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Constructing the Self in Mental Health Practice: Identity, Individualism and the Feminization

of Deficiency
Author(s): Nicole Moulding
Source: Feminist Review, No. 75, Identities (2003), pp. 57-74
Published by: Palgrave Macmillan Journals
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75

constructing
in

mental

health

identity,
and
of

the

self

practice:

individualism

the

feminization

deficiency

NicoleMoulding

abstract
Thediscursive production of the 'self' in the context of
mental health care has
potentialimplicationsfor how the subjects of interventioncome to
understandand
experience
themselves. Eatingdisordersprovidean illustrativeexampleof the ways
in
whichconceptualizationsof the self that structure mental
health practices can be
gendered,because they are mainlydiagnosed in womenand dominant
explanationsof
theirorigins are feminized. This discourse analytic study
examines the gendered
natureof mental health workers'constructionsof the
eating-disorderedself through
the psychological construct of 'identity', examining the
dominant discourses
implicatedin the feminizationof deficient identity, and addressing
the implications
ofthis constructionfor mental health practice.

keywords
identity;eating disorders; discourse; gender; feminism

feminist

review 75 2003

(57-74) (i 2003 FeministReview.0141-7789/03$15

www.feminist-review.com

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57

introduction
While psychological theories and associated interventions used to explain and
treat 'mental disorders' make claims to gender-neutrality, mental health workers'
assumptions about mental health and illness in women and men are known to be
profoundly gendered (Brovermanet al., 1972). ating disorders provide a useful
illustration of particular ways in which assumptions about gender can structure
explanations and practices in the mental health arena because, firstly, they are
mainly diagnosed in women (American Psychiatric Association, 1994) and,
secondly, dominant conceptualizations of their origins are feminized (Hepworth,
1999). For example, problematic female puberty is seen as central in anorexia
nervosa, despite its diagnosis in males (Crisp, 1979).
The extent to which assumptions about gender underpin theory and practice in
relation to eating disorders has potential implications for the ways in which women
come to understand and experience themselves. 1 Various forms of individual
psychological therapy represent the predominant method of intervention and,
despite relatively poor outcomes (Hsu et al., 1992), there has been little attention
to alternative approaches such as addressing the sociocultural factors widely
implicated in causation (Moulding and Hepworth, 2001). Thus, the main forms of
intervention are individually focused and intrinsically language-based, offering
particular forms of subjectivity to women as the main subjects of intervention.
Drawingon the writings of the Frenchphilosopher Michel Foucault language is 'the
place where actual and possible forms of social organization and their likely social
and political consequences are defined and contested... it is also the place where
our sense of ourselves, our subjectivity, is constructed' (Weedon, 1987: 21).
Subjectivity is, therefore, produced in a range of discursive practices and the
meanings of these can be understood as sites of struggle over power (Weedon,
1987). The discursive practices that constitute interventions for eating disorders
represent such site, offering particular forms of gendered subjectivity and power
setting
dynamics (Turner, 1984; Gremillion, 1992). While the therapeutic
represents only one of many contexts in which the subjectivities of women
diagnosed with eating disorders are produced, it is particularly significant because
of the power dynamics involved. The freedom to position oneself in discourse is
contingent upon access to power (Parker, 1992), and mental health workers have
differential access to the power to position subjects within the discourses
structuring therapeutic interactions by virtue of their status as professionals with
expert knowledge.

method
In order to interrogate the ways in which assumptions about gender might
structure explanations and associated interventions used for eating disorders, a

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1 While this paper


focuses specifically
on gender, the ways
in which constructions of eating
disorders are
racialised and
codified according
to class also represents an important
area o Inquiry.
.

