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I Disturbi Alimentari Nella Narrativa Femminile Italiana Dall'unità al Miracolo Economico: Eating Disorders in Italian Women's Writings From Unification to the Economic Boom

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posted on 2021-12-08, 10:26 authored by Calamita, Francesca

In the feminist discourse about women’s relationship with food developed in the 1970s and 1980s, eating disorders are perceived as a complex reaction to traditional models of female identity. In the writings of Kim Chernin, Marilyn Lawrence, Morag MacSween and Susie Orbach, anorexia, bulimia, binge eating and other atypical relationships with food and body emerge as an unidiomatic language adopted by women to communicate what words cannot express. Paradoxically, eating disorders become instruments of selfempowerment: on the one hand, unconventional eaters develop abnormal attitudes towards their bodies, but on the other hand, by employing such metaphorical language, they find a way to question the social constrictions and cultural contradictions of women’s position in patriarchal culture. Italian women writers have portrayed openly anorexic, bulimic and compulsive eaters in the characters of their novels and autobiographies since the late 1980s. From Clara Sereni’s pioneering Casalinghitudine (1987) to Michela Marzano’s controversial Volevo essere una farfalla (2011), the fictional depiction of eating disorders in Italian literature has increased epidemically in the last few decades, mirroring the rapid spread of these syndromes. However, as I suggest in my thesis, since the late nineteenth century, when anorexia was officially diagnosed by the medical discourse, Italian women writers such as Neera (1848-1918), Sibilla Aleramo (1876-1960), Wanda Bontà (1902-1986), Paola Masino (1908-1989), Natalia Ginzburg (1916-1991) and others have presented in their fiction a variety of female characters who experience a troubled relationship with their body and with food. In each case, this is coupled with the portrayal of the rebellious feelings that the characters experience towards women’s preestablished social roles. In Neera’s Teresa (1886) and L’indomani (1889), in Aleramo’s Una donna (1906), in Bontà’s Signorinette (1938), Masino’s Nascita e morte della massaia (1945) and in Ginzburg’s “La madre” (1948) and Le voci della sera (1961), as well as other narrative works, the authors do not use the medical terminology of eating disorders in order to illustrate their protagonists’ eating problems, but they often depict behaviours which recall anorexic and bulimic attitudes, as described by the scientific discourse on these pathologies. The anorexic symptoms displayed by the characters become therefore their unspoken protest against the socio-cultural constrictions imposed on Italian women. Employing an interdisciplinary approach, I frame my analysis of modern and contemporary Italian women’s fiction within the feminist perspectives on anorexia, bulimia and binge eating developed in the 1970s and 1980s. By doing so, I attempt to decode a controversial female experience and the language Italian women writers used to express it before it became officially acknowledged as a pathology that reflects women’s anxiety about their identity. Long before feminist scholars identified the strong link between social context and eating disorders in the closing decades of the twentieth century, these writers depict women using the languages of food and the body as one of the possible means of rebelling against patriarchal repression.


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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Doctor of Philosophy

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Languages and Cultures


Bernardi, Claudia; Hill, Sally