Rebecca Lester

Professor of Sociocultural Anthropology
PhD, University of California at San Diego
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    My work sits at the intersection of anthropology, psychiatry, religion, and gender studies. I am interested in how individuals experience existential distress, and how this distress manifests as psychiatric symptoms, religious angst, somatic pain, and other culturally informed bodily conditions.

    Specifically, my research considers how bodily practices deemed "deviant," "extreme," or "pathological"-and local responses to such practices-make visible competing cultural logics of acceptable moral personhood. I have been most intrigued by the ways in which subjective experiences of suffering are systematically targeted for change through the cultivation of different forms of body discipline (e.g., in a convent or an eating disorders treatment center) and how institutions shape, but do not entirely dictate, these processes. Through the ethnographic study of extreme bodily experiences and their institutional "scaffolding" I aim to understand cultural processes of meaning making as collaborative, agentic, and morally imbued, and how such meaning assumes motivational force for individuals; that is, how people use their bodies to navigate competing cultural and moral frames in order to make sense of the world and their place in it.

    My work to date has taken the form of five major intellectual projects, each of which grapples with different aspects of these core themes and has produced distinct (though inter-referential) sets of publications.  Over time, my research has become more collaborative and interdisciplinary. 

    Previous Research

    Eating Disorders, Asceticism, and Ritual Practices
    My earliest work examined disciplines of asceticism (fasting, celibacy, deprivation of comfort) as culturally elaborated mechanisms for negotiating gendered conceptions of morality. I am particularly interested in anorexia as a contemporary ascetic practice, the way in which anorexia as an illness is defined and constructed within medical discourse, and how this, in turn, shapes the anorexic woman's subjective experience of her distress. Specifically, I interrogate the cultural dimensions of the illness as one in which particular, moralized forms of body ritual assume center stage.

    Gender and Nationalism in a Mexican Convent
    My dissertation research extended my work on gender, asceticism, and moral practice. This project concerned young women in training to become nuns in a Roman Catholic convent in Mexico. I examined the ways in which these Sisters' existential transformation proceeded in direct, practical engagement with larger cultural concerns about Mexican nationalism and cultural identity in the face of an accelerated movement into the "first world" I argue that their bodily experiences were systematically engaged in their religious training in efforts to cultivate a gendered religious subjectivity in the context of a burgeoning nationalist movement in Mexico. This research resulted in the publication of my first book Jesus in Our Wombs, as well as a number of articles.

    Failed Strategies of Work Reform in a Community Mental Health Agency
    This research, conducted on the Lower East Side of New York City was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation as part of a three-year, three-city project evaluating urgent questions of welfare, work, and identity among formerly homeless mentally ill individuals (Rog et al 1997; Lester et al 1997).  My particular focus was on questions of the cultural constructions of "mental illness" and "recovery" as projects of spiritual and moral regeneration. 

    Latina Teen Suicide Attempts and Acculturative Stress
    This work was undertaken collaboratively with Dr. Luis Zayas at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University.  We wanted to better understand the phenomenon of Latina teen suicide attempts (more than three times the rate of other subgroups). We proposed a conceptual model and mixed-methods approach grounded in literature on acculturative stress suffered by immigrant groups and the paucity of adequate mental health care services for immigrant populations in the US.  With Dr. Zayas as the Principal Investigator this research was funded by an NIMH R01 grant.

    Eating Disorder Treatments as Philosophies of Gender and Agency
    Over the past 20 years I have been engaged in critical medical anthropological work on eating disorders as biopsychosocial syndromes that both manifest and challenge dominant cultural notions of gender, agency, and moral personhood. I have has been particularly interested in how psychiatric models of eating disorders enfold and prescribe certain kinds of gendered subjectivity as healthy, while excluding or pathologizing others. Her work in this area has engaged questions of how the body figures into (or disappears from) operating etiological explanations for these illness, how "healthy" agency is implicitly gendered in dominant models and techniques of recovery, and how presumptions about the "correct" female sexual body informs understandings of eating disorders and the interventions designed to treat them. My forthcoming book, Famished: Eating Disorders and Failed Care in America (University of California Press) will appear in October, 2019. (see below)