series of interviews were conducted between 1997 and 2000 with a multidisciplinary
sample of 31 health-care workers involved in therapy and prevention in this area.
The health workers were based in three Australian capital cities, and represented a
wide range of disciplines, including, 10 psychiatrists, four social workers, four
psychologists, two community workers, counsellors, nurses, general practitioners
and dietitians and three health promotion workers. The health workers were based
in a variety of settings, including community-based women's health centres,
hospital-based inputient treatment settings, private psychotherapeutic clinics, a
state-wide health promotion programme and community-based self-help groups. A
wide selection of disciplines and settings were chosen to ensure maximum
variability of responses (Kuzel, 1992).
Semistructured interviews were undertaken in order to obtain extensive and
detailed information about health workers' explanations of 'eating disorders'.
Interviews were loosely structured around a series of questions about how eating
disorders and their causes might be explained and addressed. There was an
assumption of inter-subjectivity and mutual creation of data between the
interviewer and participants (Olesen, 1994). Interviews, ranged between 50 min
and 2 hours, were audiotape recorded and fully transcribed.
Central to this analysis is a post-structural feminist understanding, which
emphasizes the constructive use of language and the ways in which gender
inequalities are reproduced in the structuring of explanations of women through
historical, social and political discourse (Weedon, 1987; McNay, 1992). Discourse
analysis was used to explore the ways health workers' accounts drew on particular
historical, social and political discourse. Whilethere is no one definitive approach
to discourse analysis, Burman and Parker (1993: 3) suggest that ' [d] ifferent
approaches to discourse analysis share a concern with the ways language produces
and constrains meaning, where meaning does not, or does not only, reside within
the individual's head, and where social conditions give rise to the forms of talk
available'. Discourse analysis therefore involves exploration of the ways in which
language constructs, rather than simply reflects social reality, with the associated
implication that 'meanings are multiple and shifting, rather than unitury and fixed'
(Burman and Parker, 1993: 3). In the approach used in this study, there was also
an emphasis on the ways in which subjects (women) as well as objects (eating
disorders) were constructed in discourse, and how language mirrorsand reproduces
wider power relations (Parker, 1992). Thus, the study involved a critical approach,
attending to the ways discourse is shaped by, and reproduces, power relations and
the constructive effects of discourse upon subjectivities (Fairclough, 1992; Parker,
1992). NUDIST,the electronic qualitative data analysis package, was used to
categorize transcribed interview text thematically, and to undertake the initial
stage of analysis. Later stages involved extensive re-readings of thematically
categorized extracts.

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59

identity and selfhood

in eating disorders

One of the key themes to emerge from the interviews with mental health workers
was that of 'identity'. This concept was used to construct the intrapsychic realm of
the eating-disordered self, and to situate this self in relation to the externally
located social world. The fact that eating disorders are widely understood as
having at least some origin in particular historical and social contexts (cf. Garner
et al., 1983) means that they provide a particularly good illustration of some of
the ways in which individuals are positioned in relation to the social dimension
within the mental health arena. Half of the sample of workers interviewed used the
concept of identity in this way, including most of the disciplines participuting in
the study. Notably, social workerstended not to draw on these ideas and, instead,
employed post-structural, feminist and structural explanations. This reflects the
fact that social work has historically given some emphasis to sociological
perspectives and the broader social aspects of health and welfare problems
(Payne, 1997).
While the construct of identity has been previously identified within UK health
workers' explanations of anorexia nervosa (see Hepworth, 1999), the analysis
presented here focuses specifically on the ways in which the psychological theories
informing mental health workers' accounts of identity in eating disorders are
gendered,and the implications of this for practice. Three key discursive themes
emerging from mentaJ health workers' constructions of identity in this study
included: (1) psychodynumic constructions of identity; (2) autonomy and
connected-ness in identity, and (3) inauthentic identity. xampies of the
discursive themes from the relevant interviews are provided as interview extracts
drawn from a more comprehensive collection of analysed material. Health workers'
numes have been changed to protect their, and their clients', identities.

psychodynamic constructions

of identity

The psychological concept of 'identity' has its origins in psychodynumic theory and
rikson's (1980) proposal that 'ego identity' involves 'the immediate perception of
one's selfsameness and continuity in time' and a 'perception of the fact that
others recognize one's sameness and continuity' (rikson, 1980: 22). rikson (1980)
also suggests that the individual gains a 'sense of reality from the awareness that
his [sic] individual way of mustering experience, his [sic] ego synthesis is a
successfuJ variant of a group identity', and this is understood as conferring 'status
and stature' on the individual (rikson, 1980: 21-22). Thus, identity is understood
within rikson's conceptualization as 'a theory one has about oneself' (Marcia,
1987: 165), involving both a continuous sense of self, self-mustery and a
recognition of this by others. In Iine with this, Robyn, a psychiatrist providing
therapy for young women diagnosed with eating disorders, emphasizes

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'self-control', agency and group identification in the following account of identity


