Foucauldian Competition

Caroline Okel

Caroline Okel is from Charlotte, North Carolina. Although she has not declared, she plans on majoring in economics and pursuing a minor in mathematics. At Davidson, she is the publicity chair for 1972, a member of RAC, a CatsConnect mentor, and a member of Connor Eating House. Her essay was composed for Professor Katie Horowitz’s Writing 101 course, “What is a Body?”.

Michel Foucault’s work on “The Means of Correct Training” from Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison analyzes the method of using discipline as a way to punish. Foucault argues that discipline is structured around a strict system of surveillance of the individuals in the system in order to get them to conform. Participants in disciplinary systems vary from the ideal, so the goal at the end of being disciplined is for them to be homogenized into the ideal. The documentary, Thin, which follows the Renfrew Center, an eating disorder treatment facility in Florida, clearly mimics many of the disciplinary practices seen in Foucault’s work. However, Renfrew is not the only depiction of discipline seen in Thin. The girls that the documentary follows also impose a system of discipline upon themselves, centering around maintaining their eating disorders. As a result, the girls in the documentary are subject to two different forms of discipline in competition with each other: one by the staff of the facility to try to get them to conform to a healthy body weight and one by themselves to get them to conform to their ideal thinness. The underlying structure of these disciplinary systems matches the techniques mentioned in Foucault’s work, but neither of these systems effectively meet the goals described by him.

In his work, Foucault argues that at its core, discipline works as an effective punishment because it results in participants conforming to the ideal. He argues that the system “supervises every instant” and its system of punishment “compares, differentiates, hierarchizes, homogenizes, excludes.”[1] By constantly watching and judging the participants by placing them into categories dependent on progress, the disciplinary system works by dissecting the differences between those in the system and those out of the system. Foucault states that “disciplinary power… is exercised through its invisibility; at the same time it imposes on those whom it subjects a principle of compulsory visibility.”[2] Discipline works because the authority in the system, or the people who are considered to be the “ideal,” fade into the background and gain their power through their invisibility. All attention and all punishments are focused on those who are being disciplined, with the foucault-2-289x300 Foucauldian Competitionidea being that this extreme visibility will result in conforming to the ideal. Through this constant visibility, self monitoring is supposed to be the goal that results in lasting conformity even after leaving the disciplinary system.[3] Therefore, discipline should work to make the effects of it everlasting. The system of Renfrew and the psychological disciplinary system of the eating disorders that the girls in Renfrew posses clearly employ this method of constant visibility as seen by the facility’s staff constantly monitoring the girls and by the girls constantly monitoring the food they eat. However, the results of this system remain more unclear.

The ranking system, one of the disciplinary techniques analyzed by Foucault, was used by Renfrew and less obviously by the girls in the facility. Foucault states the system of ranks works as a disciplinary measure because “it marks the gaps, hierarchizes qualities, skills and aptitudes [of the participants]; but it also punishes and rewards.” [4] This system allows the authority to easily mark the relationships amongst those being disciplined while also rewarding good behavior and penalizing for bad behavior. This gives incentive to try to behave in order to move up in ranks. The Renfrew Center blatantly follows this by having three ranks at the facility.[5] Patients start at the lowest rank which results in the most surveillance and the least amount of freedom, but as they move up in ranks they gain more freedom.[6]  These rankings are supposed to serve as incentive for the girls to try to get better so that they can gain more freedoms, acting in the same way that Foucault outlines the ranking system in his work.

In a subtler way, the minds of the patients at Renfrew follow a similar system. Instead of having a structured system of ranks, the girls rank themselves by comparing their bodies to those around them. For example, before Brittany, one of the patients, leaves the facility, she expresses how she wants to go back to her eating disorder and how much she wants to be thin like everybody else.[7] Similarly, Shelly, another patient, talks with her therapist about how all that mattered to her was being thinner than her twin sister.[8] These methods of comparison demonstrate how these girls would keep their eating habits in check and maintain their weight through ranking their body size to the size of girls around them. Feeling as if they were bigger would result in purging and extreme dieting as punishment, and feeling as if they were thinner would result in a sense of accomplishment.

For Foucault, this ranking system has the overall goal of bringing forth conformity amongst all the participants by moving them all up to the highest rank, but this is proven to be relatively ineffective in both cases in Thin. Foucault argues that over time, “the penal classification should tend to disappear” because all participants should work to achieve the highest rank.[9] This idea of lasting conformity because of the ranking system implies that once patients reach the highest rank, they will continue the practices that got them there. However, these implications are challenged by the ranking system at Renfrew. After Polly gets moved up to the highest rank, she does not use this accomplishment as motivation to continue good behavior. Instead, she abuses her newly found freedom to get a tattoo, which results in her expulsion from the facility.[10]  On top of this, every girl followed in the documentary relapses into her disorder after leaving Renfrew.[11]  Even though some girls leave after they have achieved the highest ranking and are thought to be better, they do not continue these good practices once they are no longer monitored.

The system fails for the discipline of eating disorders in a different way. The desire to be the thinnest girl in the room and to be skinnier than everybody else fails because it results in girls never reaching an end rank. They are never happy because there is still more weight to lose. For instance, Britany arrives at the facility after losing almost one hundred pounds in a year, and although she gains some weight while at Renfrew, she would still be considered to be incredibly skinny by most people.[12] However, she leaves the facility still unhappy with her weight and still believing that she is not “thin.”[13] She states her desire to lose forty more pounds once she returns home.[14] In the minds of these girls, they can never conform to this ideal thinness because no matter what, they will never be thin enough.

