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.
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.
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 is the culmination of over two decades of anthropological and clinical work—as well as a lifetime of lived experience—that 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 the American healthcare scheme, 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.
Forthcoming October 2019 from The University of California Press