in the eating-disordered individual:
It's a sort of self-definition,too, you know,a sense of identity.it's the identityof
belongingto a group,or the identityof againowningone's ownsturvingbehaviour,and
beingin controlof one'seating,andbe ableto makeonedo whatonewants.Maybe[it's] a
waythat a youngpersondefinesheridentity.So identityis anotherissue withthis.
(Robyn,Psychiatrist)
Self-mustery is presented as the key feature of identity for the anorexic young
woman, gained through mustery of 'sturving' practices and 'control of one's
eating' that are valued in the peer group. 'Control' is portrayed as synonymous
with agency for the individual because it signifies 'owning one's own sturving
behaviour' and being 'able to make one do what one wants', thereby projecting a
sense of 'self-possession' to the outside world. Hepworth(1999) also identifies the
themes of self-control and agency in UKhealth workers' explanations of identity in
anorexia nervosa.
Also in line with psychodynamic conceptualizations of identity, health workers
emphasized the importance of 'continuity' in identity formation, and the idea that
disruption in the formation of identity is implicated in the development of eating
disorders. While Patricia refers in gender-neutral terms to 'people' in the following
account, as do other health workers in some of their extracts, elsewhere in these
interviewsindividualswith eating disorders are universallyassumed to be female. The
following extract from Patricia illustrates this notion of disrupted identity formation:
...often there'sotherissuesinfamilies,... [.} ...there's histories,not in all families,butin
somefamilies.There'sotherhistoriesin termsof, ... just, ... Iotsof differenthistoriesand
losses and,....,and familydisillusions,...or, ...you know,...breakups,or losses, um....
vennot losses,ordeathsof parentsandfamilymembers,butmarriage,
separation,... um
migrations,yeah, so legaciesof changesof identityand thingslike that...[.}...and I
supposeit's verymuchtied into also, um, ...[.}...what it meansto be successfulas a
personin oursociety yeah, and sometimesthat literalinterpretation
for peoplewhoare
perhapsreallyvulnerableand are needingmarkersaroundguidingthem and navigating
themselvesthroughsomedifficultstuff.
(Patricia,Community
Worker)
In Patricia's account, 'legacies of changes of identity' in the family are understood
as leading to a 'literal interpretation' of cultural prescriptions for individuals who
are 'really vulnerable'. In line with psychodynumic conceptualizations, 'identity
confusion' is addressed by the individual through 'over-identification' (rikson,
1980: 97). Continuingwith the theme of disruption in identity formation, Rebecca
centres the psychodynumic idea that the parent-child relationship is of paramount
importance in the early development of identity, and that disruption can lead to
incomplete identity formation:

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...obviously things that happenearly in a woman'slife can make a difference, particularly,


um, [ . . . ] sayXafter losing yourfather earXierin life can, . . . wouldappearto be a significant
riskfactor. Um,you know,all sorts of..[.]..crises that interferewith a child's developmentof
their sense of self, and their relationshipswith parents, and importantpeople.
(Rebecca, Psychiatrtst)
of their

'crises' can 'interfere with a child's development

in Rebecca's account,

sense of self'. ric also focuses on the early parent-child


that there has been 'damage to the emergence

suggesting

relationship,

of the child's sense of their own

inner world':
...it seems very often ... [.] ...quite a well meaning family to the outsiders. The fact is
ultimatelyto damage the emergenceof the child's sense of their own innerworld.Andwhat
happenswith the, you know,the characteristicof anorexianervosa is that there is nothing
inside. She can talk about nothing She's, you know,the whole worldis impingingupon her
and she has no agency, not even a sense of control over her own thought processes. So it
seems to me that the notion of control whicharises ... [.] ... control over her own body, and
what goes into it, is in a perverseway an attempt some how or other to maintaina kind of
agency which is part of the system itself... [.} ...that

has been damaged in the

developmental process in that particularfamity environment.That seems to be, that's a


characteristic situation.
(Eric, Psychiatrist)
understood

Continuity is therefore
and complete

functional

to be essential

of a

to the development

Further,

identity in both Rebecca's and ric's accounts.

ric suggests that 'damage' results in the anorexic individual lacking an identity or
sense of self completely,

where 'there is nothing inside'. However, in this account,

the eating disorder functions as a way for the individual to 'maintain some kind of
agency', and therefore some form of ego identity, albeit a dysfunctional
eating-disorder

one. The
(see

then, an identity to deal with a lack of identity

becomes,

Malson, 1998: 147).


The concept of identity is embedded in humanist discourse, with its assumption of
the individual as 'a unitary, essentially
entity' (Henriques et

non-contradictory

1984: 93). Within psychodynumic

al.J

and above all rational


identity theory, it is

assumed that the healthy personality is 'developed' through childhood, after which
the individual is a coherent self, with an identity that is continuous
and place.

The concept

of 'agency'

synonymous with selfhood


(Davies,
extensionJ

disorder becomes

selfhood.

and understood

to be

within humanist discourse and related identity theory

1991), and this is reflected

where the eating

is also emphasized

across time

most clearly in Robyn's and ric's accounts


an attempt

Within this conceptualization,

to maintain

agency

the individual

understood as 'the agent of all social phenomena and productions'

and,

is therefore
(Henriques et

al., 1984: 93), and is therefore thought of as a sovereigri individual, socialized


but at the same time standing apart from it (Davies,

the wider collectivel

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by

1991).

