Rebecca Lester

Rebecca Lester

​Associate Professor of Sociocultural Anthropology
PhD, University of California at San Diego

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​Professor Lester's work sits at the intersection of anthropology, psychiatry, religion, and gender studies. She is 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, Lester considers how bodily practices deemed "deviant," "extreme," or "pathological"-and local responses to such practices-make visible competing cultural logics of acceptable moral personhood. she has 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" she aims 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.

Her 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
Her earliest work examined disciplines of asceticism (fasting, celibacy, deprivation of comfort) as culturally elaborated mechanisms for negotiating gendered conceptions of morality. She is 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, she interrogates the cultural dimensions of the illness as one in which particular, moralized forms of body ritual assume center stage (Lester 1995).

Gender and Nationalism in a Mexican Convent
Her dissertation research extended her work on gender, asceticism, and moral practice. This project concerned young women in training to become nuns in a Roman Catholic convent in Mexico. She 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" she argues 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 her first book (Lester 2005) as well as two additional articles (Lester 2003 and 2008).

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).  Her 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.  They wanted to better understand the phenomenon of Latina teen suicide attempts (more than three times the rate of other subgroups). They 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, and produced two publications on which she was a co-author (Zayas, Lester, and Cabassa 2005; Cabassa, Lester, and Zayas 2007).

Eating Disorder Treatments as Philosophies of Gender and Agency
Over the past 15 years she has 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. She 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 (Lester 1997), how "healthy" agency is implicitly gendered in dominant models and techniques of recovery (Lester 1999), and how presumptions about the "correct" female sexual body informs understandings of eating disorders and the interventions designed to treat them (Lester 2000).  She is currently preparing a solicited manuscript for the University of California Press, "Cambridge Studies in Medical Anthropology" (provisionally entitled Treating Eating Disorders: An Anthropological Critique), which synthesizes her work on the critical medical anthropology of eating disorders.

In all of her work, her aim is not to exoticize certain behaviors (of the people who engage in them) as "bizarre"; rather, Lester wants 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. She believes 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. She is 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. In considering cutting she will continue my exploration of the body as polysemic as well as mortal; as symbolic resource as well as fleshy home; as inhabited by, as well as constitutive of, "self," and as what makes us both truly alone in the world as well as utterly connected to those around us.

Selected Publications


2005                     Jesus in our Wombs: Embodying Modernity in a Mexican Convent.

                                University of California Press.

Peer-Reviewed Articles and Book Chapters

2014                   Eating Disorders.  In International Encyclopedia of Social and Behavioral Sciences, 2nd edition 

                              (Wight, ed.). Elsevier. 

2014                   Health as Moral Failing: Medication Restriction among Women with Eating Disorders. 

                              Anthropology and Medicine, 21(2): 241-250.         

2013                   Back from the Edge of Existence: A Critical Anthropology of Trauma. Transcultural Psychiatry, 

                              50(5): 753-762.       

2013                   Subjectivity. Encyclopedia of Theory in Social and Cultural Anthropology (McGee and Warms, eds.).

                              New York: SAGE.        

2013                   Lessons from the Borderline: Anthropology, Psychiatry, and the Risks of Being Human.  Feminism and

                              Psychology, 23(1): 70-77. 

2012                   Self-Mutilation and Excoriation. In Encyclopedia of Body Image and Appearance (Cash et al, eds).

                              Pp. 724-729. Cambridge, MA: Elsevier.

2011                   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                   Brokering Authenticity: Borderline Personality Disorder and the Ethics of Care

                              at an American Eating Disorder Clinic.  Current Anthropology 50(3).

2008                   Anxious Bliss: A Case Study of Dissociation in a Mexican Nun. Transcultural

                              Psychiatry 45(1): 56-78.

2007                   Critical Therapeutics in Two Eating Disorders Treatment Centers.  Medical

                              Anthropology Quarterly 21(4): 369-387.

2007                   It's Like Being in a Labyrinth: Hispanic Immigrants' Perceptions of Depression

                              and Attitudes Towards Treatment, (second author with Leo Cabassa and Luis

                              Zayas), Journal of Immigrant & Minority Health 9(1): 1-16.

2005                   Why Do So Many Latina Teens Attempt Suicide?: A Conceptual Model for

                              Research (second author, with Luis Zayas and Leo Cabassa), American Journal of

                              Orthopsychiatry 75(2): 275-287.

2004                   Eating Disorders and the Problem of 'Culture' in Acculturation. Culture, Medicine

                              and Psychiatry 28(4): 607-615.

2003                   The Immediacy of Eternity: Time and Transformation in a Roman Catholic Convent.

                              Religion 33(3): 201-219.

2000                   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                   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                   The (Dis)Embodied Self in Anorexia Nervosa.  Social Science & Medicine 44(4):


1995                   Embodied Voices: Women's Food Asceticism and the Negotiation of Identity. 

                              Ethos 23(2): 187-222.