Part 3: Mad Housewife: The Edible Identity of Betty Draper


Betty’s magnificent, much needed breakdown. S2E8 “A Night to Remember”

“Mommy doesn’t like to eat.” -Sally Draper (Meditations in an Emergency, 2:13)

Anorexia is often believed to be a form of elected suicide, a killing of one’s self slowly, but it  is my opinion that Anorexia is a form of protest and illness that can result in death. The root of Anorexia grows from a profound need to object and isolate oneself outside of something (this can be conscious, subconscious or both), and to assert a sense of control in a situation or life where the afflicted perceives none. Suicide on the other hand, seems often to be an answer to a question that no one but the victim is certain of.

What does any of this have to do with Betty Draper? Betty has severly disordered eating habits and behaves as a functioning anorexic through seasons 1-4 of Mad Men. Betty is not suicidal, rather she is ill and a holding a great protest against many things. It isn’t until season 5 that we see the protest end and Betty move from Anorexia to another form of disordered eating (bingeing), with different motivations and ends.

We know from case studies, literature, doctors, and biographies that Anorexia must be managed, nearly constantly, through hyper-perception of one’s eating. Anorexia is less about denying food than it is about controlling food and fear. Susan Bordo offers: “…anorexic women are as obsessed with hunger as they are with being slim. Far from losing her appetite, the typical anorexic is haunted by it…” (Bordo 232). Anorexia is a series of actions based on beliefs (often subconscious) that are cemented in the family and culture.

In classic anorexic fashion, Betty’s best friend and worst enemy is her body. It “wins” her a handsome, promising husband (which is the “goal” laid out for her). Her body and physical beauty cause people to be drawn to and admire her, but it stops there. From what we know, Betty’s relationships with her parents were quite difficult, and being married to Don has served to further isolate her. Her body floods her with emotions that cannot be satisfied, such as the desire to be loved, rage that cannot be acted upon and has no outlet, want for a different life, and talents and abilities that she cannot utilize. Susan Bordo expands upon this concept of the body’s ceaseless hungers in her article, “Anorexia Nervosa: Psychopathology as the Crystallization of Culture.” “The only way to win this no-win game is to go beyond control, to kill off the body’s spontaneities entirely — that is, to cease to experience our hungers and desires. This is what many anorectics describe as their ultimate goal” (Bordo 232). Since it is paramount that Betty remain beautiful and attractive, to function as a positive reflection of Don and his family, Betty takes it to an extreme degree, as her food intake and hunger is one of the only things that is her own and cannot be dictated, or interfered with, by others.

Throughout the series, and especially in seasons 1, 2, and 3, Betty is often introduced to an episode while seated at the kitchen table, watching Sally and Bobby Draper eat dinner,  waiting for Don to arrive home from work. Regular watchers know that often Don doesn’t come home from work at all, but Betty is never shown eating without him. And while the children eat, Betty sits at the table watching them, with a cigarette and a glass of wine.

Early on this image of Betty isn’t terribly remarkable, but as her screen time accrues, we soon see that when Betty is on screen, she is nearly always accompanied by a glass of wine and a cigarette, even when others are eating around her and no matter the time of day.  This fact is addressed by her daughter Sally, who when Don asks Betty to join he and the kids for dinner after he has moved out states, “Mommy doesn’t like to eat.” (Meditations in an Emergency 2:13). The Betty that resides in seasons 1-4 is living on nearly wine and cigarettes alone. “While at first glance the anorectic’s refusal to eat is an act of conformity, a taking-up of the commandment, the act of refusal contains its dialectical response: I shall not partake of that which is offered for it is not sufficient/not for me at all. The food is the symbolic representation of a world that has already disappointed (failed) the anorectic. Entry into it is not the answer.” (Orbach 63).

Don also comments on Betty’s meager eating when she is pregnant with their third child. Betty is well into her pregnancy and reaching for a piece of melba toast in the morning for breakfast. Realizing the package is empty and exclaiming this to Don he replies, “Jesus, Bets. Have some oatmeal. That baby’s going to weigh a pound,” letting the viewers know that this is a trend and one that’s extreme enough for even Don to have taken notice of.

I want to speak about a few scenes when we do see Betty deal with her own meals throughout the series because I believe they form a portrait of her character and comment upon the extremity of her illness. Aside from the ever-present glass of red wine (which from a glance appears to be French and likely Bordeaux), we often see Betty order food, but rarely eat it. This behavior is echoed by Don, who seemingly has an eating disorder that rivals Betty’s, but that is another paper.

Betty seems to eat when she is fulfilled somehow, especially in early seasons. For instance, while still married to Don, he takes Betty to a hotel for Valentine’s Day. Their marriage is as solid as we ever see it, as she is still consciously ignorant to his adultery. After they have what seems to be tender, boring sex in their room, Don states he doesn’t feel well. Betty reminds him that they haven’t eaten and tells him to order room service. Don (on the phone): “Can you send up some vichyssoises and a BLT on white toast?” Betty: “No. Shrimp cocktail.” Don: ”Scratch that two shrimp cocktails please.” (Betty takes phone out of his hand.) Betty: “Do you have anything special, anything out of season? …How about this, I want the half avocado filled with crab meat and a rare petit filet. 2 place settings.” Thus, not only does she have display hallmark anorectic behavior of controlling food and being preoccupied with it, she ends up ordering for two hungry adults what would normally serve one person. And of course, we never see if they actually eat (For Those Who Think Young, 2:1).