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Thus, the humanist view of the relationship between the individual and society is
dualistic. The idea of the unitury, sovereign individual at the centre of humanist
thought has been widely challenged by post-structural theorists, particularly
Foucault, who emphasizes the idea of discontinuity and contradiction as
constitutive of individual subjectivity (Foucault, 1972). This challenges notions
of progressive, linear development resulting in a unitury, coherent identity and,
instead, views identity as a phenomenon that is contingent on social practices
and, therefore, inherently unstable (McNay, 1992). The individual-society dualism
structuring humanist accounts is consequently challenged in post-structural
thinking because identity is understood as produced through language and
discourse, rather than as residing within individuals' heads.

autonomy and connected-ness


The emphasis on individual agency in humanist discourse is tied to a concomitant
valorization of autonomy in the individual (Davies, 1991). Many health workers in
this study problematized connected-ness and attachment in identity, implicitly
idealizing their converse in the form of autonomy and separateness. For example,
earlier, ric introduced the idea that 'the whole world is impinging' on the eatingdisordered individual because she has no identity or agency, and is therefore more
subject to, and less separate from, the world around her. The idea that eating
disordered individuals are more subject to forces outside themselves, and overly
connected to or attached to others, was a feature of many health workers'
accounts. The following from Gillian illustrates this idea:
... people with anorexia tend to in many ways to have a much deeper level of um
psychological problem,. .. a sense of, . .. a lack of sense of self, and a lack of sense of
worth.And, um, if you've got those things acting in addition to all of these other pressures
you can,...they're the people who are really likely to find themselves in problemswith real
eating disorders.
(Gillian, Psychologist)

Here, eating-disordered individuals are portrayed as more subject to 'all of these


other pressures' because of a 'lack of a sense of self'. Patricia also suggests that
eating-disordered women are more subject to external forces, this time in the form
of comments from other people:
...often I hear women'svoices telling me stories which are really difficult. Um, they may
have just spent six weeks in a treatment program,they go back to work, they may be
receptionist at their local GP,and most of the clients comingthroughare going, 'Oh,you've
put on weight love'. yOuknow,...it's really hard for that young womanto hold on to that
fragile sense of herself, and her part of herself that she's wantingto be well, and, and, not
get recruited back into self-starving. I mean it's considered quite OKfor anyone to pass
judgment and comment on women's bodies.
(Patricia, CommunityWorker)

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ating-disordered women are portrayed as at risk of being 'recruited back into


self-sturving' because they have a 'fragile sense of self'. While the sociocultural
dimension of eating disorders is acknowledged by Patricia through the comment
that 'it's considered quite OK for anyone to pass judgment and comment on
women's bodies', the eating-disordered individual is nevertheless constructed as
suggestible and subject to others because her identity is weak. In a similar way,
Melissa, herself a survivor of an eating disorder, portrays such individuals as
having weak, non-autonomous identities because they are controlled by others,
rather than self-determining:
. . * on a personal level, eating disorder people tend to be intelligent, sensitive, perceptive
people, highlycreative, althoughtheir eating disordersaps that fromthem. AndI think that
makes them morevulnerableto all the other stuff that's out there, and morevulnerableto
family loyalty. I think I notice family loyalty a lot with eating disorderpeople. That bind of
trying to find themselves and be themselves which is often at the onset of sixteen,
seventeen, whenthey're really growingup, and yet perhapswantingto meet their parents'
needs as well, and that's a real conflict for people.*.
(Melissa, Counsellor)

While Melissa attempts to re-frame the traits of the eating-disordered individual


to counter dominant deficit models, this also becomes a deficit account because
pre-existing personality traits, such as 'loyalty', are portrayed as disrupting the
process of individuation. In common with psychodynamic identity theory,
adolescence represents a critical period in identity formation in this account,
where the individual must successfully tackle the 'attachment and separation'
developmental phase in order to gain a sense of autonomy and a complete adult
identity (BushJ 1987: 210). Withinthis view, the individual cannot bond with others
until they have fully individuated and separated themselves from their
environment, including others (Erikson, 1968). In Melissa's account, eatingdisordered individuals fail to negotiate this separation, and remain 'wanting to
meet their parents needs as well'. Thus, the eating-disordered individual is
constructed as having an immature, incomplete identity that is fundamentally
over-connected to other people, rather than autonomous and self-contained. In
the following account, Vivien also subscribes to the idea that eating-disordered
individuals are less separate from, and more affected by, others:
...the issues which I think, from clinical practice, come up again and again and again is a
way, especially people with anorexia, the way they seem to conceptualizerelationshipsand
living in the world,whichis a bit like a seesaw. Often if they're doing better, it must be at
someone else's expense. It's as if the fantasy's if things are going well for them, if they're
having a good time, if they're enjoyingthemselves, it's as if they're pushingsomeone else
down the other end of the seesaw. Andthe other way aroundtoo. That if they're having a
hard time the fantasy seems to be that they're being punished, as if there's someone
outside pulling strings so to speak... [ .] ...And the idea that they should be able to
manipulate the world, especially to feel liked. And often people that I see just haven't