    In all of my work, her aim is not to exoticize certain behaviors (of the people who engage in them) as "bizarre"; rather, I want to understand what draws individuals to extreme bodily practices, what such practices communicate psychologically and socially, what kinds of cultural values and meanings comprise or are challenged by them, and how real people navigate among competing moral systems in trying to make sense them. I believe people do things for discernable reasons, and that those reasons, conflicted and convoluted though they may be, do make sense if one understands the moral and practical frames within which they take shape. I am dissatisfied with explanations that locate motivations solely in the realm of the psychological or in the realm of the social or cultural. People are enormously complex, and often use their bodies-sometimes in violent ways-to try to make sense of their own experiences and to communicate those experiences to others. The body is polysemic as well as mortal; symbolic resource as well as fleshy home; inhabited by, as well as constitutive of, "self," and makes us both truly alone in the world as well as utterly connected to those around us.

    Selected Publications


    2019                   Lester, Rebecca J.  Famished: Eating Disorders and Failed Care in America.  Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

    2005                   Lester, Rebecca J.  Jesus in Our Wombs Embodying Modernity in a Mexican Convent. University of California Press.

    Peer-Reviewed Articles and Book Chapters           

    2017                  Lester, Rebecca J. "Self-governance, Psychotherapy, and the Subject of Managed Care: Internal Family Systems Therapy and the Multiple Self in a US Eating-disorders Treatment Center." American Ethnologist44, no. 1 (2017): 23-35.

    2016                  Lester, Rebecca J. "Ground Zero: Ontology, Recognition, and the Elusiveness of Care in American Eating Disorders Treatment." Transcultural Psychiatry55, no. 4 (2016): 516-33.

    2016                  Lester, Rebecca J. and Eileen Anderson-Fye. "Fat Matters: Capital, Markets, and Morality." In Fat Planet: Obesity, Culture, and Symbolic Body Capital, edited by Eileen Anderson-Fye and Alex Brewis, 193-204. Santa Fe, NM: School for Advanced Research Press, 2016.

    2016                 Myers, Neely, Rebecca J. Lester, and Kim Hopper. "Reflections on the Anthropology of Public Psychiatry: The Potential and Limitations of Transdisciplinary Work.Transcultural Psychiatry53, no. 4 (2016): 419-26.

    2014                 Lester, Rebecca J. Eating Disorders.  In International Encyclopedia of Social and Behavioral Sciences, 2nd edition (Wight, ed.). Elsevier. 

    2014                 Lester, Rebecca J. “Health as Moral Failing: Medication Restriction among Women with Eating Disorders.” Anthropology and Medicine, 21(2): 241-250.         

    2013                 Lester, Rebecca J. ”Back from the Edge of Existence: A Critical Anthropology of Trauma.” Transcultural Psychiatry, 50(5): 753-762.       

    2013                 Lester, Rebecca J. Subjectivity. In Encyclopedia of Theory in Social and Cultural Anthropology (McGee and Warms, eds.). New York: SAGE.        

    2013                 Lester, Rebecca J. "Lessons from the Borderline: Anthropology, Psychiatry, and the Risks of Being Human." Feminism & Psychology, 23(1): 70-77. 

    2012                 Lester, Rebecca J. Self-Mutilation and Excoriation. In Encyclopedia of Body Image and Appearance (Cash et al, eds) Pp. 724-729. Cambridge, MA: Elsevier.

    2011                 Lester, Rebecca J. "How Do I Code for Black Fingernail Polish? Finding the Missing Adolescent in Managed Mental Health Care." In Policy-Relevant Research on Adolescents: New Directions from Anthropology (Anderson-Fye and Korbin, eds.). Special issue of Ethos, the journal of the Society for Psychological Anthropology.

    2009                  Lester, Rebecca J. "Brokering Authenticity: Borderline Personality Disorder and the Ethics of Care in an American Eating Disorders Clinic." Current Anthropology 50(3).

    2008                  Lester, Rebecca J. "Anxious Bliss: A Case Study of Dissociation in a Mexican Nun." Transcultural Psychiatry 45(1): 56-78.

    2007                  Lester, Rebecca J. "Critical Therapeutics: Cultural Politics and Clinical Reality in Two Eating Disorder Treatment Centers." Medical Anthropology Quarterly 21(4): 369-387.

