It was famously written in Ecclesiastes that “there is nothing new under the sun.” This is certainly true of anorexia. Although anorexia has recently become more common, the fashion industry and the mainstream media likely contributing to the greater prevalence of anorexia nervosa in contemporary society, eating disorders themselves can be traced back through the historical record.
Though it’s likely as old as humanity, it isn’t until the 12th-13th Century C.E. that we see the first descriptions of anorexia nervosa. These descriptions often relate to canonized Saints—most famously St. Catherine of Sienna—who practiced fasting as a denial of self. In 13th century Europe, spiritual fervor and self-denial were celebrated cultural values in the same fashion that athleticism and thinness are in our society today. Just like today, individuals restricted their eating as a means of exercising control.
Current historians such as Giles Tremlett , suggest that a number of prominent historical figures may have suffered from anorexia nervosa. Candidates suggested include [King Henry VIII’s first wife] Catherine of Aragon, Mary Queen of Scots and Joan of Arc. It’s impossible to say definitively whether these historical figures suffered from anorexia since there was no formal pathology for anorexia at the time.
Anorexia was first described as a medical disorder in the 17th century. The first descriptions of anorexia are generally attributed to the English physician Richard Morton, although the term “anorexia nervosa” wasn’t coined until 1873 in an influential paper by Sir William Gull, one of Queen Victoria of England’s personal physicians. In addition to establishing the term “anorexia”, the paper described several cases of the disorder and also described various treatments.
However, anorexia remained largely unknown to laypeople until the late 1970s when Hilde Bruch published her popular book The Golden Cage: The Enigma of Anorexia Nervosa. Another event that brought anorexia into the spotlight was the death of singer Karen Carpenter. Following The Carpenters singer’s death, anorexia was widely covered by the mainstream media. Since then, there have been other celebrities with anorexia who gained media attention including Growing Pains’ Tracy Gold and singer Fiona Apple.
While anorexia nervosa has only been formally recognized as a mental health disorder for a little over a century, it has certainly existed throughout the ages. According to Dr. Julie Hepworth, an eating disorders specialist, “Did this exist before? Absolutely. It just wasn’t called anorexia nervosa. The symptoms have been called different things at different times.”