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coped with the concept that everybodywon't like them, no matter what they do, no matter
how wonderfulor good they might be, that everybodyisn't going to like them, and that
that's okay... [ . ] ...So I guess they're quite immature...
(Vivien, Psychiatrist)

In this account, anorexic individuals are portrayed as fundamentally overconnected to, and affected by, others because they conceptualize relationships
like a 'see-saw', and are therefore 'immature' because they have failed to
individuate. Further, Vivien constructs the behaviour of anorexics as 'trying to
manipulate . . . change things' so they will feel 'liked', 'accepted' and 'approved of',
constructing anorexic individuals as experiencing themselves only in relation to
others. This is portrayed as a deficit in the individual, and as underpinning their
disorder.
In the following extract, Sarah, also a survivor of an eating disorder, introduces
the idea that eating-disordered individuals have weak boundaries around the self
as an explanation for over-connectedness to others and the outside world more
generally. The concept of weak boundaries is introduced through the idea that
eating-disordered individuals 'lack a bit of a buffer' from the outside world:
. . . these people tend to be quite perceptive, and sensitive people. And that's a great
quality to have, you know, it's very useful. But this society is a very kind of competitive,
hard, anxiety-riddenculture. Those people cannot then just crumblebecause... [.] ... being
[.] perceptive or considerate can be a bit too much. Sometimes you need to have a little
bit of a buffer. yOu need to step back. These people often feel that they're somehow
responsiblefor fixing everything... [.] ...this belief that somehowyou are in a position to
fix other things aroundyou.
(Sarah, CommunityWorker)

In common with Melissa's earlier account, Sarah also attempts to re-frame


positively the traits of the eating-disordered individual; however, they are
nevertheless constructed as unable to cope with the demands of the modern world
because they are less self-contained. Similarly, in the next extract, Melissa
constructs herself and other eating-disordered young women as less bounded, this
time more specifically from the effects of female body appraisal:
... personallyI can remembermy father saying to me, and lookingback he didn't mean any
harm, but I was about sixteen, seventeen, and he said to me 'Oooh,you're getting a nice
figure.yOucould go in one of those... [.] ...beach girlcompetitions,I was horrified.I actually
felt reallyembarrassedand really'Oh,I don't want to' because that's my dad, I knowthat my
sisters wouldnot havetaken that personally.I was different. I was the one that alwayswanted
privacyin the bathroom. .. [.] .. . Butgirls are different aroundwhat they want, and I think as
a parent you actually have to find out what that is and respect it, because people have a
different sense of boundariesaroundthe body. So you can touch someone, but not touch
someone else. Oryou could say one thing to one person, but not to another one...
(Melissa, Counsellor)

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Melissa argues that it is the 'different sense of boundaries' that individual girls
have that leads some to take things 'personally'. Thus, girls prone to eating
disorders are less bounded from the effects of female body appraisal than other
girls. In this extract, boundaries are defined in two ways. Firstly, they are located
around the body, in that 'you can touch someone, but not touch someone else.'
Secondly, they are located around the self, because 'you can say one thing to one
person, but not to another one.' For some individuals, comments penetrate weak
boundaries and are internalized, while they fail to penetrate those individuals
whose boundaries are more firmly delineated. The notion that the self is bounded
also derives from psychodynamics, where 'ego boundaries' are understood as
providing 'shock-absorbing delineation' from the outside world (Erikson, 1980: 42).
In the individual with an incomplete ego identity, this protection is absent. One of
the foremost early theorists on eating disorders, Bruch(1974), centred the concept
of diffuse ego boundaries in her account of anorexia nervosa. In common with
these ideas, Sarah's and Melissa's accounts construct eating-disordered
individuals as less bounded, less self-contained, and as therefore more vulnerable
to incursions from outside.

