The Depravity of Lovesick Girls
The purposeful ingestion of things not typically considered food is known today as pica, after the Latin word for magpie, a bird once held to have promiscuous tastes. It is a term of shifting boundaries. Some have used it to describe any indiscriminate eating, from the scavenging seen in some forms of mental illness to the calculated consumption of a Cessna 150 by French performance artist (and Guinness World Record Holder for Strangest Diet) “Monsieur Mangetout.” In its most common form, it consists of geophagy (the eating of earth), amylophagy (starch) or pagophagy (ice); but also trichophagy (hair), xylophagy (wood or paper), chalk and charcoal, detergent, baby powder, ash. Given that several of these substances, like ice, are consumed under quite ordinary circumstances, most descriptions of pica imply something capricious, uncontrollable, or mysterious. The craving might be so strong that cravers carry coolers of ice or clay in their purses. Migrants might ask their families to mail them clay from home. One seventy-seven-year-old woman in a case report from 1981 said that her craving for gymnastic chalk was invading her dreams.
When Humboldt had embarked on his expedition, pica was well known to Western medicine, noted particularly in pregnant women and children, and associated since Hippocrates with a particularly feminine syndrome of pallor and malaise known most famously as green sickness or chlorosis. The cause of chlorosis was far from settled, but an example—this from the writings of Ambroise Paré, physician to four French kings—gives the basic contours of how it was conceived:
And when they are mature and ready for marriage, if menstruation begins but marriage is too long delayed, we find always that they are tormented grievously by a swooning of the heart and suffocation of the womb, particularly if they fall in love; their genitals feel warm, which arouses their desires and titillates and stimulates them, causing them to expel their own seed themselves. The seed, if it remains in the spermatic vessels or in the womb, rots and turns to poison causing putrid vapors to rise to the higher parts and to pass into the blood They feel pensive and sad and lose all appetite, their depraved appetite being called pica They seem more dead than alive and often die dropsical and languishing, or mad.
Not everyone believed this exact vision. A speaker at the seventeenth-century medical conferences held at the Parisian Bureau d’Adresse blamed the “bad food such as the chalk, ashes, limestones, cinders, vinegar, cornstalks, and earth which young girls often eat to attain this color, being falsely persuaded that this will make them more beautiful.” In other words, pica was cause and paleness its effect. Later theories blamed the stomach, or the nerves of the stomach, or the passions of the mind. But they were female stomachs, female nerves, or female minds.
The shock prompted by Humboldt’s Otomacs was due not only to finding that earth was eaten by the healthy, but finding that it was eaten by men. He was not the first to make this observation. Hippocrates had noted the chlorata ponera (bad color) in both sexes. And even during the wild gynecological years of the seventeenth century, Thomas Sydenham, the “English Hippocrates,” was arguing that what was hysteria in women, was “hypochondriasis” in men. (That Sydenham was relatively prescient, and less bound by misogynistic conceptions of the disease, can also be seen in his recommended treatment of chlorosis/pica: where Paré had prescribed “marriage,” and other doctors applied tourniquets to girl’s thighs or a suction pump to their obstructed wombs, Sydenham gave fortifying elixirs, rich in iron.) Nevertheless, by the time of Humboldt’s voyage, the conception of pica remained overwhelmingly female. It was Humboldt’s fame that would change the debate. In the words of a later scholar, Humboldt made geophagy fashionable. And in doing so, he helped shift eyes away from the lovesick girls and toward the savages of the tropics.
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