Rebecca Lester

Professor of Sociocultural Anthropology
PhD, University of California at San Diego
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    I am a medical/psychological anthropologist with a research focus on embodiment, intersubjectivity, and cultural practices of self-cultivation.  I am primarily interested in how people understand and experience existential distress, the institutions and practices that arise to address this distress, and what these experiences, institutions, and practices can tell us about local moral, phenomenological, and epistemological worlds. 

    Specifically, I am concerned with understanding how cultural meanings and representations become powerfully motivating for individual people, and how individuals can engage these meanings and representations improvisationally, and even idiosyncratically, to navigate questions of existence. 

    My work to date has taken the form of several intellectual projects, each of which has grappled with different aspects of these core themes. 

    Eating Disorders and Asceticism 
    My earliest work examined disciplines of asceticism (fasting, celibacy, deprivation of comfort) as culturally elaborated practices for negotiating gendered conceptions of morality.  I focused on anorexia nervosa as a contemporary ascetic practice, interrogating the cultural dimensions of this condition as one in which particular, moralized forms of body ritual assume center stage.

    Gender, Nationalism and Embodiment in a Mexican Convent     
    My dissertation research extended my work on gender, asceticism, and moral practice.  The project concerned young women in training to become nuns in a Roman Catholic convent in Mexico and their experiences of religious vocation.  I examined the ways the Sisters’ existential transformation proceeded in direct, everyday engagement with larger cultural concerns about Mexican nationalism and cultural identity in the face of an accelerated movement into the “first world.”  I argued that the nuns’ bodily experiences in religious training became avenues for cultivating a gendered religious subjectivity that afforded them a third way between more traditional gendered expectations and American-style feminism. This research is the basis for my first book Jesus in Our Wombs: Embodying Modernity in a Mexican Convent (The University of California Press, 2005), as well as a number of articles.

    Latina Teen Suicide Attempts and Acculturative Stress   
    This work, which mobilizes my academic perspectives to address mental health issues, was undertaken collaboratively with Dr. Luis Zayas and Dr. Leo Cabassa of 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 rates of other subgroups).  We proposed a conceptual model and mixed-methods approach grounded in existing knowledge about acculturaltive stress and the paucity of adequate mental health care services for immigrant populations in the U.S.  With Dr. Zayas as the Principal Investigator, this research was funded by an NIMH R01 grant and produced several articles.

    Eating Disorders and Cultures of Recovery
    Over the past 25 years I have been engaged in critical medical anthropological work on eating disorders as syndromes that both manifest and challenge dominant cultural notions of gender, agency, and moral personhood.  I have been particularly interested in how models of eating disorders enfold and prescribe certain kinds of gendered subjectivity as healthy, while excluding or pathologizing others.  My work in this area engages questions of how the body figures into (or disappears from) operating etiological explanations of these conditions, 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 used to treat them.  I been especially interested in how the structures and practices of managed mental health care mirror and exacerbate the core dynamics of eating disorders themselves, making recovery within this system especially fraught.  This work produced several articles, and culminated in my most recent book, Famished: Eating Disorders and Failed Care in America (The University of California Press, 2019), which was recognized with the Victor Turner Prize for Ethnographic Writing and the Ellen Basker Prize in Medical Anthropology.

    Love American Style: Polyamory, Consensual Non-Monogamy, and the Transformations of Intimacy under Late Capitalism 
    My current project extends my inquiries about ethical self-fashioning, affect, and materiality in a new (though related) direction, exploring a burgeoning relationship form in the United States: polyamory, or consensual non-monogamy (CNM).  Although CNM has been part of the underground American relationship landscape for decades, it has recently exploded onto the mainstream stage, becoming what some characterize as “the new sexual revolution.”  In trying to understand “why CNM, and why now?” my new research explores how and why people become involved in CNM, what kinds of everyday self- and emotion-work are required (regarding issues of jealousy, for example), how the daily practices of CNM are experienced as an ethical self-project among practitioners, and how this trend articulates with broader cultural and economic shifts: for example the transition away from long-term secure employment towards entrepreneurial and “side hustle” strategies characteristic of contexts of economic and social precarity.  

    1 Pappas, S. (2013, February 14). New sexual revolution: Polyamory may be good for you. Scientific American. 

    Crosscutting Themes
    Across all of these projects, three core questions frame my scholarly inquiry, corresponding to different, yet intersecting, levels of analysis.  

    On what might be called the level of the “subjective” or “individual,” I ask: How do people make sense of the world through their bodies, and how is this ongoing process of embodiment intimately and inextricably relational?  This entails understanding how bodily experiences are given meaning in local social worlds, how such meanings come to be experienced as part of one’s “self” or “identity” according to local models, and how one’s body can become a symbolic resource for communicating subjective experiences in culturally meaningful ways.  It involves questions of fundamental import to the project of anthropology more broadly, as it focuses on how “the outside” (e.g., culture) is thought to get “inside,” and, perhaps just as interesting, how “outsides” and “insides” are themselves culturally delineated. 

    On what we might describe as the level of the “social,” I ask: How do people engage bodily practices to help them navigate misfits between their own experiences and cultural proscriptives?  This aspect of my work engages forms of symbolic communication (e.g., ritual, bodily modifications) and the ways bodies and bodily experiences become invested with multiple, sometimes competing, cultural meanings.  I am interested in how strategies of bodily management concretize “acceptable” and “unacceptable” selves and how these practices often become contested terrains of moral action for both individuals and institutions.

    On what might broadly be called the “cultural” level, I ask: How do institutional structures condition such bodily practices, either as technologies of those institutions or as domains of resistance (or, in some cases, both)?  Here, I consider models of human agency and propositions about the degree to which individual actors are capable of choice.  This aspect of my work engages questions of moral decision-making and ethical practice as locally constituted domains. As individuals creatively engage cultural languages (often non-verbal) and symbols to express their suffering and make inroads in healing, the contours and fissures of such cultural logics become manifest.

    Across these l levels, I am interested in how interpersonal, institutional, and social structures and dynamics of power and inequality inform the possibilities and limits of being. 

    Clinical Work
    In addition to being an anthropologist, I am a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) (Missouri License #2007031682) and have been in private practice since 2009.  I specialize in working with eating disorders, mood disorders, anxiety, self-harm, trauma/PTSD, and personality disorders.  I also work with clients engaged in alternative relationships and/or lifestyles and am LGBTQ+ and kink friendly.  I provide traditional in-person sessions as well as teletherapy.

    I do not take a salary for my psychotherapy services.  I am registered as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and 100% of my fees go towards maintaining my therapy practice and offering low- or no-cost treatment to individuals in need.

    Selected Publications

    Books

    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.