Many people believe that eating disorders are a product of the twentieth century, brought on by teenage girls aspiring to be supermodels like Cindy Crawford. Although such pressures are precipitating factors to many eating disorders, doctors diagnosed patients with anorexia as early as 1689 (Spignesi 7). One early example of anorexia is present in the novel Jane Eyre. Written in the mid-nineteenth century by Charlotte Brontë, this book describes a young girl whose personality bears striking similarities with that of a diagnosed anorexic. The life of the main character, Jane, has also been shown to share innumerable similarities with Brontë's own life. Biographical information from researchers and autobiographical information from Jane Eyre (whether intentional or not) verify that Brontë had an eating disorder.
Brontë was raised in the nineteenth century, a time in which many psychologists believe that eating disorders may have been more common than originally thought. With science and psychology still in their infancy, the victims of these disorders were said to suffer from either insanity, hysteria, or narcissism. Changes in the twentieth century society have led to a greater likelihood of an eating disorder being discovered, diagnosed, and reported. In the nineteenth century, however, girls
were not subjected to regular health checks at school and took little physical exercise. Girls' bodies were hardly ever seen undressed, except perhaps by their mothers, sisters, or maid servants. In the higher socio-economic classes, women generally dressed elaborately, wearing corsets and other apparel which concealed and transformed their figures. (van't Hof 28)
Young women of the nineteenth century were also kept under strict control, most often leading lives organized around the preparation for marriage. Patrick Brontë, Charlotte's father, kept the Brontë household in strict order and was known to fly into a rage when things did not turn out the way he thought they should. According to Fraser, a biographer of Charlotte Brontë, on one occasion Patrick sawed up all the chairs in his wife's bedroom simply "because one of her confinements went wrong" (22). Other times, he was said to have burnt the hearth rug, cut up his wife's favorite dress, and to have burnt the children's colored boots because he thought they would promote vanity. At the time, children were taught to be subservient and had few ways to cope. The Brontës might have dealt with it the way many nineteenth-century children learned to, resorting "to a nonverbal expression of their psychic distress. Food was an obvious instrument for this purpose" (van't Hof 51). Patrick Brontë's effect on his children at first does not seem too influential until one considers that he was their only parent (as their mother died when Charlotte was five) and one of the only adults they socialized with.
The effects of Patrick Brontë's strictness started to surface when...