Another instance with food, and one where we see Betty actually eat is when Roger invites himself over to Don’s for dinner after having cocktails with him in the city. Betty was supposed to be making a special dinner for her husband and Don calls her telling her to include Roger. Betty protests saying, “I don’t know if I have enough food…”

Since we know Betty has a maid that does the shopping and she has two young children in the house, there is no way the Draper house doesn’t have food enough for one more guest. What Betty means is that the meal she cooked just for the two of them is spoiled, and will not be what she had intended.

As the three are seated at dinner in the dining room, we can see Betty has an iceberg lettuce salad and Roger is eating her steak. Despite all of the choices for food Betty had at her fingertips, she chose lettuce, a silent protest toward Don’s disregard of her feelings and plans. Lettuce is a calorie deficient food, one often cited on various online pro-Anorexia (proAna) forums and in circles as a good food choice so that one will burn more calories eating and digesting it than they will gain from it (Red in the Face 1:7).

Roger observes her plate and thinks she is watching her weight. He offers about his wife, “Mona has a little calorie book she keeps on the refrigerator. Always has her nose in there.” Betty responds, “Maybe she wants to look good for you.” Betty goes on to mention that she used to be chubby as a girl. “I was pudgy as a girl if you can believe it.” She recounts that she didn’t realize she had lost weight until she showed up for Home Ec. class in the 8th grade with a pattern for “big girl pajamas” and the teacher asked who they were for.

To direct this instance back to the environment that Betty is experiencing daily, after the above mentioned scene, Betty and Roger are in the kitchen waiting for Don to come back from the garage with more liquor. Roger makes a pass at Betty, but she rebukes him. As Don enters he notices something has transpired. Once Roger leaves he angrily confronts Betty and blames her, saying it is her fault. The next day at work Roger apologizes and Don realizes Betty wasn’t at fault at all. When he arrives home from work Betty apologizes to him, despite not having done anything wrong, and Don never tells her Roger admitted he was in the wrong. Don leaves her dangling, not needing to justify his behavior to her and she feels guilty for Roger’s behavior just for existing and being attractive.

We glimpse a hint of the shades of things to come in season 2, episode 13, “Meditations in an Emergency” regarding Betty’s weight. After dropping the kids off at Don’s hotel room, Betty takes herself shopping and then to a bar for a cocktail. A man at the opposite end sends her a drink and they end up having sex in the back office of the bar. Still married at this time (and newly pregnant with his third child) Betty has cheated on Don. She has taken it upon herself to find out what it feels like to be Don: betray the person you love, connect with a stranger sexually, and create no attachment to them. After this scene we see Betty arrive home. In the dark kitchen she throws open the refrigerator, grabs a cold chicken leg, stands next to the open ‘fridge door, and eats ravenously. This is a totally different Betty than the one we have seen before, and the difference is that she indulges in her hunger, just as she did inside the bar.

Fans of the show were shocked to see, when season 5 began, what has been dubbed in the media and online as “Fat Betty.” Betty had gained weight in a considerable way; something serious internally changed for her. While she is no longer a functioning anorexic, her appetite has changed from nothing to everything.

Pioneering psychoanalyst Hilde Bruch worked extensively with anorexic patients through the middle of the 20th century and noted, “{Her patients were} often terrified at the prospect of taking just one bite of food, lest they never be able to stop” (Bordo 232). It’s clear to viewers that Betty has taken many bites of food over a short period of time. A switch has been flipped in her and while she is no longer suffering from Anorexia, she is now a binge eater, as we see when she arrives home after a Weight Watchers meeting, making a beeline for the refrigerator and taking a can of whipped cream out, spraying her mouth full. (She immediately runs over and spits it out in the sink, foreshadowing Bulimia.)  “For the compulsive eater the experience of eating, while fraught with anxiety, contains elements of soothing, and the impulse towards food is generally coupled with a desire to give to oneself, to quiet an upset, to make whole what is empty, to say what cannot be spoken. The anorectic can find no such momentary satisfaction in the taking-in of the most basic substance of life” (Orbach 63).

Betty exemplifies the conundrum all women experience. By and large women are responsible for all of the meals a family consumes, but the standard ideal female body size has been shrinking steadily since the middle of the 20th century. “Consider for a moment the following… a woman comes to know that the food she prepares for others as an act of love and an expression of her caring, is somehow dangerous to the woman herself. Every day women read in any newspaper or magazine of how they must restrain their desire for this very same food” (Orbach 60). While Joan is curvy and voluptuous, to modern eyes she is often considered overweight. The perception towards women’s weight and bodies (often perpetuated by women themselves) is a mental and emotional disorder. Viewers have been happy to relish in the character of Betty’s failures around food, ignoring her previous Anorexia and their own disordered thinking about the subject, as if binge eating and weight gain is some kind of just punishment for her.

The Betty of season 5 is in a place where no one is hurting, manipulating, or withholding from her. Henry, her new husband, is largely understanding and loving, even parental towards Betty, who has never learned moderation in life, especially with regard to emotion; she is cold and shut down or she is raging. Henry insists Betty is beautiful no matter the size, and he means it. But Betty can’t love herself when she’s fat, just as she can’t love herself when she is thin. She has no ability to balance and without being in emotional competition with Don, or being manipulated by him, she has no reason to continue starving herself. The protest is over. Betty is resigned.

7. Greer, Germaine. The Female Eunuch. London: Paladin, 1991. Print

8. Bordo, Susan. “Anorexia Nervosa: Psychopathology as the Crystallization of Culture.”Philosophical Forum 17.Winter (1986): n. pag. Print.

9. Orbach, Susie. Hunger Strike: Starving amidst Plenty. New York: Other, 2001. Print.