autonomy, individualism and the feminization of incompleteness


In those accounts centring over-connected-ness, eating-disordered individuals are
presented as essentially non-autonomous. This is constructed as a weak and a
lesser identity against its implied converse: the idealized autonomous identity. The
centring of autonomy as the mark of idealized identity is embedded in a discourse
of individualism which is based on the liberal belief that the individual is 'a
relatively autonomous, self-contained and distinctive entity, who is affected by
external variables like 'socialization' and 'social context' but is in some sense
separate from these 'influences' ' (Kitzinger, 1992: 229). Malson (1998) identifies
similar themes of idealized selfhood as autonomy within women's accounts of their
experiences of anorexia nervosa, while Hepworth (1999) notes an association
between identity and autonomy in UK health workers' explanations of anorexia.
Malson (1998) argues that the individualism underpinning the idealization of
autonomy 'excludes the person who is influenced by social pressures from the
idealized subject position of sovereign individual,' producing this individual as
'weak' (Malson, 1998: 155). The portrayal of eating-disordered individuals as
overly connected to others, and responsive to social pressures, therefore
constructs them as having fai led to individuate and stand apart from the
collective. This drives at the heart of a humanist conceptualization of selfhood
because it destabilizes the notion of the sovereignty of the self, constructing
eating-disordered individuals as deficient in the core aspect of selfhood.
The emphasis in health workers' accounts on the significance of autonomy and
separateness in the development of a complete, adult identity has particular
implications for the construction of women* selfhood. In her well-known work on

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identity, Gilligan (1982) argues that the assumption of complete identity


formation as characterized by autonomy and separation describes the
development of male, rather than female identity. Gilligan (1982) suggests that
the notion that the individual cannot bond with others until they have fully
individuated and separated themselves from others and their environment is at
odds with female identity because, for girls, intimacy and connected-ness are core
features of identity. She argues that 'male gender identity is threatened by
intimacy while female gender identity is threatened by separation' (Gilligan, 1982:
8). The assumption that a healthy identity is characterized by autonomy therefore
values those qualities traditionally associated with 'musculinity' while characteriSticsJ such as connected-ness, which are traditionally associated with
'femininity', are de-valued and rendered equivalent to incompleteness. The irony
is that gender performance relies on such identification and responsiveness to
others in women, and its refusal in men.
While Gilligan's (1982) critique provides a useful insight into the gendered nature
of dominant assumptions about identity, it does not question the validity of the
construct itself, assuming the individual to indeed have a unitury, continuous and
internally located identity. Further,Gilligan (1982) asserts that because males and
females undergo different stages of identity development based on differential
gender role socialization processes, these in reality lead to different gender
identities, where 'men and women speak different languages that they assume are
the same' (Gilligan, 1982: 173). Thus, in this view, 'femininity' and 'musculinity'
are seen as 'fixed features located exclusively in women and men' (Hollway, 1984:
228). Rather, it is argued here that respondents' use of these concepts reproduces
the idea that connected-ness and responsiveness to others are equivalent to major
deficits in the individual. Furthermore, dominant constructions of identity are
profoundly gendered in their assumptions about mental healthiness because they
draw on an historical discourse of selfhood that renders qualities associated with
the feminine equivalent to deficiency through the musculinization of strong
identity and the feminization of weak identity.
The association of 'musculinity' with strength and independence, and 'femininity'
with weakness and dependency, is by no means exclusive to psychological theories
of identity. These dualistic ideas derive from long historical associations in
Western thought between 'male', 'rationality', and 'independence', and between
'female', 'irrationality', 'emotion' and 'dependence' (Jaggar, 1989). A now famous
study conducted by Brovermanet al. (1972) clearly demonstrates the impact of
these ideas in the mental health field. Mental health clinicians have been shown to
perceive socially acceptable 'feminine' characteristics, such as dependency and
emotionality, as conflicting with notions of mental healthiness because they are at
odds with notions of instrumentality and adulthood (Broverman et al., 1972).
Conversely, 'musculine' characteristics were unproblematically understood as
marks of mental health in men (Broverman et al., 1972). Thus, notions of mental

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health in women are inherently conflicted and contradictory because women are
concurrently constructed through fundamentally contradictory discourses. While
femininity discourse confers 'feminine' qualities, these are rendered deficient
through psychological theories embedded a discourse of individualism that is
predicated on masculinist assumptions of idealized selfhood.

feminization of inauthentic identity


There was one other way in which a discourse of individualism was used to
construct identity in respondents' accounts, and this was used to explain tbody
image problems' rather than 'eating disorders' per se. However, because body
image dissatisfaction was generally understood by health workers to be a part of
eating disorders elsewhere in their interviews, this also has relevance for workers'
constructions of identity in eating disorders. The following accounts are structured
around the notion of true and faise identity:
...we donJt spend a lot of time reflecting, or workingout, who we really are. Weget our
values or our ideas of what we should be from out thereJ... externally.AndI thinkthat that
sets up a lot of problemsfor you know, body image. And it's just such a superficial thing
really, isn't it? Whenyou think about it. ItJsnot reallywhowe areJor what weire aboutJand
yet thatJs what weJvechosen, or especially women...
It's interestingthat womenwili say... [.] ...they'd choose to have two years off their life if
they could be ten kilos skinnier... [.] ...that's how much of a need there is for women to
define their sense of self throughhowthey look, and that body image. Whichis quite scary,
because itjs, um, its not what it's about. And it really prevents them from looking at
themselves, or what they want in their lives, or, you know,who they want to be at a really
deeper level. Because they're stili caught in this very superficial kind of...yeah
(Sarah, CommunityWorker)