Concrete evidence to justify the system of ranks comes from the use of documentation, another tactic of discipline described by Foucault, and this disciplinary method gains similar results to that of ranking. This method of documentation is used by disciplinary powers as a way for them to record everything so that every action by those being watched is remembered.[15] “A ‘power of writing’ was constituted as an essential part in the mechanisms of discipline” because it gives authority the power to keep tabs on every little detail of the participants in the system.[16] This system of documentation is obviously employed by almost every person of authority at Renfrew. Every morning, a nurse in the facility records the weights and blood pressures of the patients, and therapists and nutritionists record everything that a patient says while they are talking to them.[17] This documentation allows the workers at Renfrew to track the progress of patients and to have the ability to never forget anything about them. This gives the staff the ability to use this information to try to push for more progress; when they record positive results, they can encourage patients to go back to this place if they ever slip up, and when they record negative results, they can use it as a sign that the patient needs more attention.

The girls in Thin use a similar system of documentation that is fueled by their eating disorders. For example, Alisa shows lists that she wrote before entering the facility that recorded every bit of food that she ate.[18] She wrote these lists to make sure that her calories stayed under two hundred. Another way that this documentation was apparent in the girls at Renfrew was through their obsession with their weights. Although they may not have explicitly recorded their weights every day, they obsessively would get on the scale and take note of the number. Constantly being aware of their weights at all time would allow them to have a numerical indicator of the extent of their thinness.

Concrete evidence to justify the system of ranks comes from the use of documentation, another tactic of discipline described by Foucault, and this disciplinary method gains similar results to that of ranking. This method of documentation is used by disciplinary powers as a way for them to record everything so that every action by those being watched is remembered.

This documentation system is employed as a way to try to propel participants towards conformity, but based on the two examples of discipline in Thin, this does not always happen. By recording every movement of the patients at Renfrew, the staff are able to keep a record of everything that each girl does, but having this information does not necessarily lead to them having the ability to draw accurate conclusions about the girls in the facility. When Shelly’s weight was not where the staff wanted it to be, they became convinced that she was hiding food and purging.[19] They blamed her for hiding an uneaten burger on the hall, and one staff member at the facility even went as far as to tell Shelly that she did not trust her. However, it was later revealed that Shelly wasfoucault-2-289x300 Foucauldian Competition innocent. The recorded knowledge that the facility had on Shelly lead to false claims being made about her. By using documentation as proof for a crime that Shelly did not commit, instead of using the knowledge to achieve their goal of helping Shelly get better, the staff pushed Shelly away. After this incident, Shelly loses respect for the facility and expresses her desires to leave. In the case of the discipline of eating disorders, although Alisa recorded every bit of food she ate everyday with the intention of always staying under two hundred calories, she still had episodes of purging.[20] Having a hard copy of her calorie count did not result in her always maintaining the strict eating requirements that she placed upon herself.

Even though Foucault would recognize faults with the ranking and documentation systems in the discipline of eating disorders, the disciplinary system as a whole is still more effective in attempting to achieve its goals than Renfrew is. The disciplinary systems that the girls in Thin subject themselves to in regards to their eating disorders may not be perfect by Foucault’s standards, but the faults in their systems still result in their overall goal of increasing thinness. The ranking system used by comparing themselves to other girls does not have an end goal because they are never happy with their weight, but the fact that there is no end goal means that girls will constantly continue to lose weight. Similarly, disciplinary systems involving the recording of calories may result in girls having the occasional binging episode, but they are able to prevent this binging from affecting their weight by purging everything they eat. Although these represent failures in the disciplinary system, even the failures are done in a way that results in movement towards the overall goal of thinness. The failures discussed above within the system of Renfrew do not help propel the patients towards better health but potentially move them back into their disorder. The movie’s acknowledgement that all of the girls eventually relapsed into their disorders after leaving the facility demonstrates this.[21] Their desire to rise in rankings in order to be thinner overpowers their desire to rise in rankings in regards to their health.

Neither of the disciplinary systems seen in Thin lead to the results outlined by Foucault, but the discipline of eating disorders ultimately is more successful than the discipline of Renfrew. This fact demonstrates the inherent flaw in using facilities like Renfrew as treatment. The disciplinary system of eating disorders is too strong to be overpowered by a disciplinary system that operates similarly to it. The constant surveillance by authority in Renfrew works to a certain extent while the girls are living at the facility, but the absence of surveillance once they leave does not result in self-surveillance but in a relapse into their disorders. However, a patient can never leave her eating disorder because its authority is engrained in her mind. This explains why eating disorders are so difficult to treat and why they are one of the hardest psychological conditions to cure. Therefore, this suggests that eating disorder treatment facilities like Renfrew should be abandoned for a process that can fight eating disorders in a different way. A Foucauldian disciplinary system in competition with eating disorders rarely will win because of the strength of these disorders. Thin demonstrates that treatment facilities like Renfrew cannot overpower the illnesses of their patients, and this explains the eventual relapse of the girls followed in the documentary into their disorders.



[1] Foucault, “The Means of Correct Training,” 183.

[2] Ibid., 187.

[3] Foucault, “The Means of Correct Training.”

[4] Ibid.

[5] Greenfield, Thin.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Foucault, “The Means of Correct Training,” 182.

[10] Greenfield, Thin.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Foucault, “The Means of Correct Training.”

[16] Ibid., 188.

[17] Greenfield, Thin.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.



Foucault, Michel. “The Means of Correct Training.” In Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, translated by Alan Sheridan, 2nd edition., 170–94. New York: Vintage Books, 1995. Print.

Thin, directed by Lauren Greenfield. 2006. USA: HBO, 2006. Film.