    2007                  Cabassa, Leopoldo J., Rebecca J. Lester, and Luis H. Zayas. " "It's Like Being in a Labyrinth:" Hispanic Immigrants' Perceptions of Depression and Attitudes Towards Treatment." Journal of Immigrant & Minority Health 9(1): 1-16.

    2005                  Zayas, Luis H., Rebecca J. Lester, Leopoldo J. Cabassa, and Lisa R. Fortuna. "Why Do So Many Latina Teens Attempt Suicide?: A Conceptual Model for Research". American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 75(2): 275-287.

    2004                  Lester, Rebecca J. "Commentary: Eating Disorders and the Problem of ‘Culture’ in Acculturation." Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry 28(4): 607-615.

    2003                  Lester, Rebecca J. "The Immediacy of Eternity: Time and Transformation in a Roman Catholic Convent." Religion 33(3): 201-219.

    2000                  Lester, Rebecca J. Like a Natural Woman: Celibacy and the Embodied Self in Anorexia Nervosa. In Celibacy, Culture, and Society: The Anthropology of Sexual Abstinence. E.J. Sobo and S. Bell, eds. Pp. 197-213.  Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

    1999                  Lester, Rebecca J. Let Go and Let God: Religion and the Politics of Surrender in Overeaters Anonymous.  In Interpreting Weight: The Social Management of Fatness and Thinness. Jeffery Sobal and Donna Maurer, eds.  Pp.139-164. Hawthorne, NY: Aldine de Gruyter.

    1997                   Lester, Rebecca J. "The (Dis)Embodied Self in Anorexia Nervosa." Social Science & Medicine 44(4):79-489.

    1995                   Lester, Rebecca J. "Embodied Voices: Women's Food Asceticism and the Negotiation of Identity." Ethos 23(2): 187-222.

    Famished: Eating Disorders and Failed Care in America

    Famished: Eating Disorders and Failed Care in America

    When Rebecca Lester was eleven years old—and again when she was eighteen—she almost died from anorexia nervosa. Now both a tenured professor in anthropology and a licensed social worker, she turns her ethnographic and clinical gaze to the world of eating disorders—their history, diagnosis, lived realities, treatment, and place in the American cultural imagination.

    Famished, the culmination of over two decades of anthropological and clinical work, as well as a lifetime of lived experience, presents a profound rethinking of eating disorders and how to treat them. Through a mix of rich cultural analysis, detailed therapeutic accounts, and raw autobiographical reflections, Famished helps make sense of why people develop eating disorders, what the process of recovery is like, and why treatments so often fail. It’s also an unsparing condemnation of the tension between profit and care in American healthcare, demonstrating how a system set up to treat a disease may, in fact, perpetuate it. Fierce and vulnerable, critical and hopeful, Famished will forever change the way you understand eating disorders and the people who suffer with them.

    Jesus in Our Wombs: Embodying Modernity in a Mexican Convent

    Jesus in Our Wombs: Embodying Modernity in a Mexican Convent

    In Jesus in Our Wombs, Rebecca J. Lester takes us behind the walls of a Roman Catholic convent in central Mexico to explore the lives, training, and experiences of a group of postulants―young women in the first stage of religious training as nuns. Lester, who conducted eighteen months of fieldwork in the convent, provides a rich ethnography of these young women's journeys as they wrestle with doubts, fears, ambitions, and setbacks in their struggle to follow what they believe to be the will of God. Gracefully written, finely textured, and theoretically rigorous, this book considers how these aspiring nuns learn to experience God by cultivating an altered experience of their own female bodies, a transformation they view as a political stance against modernity. 

    Lester explains that the Postulants work toward what they see as an "authentic" femininity―one that has been eclipsed by the values of modern society. The outcome of this process has political as well as personal consequences. The Sisters learn to understand their very intimate experiences of "the Call"―and their choices in answering it―as politically relevant declarations of self. Readers become intimately acquainted with the personalities, family backgrounds, friendships, and aspirations of the Postulants as Lester relates the practices and experiences of their daily lives. Combining compassionate, engaged ethnography with an incisive and provocative theoretical analysis of embodied selves, Jesus in Our Wombs delivers a profound analysis of what Lester calls the convent's "technology of embodiment" on multiple levels―from the phenomenological to the political.