusions that various ailments are due to ancestry rather than social inequality and structural violence (for example, high blood pressure as a product of African American family history, rather than elevated levels of stress in response to experiences of racism). At the same time, Goodman also cautions that anthropologists should not refrain from participating in the genetics conversation or dismiss the debate as simply another social construct. Instead, he suggests that we can contribute meaningfully by bringing to light the ways in which human biology is intertwined with culture and society. As an example, he offers the work of Clarence Gravlee, William Dressler, and H. Russell Bernard (2005), which explores the social experience of race in Puerto Rico and its effects on biological health. Instead of rejecting the already-established link between skin color and blood pressure, Gravlee and his colleagues demonstrate that the significance lies with ascribed racial categories in relation to socioeconomic status rather than skin pigmentation or ancestry. In doing so, they demonstrate that race certainly is biologically relevant, but not always in the ways that we assume.

Source: Flickr.

Another way in which biology and culture are connected is through perceptions of beauty and body preferences. Anthropologists have demonstrated that attitudes towards body shape and size are often dependent on local symbols of health, fertility, wealth, and prestige. Jonathan N. Maupin and Alexandra Brewis, professors of anthropology at Arizona State University, explored body preferences among schoolchildren in Acatenango, a semirural part of Guatemala with high levels of food insecurity. Maupin and Brewis found mostly positive evaluations towards “average” bodies, mostly negative evaluations towards “thin” bodies, and mostly negative evaluations towards “fat” bodies, but significantly less than those towards thin ones. The results also indicated stronger negative preferences towards “thin” bodies when the respondents were considered food insecure. Although this study may seem to contradict past findings that fat bodies are highly valued in regions where undernutrition poses a threat, it is important to note that obesity is also a product of malnutrition. Acatenango, along with many developing regions throughout the world, has high levels of “paradoxical malnutrition,” in which food insecurity leads to both underweight and overweight members of the same family. This is a growing phenomenon as impoverished families rely heavily on cheaper, calorically dense foods, such as rice and vegetable oil. In this way, both overweight and underweight bodies become symbols for lower-class status. This type of research is relevant to my own research on disordered eating as it helps to explain the basis of the thin ideal—a phenomenon that is popular in Westernized cultures. In developed nations, there is often an abundance of cheap, processed foods that are high in macronutrients and low in micronutrients. Fresh, whole foods are more expensive, so obesity hits the lower class harder. As opposed to rural Guatemala, thin bodies in these areas represent upper-class status and are thus deemed more desirable.

The line between the desire for thinness and disordered eating is yet another biocultural point of interest. How we define mental illness is culturally dependent. Illnesses are generally characterized by symptomology, which follows the logic that those with the same pathologies experience the same or similar symptoms. Robert Desjarlais, professor of anthropology at Sarah Lawrence College, is interested in the social construction of experience and has written extensively on subjective experiences among homeless and mentally ill individuals. Desjarlais explores the use of “experience” as a neutral term for the representation of mental phenomena. He argues that it offers a base through which we can discuss many aspects of human life, yet its use often evades underlying intricacies that are assumed as universal. The etymology of “experience” demonstrates that the definition has evolved to incorporate not only the examination of external phenomena but also the subjective inner processes that occur in response to them. It is therefore defined as a uniquely human feature—a conglomeration of observation, reflexivity, self-awareness, emotional aptitude, and a sprinkle of mystery. The mystery is what leads Desjarlais to advocate that the “only way to safely study experience is to attend to the perimeter of expressions, stories, and social formations in which it is cloaked” (888). While Desjarlais promotes the cautious use of experience as a term, he also believes that the concept adds interpretive flexibility that is otherwise missing from biomedicine. Attention to experience legitimizes the importance of subjectivity while boiling it down to a single, digestible word that still holds onto some of its whimsical fluidity.

Desjarlais’s analysis relates to my research on eating disorders and mental illness, as I similarly view symptoms as subjective experiences as opposed to simply outcomes of pathological processes. Neuroscience and medicine can help reveal some of the biological components that play a role in disordered eating, but it does not tell us the whole story. Eating disorders are not merely products of biology, nor are they solely determined by media exposure or family dynamics. Disorder is much more than a clinical label. It is something that becomes, whether we like it or not, part of our identities. Figuring out what it means to have an eating disorder is part of moving towards recovery and finding balance. This meaning is completely subjective and even somewhat arbitrary. Understanding how and why we are sick is not revealed in textbooks; rather, it takes introspection and exploration into ourselves and our histories. Whether we explain our illness in terms of genetics, self-esteem, perfectionism, or addiction, finding significance brings on relief—whatever that may mean to each individual. As an applied component of my research, I decided to return the narratives back to my participants. In doing so, I hope to help them find meaning in how their disorders fit into their life stories.

Channah Leff is a graduate student in anthropology at the University of South Florida.

CITE AS
Leff, Channah. 2018. “Biocultural Connections to Eating Disorders and More.” American Anthropologist website, February 9.

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