In Sarah's account, identity derived from outside the individual is understood to be


false, while identity derived from within is real and authentic. Thus, women are
distracted from the truth of themselves because twe get our values or our ideas of
what we should be from out there...externally.' This is framed around the idea
that the truth of the self buried deep within the individual, and that a process of
self-discovery will reveal this. Sarah also suggests that women can be architects of
the self by looking at 'who they want to be at a really deeper level,' entailing a
process of self-production in addition to one of self-discovery. The notion of selfcreation reflects contemporary discourses of individualism, sometimes called 'new
age' philosophies, which emphasize ideas of self-determination and selfactualization. It is assumed that this process needs to take place at 'a deeper
level' because the development of a true self occurs internally, at the heart of the
individual, rather than in the superficial, external world of body image In the next
extract, Paul also draws on this idea of true and false identity:

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I think [body image disturbance has] risen much more in recent times when there's a
tendency for people to be fairly anonymous,whereas perhaps in times gone past they'd be
part of an extended community,an extended family, [and] their identity was more from
being known.Um, now perhapsthere is a tendency more to be knownby howyou look or by
your money, or by your success...
(Paul, Psychiatrist)

Thus, being 'known by how you look' is a superficial, fulse identity in contrust to
being known for your true inner self. Clare also uses a similar notion of true and
fulse identity in body image problems:
...there's not an acceptance of people for the size they are. There'snot an acceptance of
the person for who they are. It's really much more conditional on meeting certain kinds of
stereotypes than that...
(Clare, Psychologist)

In this account, 'certain kinds of stereotypes' represent the world of external, fulse
identity, while true identity involves individuals being accepted for 'who they are'.
Malson (1998) also identifies similar themes of true/internal and superficial/
external identity in women's explanations of their experiences of anorexia nervosa.
She argues that the intersection of these metaphors with constructions of
'feminine' identity are problematic because dominant constructions of femininity
centre physical appearance and beauty practices. The location of authentic
identity within the internal depths of the individual is therefore 'profoundly at
odds' with the superficiality of this construction of 'femininity', which becomes
'the other of identity' (Malson, 1998: 149). The notion of superficial identity
serves, then, to feminize inauthentic identity, just as the privileging of autonomy
feminizes incomplete identity.

the 'othering' of women in discourses of identity


The psychological theories employed by respondents to construct women with
eating disorders serve to position them as 'Other' to a male norm (Kitzinger and
Wilkinson, 1996: 3). This is achieved by simultaneously constructing women with
eating disorders through a discourse of femininity that portrays them as connected
and superficial, and through supposedly non-gendered psychological theories
embedded in a discourse of individualism that denigrates and negates the
'feminine'. Psychology has been called a 'musculine-invested discipline' which has
applied itself to 'the repudiation of all things (supposedly) feminine', including
'emotions, subjectivity, connected-ness and contextuality' (Burman, 1996: 139).
This is made possible because psychology's model of the 'thinking, reasoning
individual' is a model of man, defined by 'male-defined criteria of normality', and
made possible by the subordinate positioning of women in gender power relations
(Burman, 1996: 3). Thus, 'Other-ness is projected on to women... [.] ...such that

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[women] are constructed as inferior or abnormal' (Kitzinger and Wilkinson,


1996: 4).
Health workers' constructions of autonomy and authentic-ness in identity are also
structured around a further dualism based on gendered assumptions: a Cartesian
separation between mind and body, with the latter positioned as inferior and in
need of control (Lloyd, 1989). In psychodynamic accounts of identity provided by
health workersJthe body is merely a vehicle for the mind/self to establish and
project an identity through the control of the body's physicality and desires. For
example, Robyn suggests that control and mustery of the body by the mind/self
produces an identity for young women. Thus, in psychodynamic conceptualizations,
identity resides in the mental realm, and the body is merely a non-gendered
appendage for the activities of this self. In health workers' accounts of
true and false identity, the mind is associated with 'truth' and the body with
'falseness' and the 'superficial'* This privileging of the mind/self over the body
fails to engage with the extent to which dominant conceptualizations of femininity
define women as bodies, in ways men are not, through the centring of sexuality on
women (MacSween, 1993). In part, this derives from historical associations
between 'masculine' and mind, and 'feminine' and body (Jaggar, 1989: Lloyd,
1989). The idealization of the mind/self over the separate, feminized body in
health workers' explanations of identity in eating disorders reproduces this
dualism, and fails to engage with the gendered nature of women's bodily
experlence.

