The Religion of Thinness

A religion scholar reflects on our culture's devotion to thinness and explores the unmet spiritual needs that eating and body image problems mask.

How Might a Religion Scholar Understand Women’s Body Image and Eating Problems?

Religion scholar reflects on eating and body image problems

I am both humbled and a little daunted by the invitation to write a blog about body image and eating problems for Psychology Today. For one thing, I'm not a psychologist. And although I have learned a great deal from the field of psychology, I'm not technically trained in this area, nor do I work in a clinical setting. Instead, I am a scholar of religion, trained in theological and religious studies. I teach college students in the upper Midwest, and I have a particular interest in the relationship between religion, gender, embodiment, and culture.
So what does a religion scholar like myself see when she looks at women's manic and often dangerous attempts to reduce the size of their bodies? What new insights might emerge from considering our culture's devotion to thinness through the lens of spirituality and religion?
These questions are at the heart of my new book, The Religion of Thinness: Satisfying the Spiritual Hungers behind Women's Obsession with Food and Weight (Gürze, 2010), which is due out in a few weeks. The book explores the religious-like quality of the pursuit of thinness among contemporary girls and women-including the myths, beliefs, rituals, images, and moral codes that encourage women to find "salvation" in the form of a slender body-and it considers the historical, cultural, and theological underpinnings of this "Religion of Thinness." The book also suggests that women's dedication to the pursuit of thinness points to a host of unmet spiritual needs, including the need for a sense of meaning and purpose, inspiration and stability, a sense of responsibility and interconnection, unconditional love and inner peace.
My interest in the spiritual dimensions of eating and body image problems is not merely academic. Not only do many of the students in my classes struggle with food and weight preoccupation, but my own history includes a three-year episode of a full-blown eating disorder during my adolescence. This was back in the late 1970s and early 80s-long before words like "anorexia" and "bulimia" were household terms. Though I wasn't conscious of it at the time, I now see how many of the religious beliefs I had inherited from my family and culture reinforced my eating disordered mentality and behaviors. For example, the lessons I'd absorbed from my Christian background taught me that my physical appetites were untrustworthy, that suffering was the path to holiness, and that asking too many questions was dangerous. These beliefs bolstered my conviction that I needed to control my body, that the sacrificial pangs of hunger somehow proved my virtue, and that I needed to conform myself to (rather than question) the norms and ideals of my society.
By the summer before my senior year in high school, I was exhausted from three years of binging and purging and endlessly obsessing about how to get thinner. I was horribly ashamed of what I was doing, and constantly worried that someone would find out. Plus, I was really scared. I rarely got my period; I started getting cavities for the first time in my life; and my parents were on my case about being too thin. From that mixture of fear, shame, and exhaustion, I made the decision to stop my bulimic behavior, which for the most part I did (with occasional relapses for a few more years). But the real journey of my recovery didn't begin until I began to recognize and consciously work to transform the toxic mentality and beliefs that had fueled my sickness in the first place.
This journey coincided with my growing interest in women and religion. Starting in college and throughout graduate school, I couldn't help but notice the overwhelmingly negative messages traditional religions sent women about their bodies and spirits. I was studying Christianity in particular, so my critique of these messages focused on this tradition. I noticed the way women's spiritual authority was frequently effaced in biblical texts, while their role as sexual temptresses was a recurring theme. I saw how women's spiritual yearnings were repeatedly ignored, misrepresented, or distorted by church leaders throughout Western history, while their bodies were depicted as dangerous and sinful.
Think about the story of Eve, for example. Consider the symbolism of her "sinful" act. What does she do that unleashes death and destruction into the world? She eats. Now the author of this biblical creation myth was probably not trying to send women a message that they should control their appetites and lose weight. But the symbolism of the story carries its own message about the dangers of a woman's appetite, and it's a message that has been recycled for centuries. Contemporary women's struggles with food and weight is just one of its painful expressions. The notion that women's bodies and appetites cannot be trusted, that they require constantly supervision, control, and improvement because they are somehow shameful and in need of redemption is a myth too many of us are still trapped in, like the "Golden Cage" Hilda Bruch described in her landmark work on anorexia.
Developing a critical perspective on such negative cultural-religious attitudes towards women and their bodies can be a valuable part of the healing process for those who struggle with eating problems. For it illuminates how these problems are not rooted in our personal failures. Rather, they are symptomatic of a long-standing cultural-religious legacy that neglects women's spiritual needs while simultaneously viewing their bodies as inferior and shameful. This perspective also suggests that the path of healing requires us to identify and address those spiritual needs that have been neglected, and to find ways to honor and nurture them so that we can live peacefully inside our bodies.

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Michelle Lelwica is an Associate Professor at Concordia College in Moorhead, MN and the author of The Religion of Thinness.

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