The simultaneous positioning of women with eating disorders as feminine and


deficient against an idealized notion of disembodied, masculinized autonomy is
embedded in a discursive frameworkthat places women's subjectivity in the midst
of a central contradiction. Indeed, the idea that eating disorders themselves might
be understood as related to the contradictory expectations placed on women in
conte-mporarysociety has been previously canvassed by post-structural feminists.
For example, MacSween (1993) argues that the body practices associated with
anorexia nervosa can be understood as 'an attempt to resolve at the level of the
individual body the irreconcilability of individuality and femininity' in Western
culture (MacSween, 1993: 252), symbolized through resistance to a traditional
'femininity' signified by the rounded female body (Bordo, 1990; MacSween, 1993).
Further, Turner (1992) argues that contradiction is a distinguishing feature of
contemporary expectcitions of adult women more generally, where women are
expected to be 'autonomous' and 'compliant', 'independent' and 'dependent',
'sexualized' and 'androgynous'. It is argued here that similarly conflicted ideas
about women as 'autonomous' and 'connected', and 'deep' and 'superficial' are
produced through the discourses uncritically employed by many mental health
workers to delineate women with eating disorders and body image problems from
other women through the construct of identity, rendering the former deficient in
the masculinized ideal of selfhood.

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implications for mental health practice


If eating disorders are indeed reflective of contemporary women's attempts to
forge subjectivities out of fundamentally irreconcilable discourses, a presumption
that recovery necessitates the ascendancy of musculinized autonomy over
feminized deficiency ironically reproduces a discursive double bind that has been
widely implicated in structuring eating disorders themselves. Gremillion(1992) has
previously shown how contemporary psychological explanations of anorexia nervosa
and associated treatments reproduce a host of dualisms, particularly mind-body
dualism, which she argues are central in sustaining anorexic practices. In a similar
way, a dualistic approach to identity as internally located selfhood structured
around idealized 'musculine' and deficient 'feminine' elements reinforces the idea
that the 'feminine' is indeed objectionable and must be controlled or negated.
How individuals are conceptualized is 'a political issue with distinct consequences
for the ways in which we experience and understand our feelings and behaviours'
(Malson, 1998: 156), where the 'politics and the metaphysics of the 'person' are
closely entwined' (Hirst and Woolley, 1982: 131, cited in Malson, 1998: 156). The
ways in which the 'self' is conceptualized in the context of practice therefore has
political consequences for how women come to understand and experience
themselves. Similarities between the discourses used by mental health workers to
construct identity and selfhood in eating disorders, and those identified by Malson
(1998) in her work with women on their experiences of anorexia nervosa, are
indicative of the dominance of individualism and particular conceptualizations of
femininity in Western societies and, more specifically, in the mental health arena.
Where health workers take an uncritical stance, a correspondence between
practitioners' and women's assumptions about identity and selfhood could
undermine the potential for the production of new meanings in the practice
context. Malson's (1998) work also highlights a multiplicity of subjectivities
associated with women's explanations of their experiences of anorexia nervosa,
including resistance to traditional constructions of femininity. It is imperative that
health workers critically engage with the diversity of often contradictory meanings
structuring women's experiences in order to forge politicized approaches that
challenge de-powering, dualistic discourses in the intervention setting.

conclusion
A focus on the internally located and supposedly gender-neutral construct of
identity obscures the profoundly gendered nature of discourse and subjectivity. It
is imperative that practitioners take critical account of the gendered nature of
dominant discourses structuring theory and associated practices used in relation
to eating disorders. Post-structural feminist interpretations offer radically
different possibilities for practitioners and women to challenge constructively

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the dualisms structuring humanist assumptions of the self as part of supporting


women in forging more empowering interpretations of their experiences, as well as
their potentialities.

author biography
Nicole Moulding is currently completing doctoral research into constructions of
gender, self and society in mental health practice in the Department of Social
Inquiryand Department of Public Health at the University of Adelaide. She has
long-standing interests in gender and mental health, both academically and as a
professional social worker in the field. Her previous publications include a critical
analysis of a mental health promotion programme addressing body image and
eating problems among women.

voknowledgements
I thank the health workers who took part in this study. I also thank Dr Margie
Ripper for her insightful comments and feedback on earlier drafts of this paper.
This study was conducted as part of the author's Doctoral research, and was
supported through a University of Adelaide scholarship, a Health Enhancement
Research Grant from the South Australian Department of Human Services and a
grant from SmithKline, Beechum.

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