Holy anorexia

st catherineWomen were starving themselves long before fashion magazines showed up.

And that includes Christian women.

At the age of seven, after having a vision of Christ, St Catherine of Siena, who lived in the 14th century, stopped eating normally, in an attempt to deny her body, to pay penance, and become more divine. From a young age, she started throwing her food under the table. She tried to survive only on the eucharist, to the concern of all those around her.

Sound familiar?

Reda and Sacco at the University of Siena explored her eating disorder and explain:

“So as not to cause scandal, she sometimes took a little salad, fresh vegetables and fruit, but would then turn around and spit them up. And if it was the case that she swallowed just a single morsel, the stomach did not let up until it could not regurgitate any more: the incessant vomiting gave her so much pain that her face was almost bursting. On occasion she would go away with one of her friends and prod her throat with a stick of finnochio or with a goose feather, until it was thrown open depending on how much she had swallowed. And this she called ‘doing justice’. ‘We do justice for our miserable sins,’ she liked to say.”

St Catherine was a poster girl for holy anorexia.

Some social psychologists have made the link between religious faith and eating disorders. CG Banks in the early 1990s said that religious motives such as asceticism and fasting could sometimes play a role in anorexia nervosa.

In See Me Naked, Amy Frykholm explores stories of religious faith and how harmful beliefs about the place of the body can lead to dysfunctional lives. She tells the story of Ashley who in a bid to bring her body into submission and to become perfect, denies herself food. She writes:

 ‘Ashley believed herself to be living out a protest against her culture. She was determined not to be exploited or displayed. Her body would not become a ‘vehicle for pleasures,’ not for others and not for herself. Instead Ashley worked to become a master of the will. Food was a constant, ordinary place to practice. She judged that she was doing well by the fact that her thighs did not touch each other – this was a direct indication of the control of desire. Excess of any kind, except excessive denial, was a sign that she had not given herself completely to God.’

A lot of the blame for women’s poor body image has been put on the fashion industry, the glossy magazines and the Daily Mail. Yes, each of these has a part to play in pressurising women to fit into – or aspire to fit into – a certain body ideal. They have a part to play in the high levels of body satisfaction.

But this week I’ve been realising that so many women’s poor body image, and subsequent pre-occupation with what we eat –  whether it’s bingeing, starving, over-eating, food anxiety – comes from some other place.

I’ve seen studies which show that eating disorders exist among women living in rural tribes in Africa, for example, where glossy magazines are not really available.

I’ve been surprised by the number of Christian women I know who have suffered from eating disorders – at either end of the continuum. This week for example I interviewed Carol, 55, who lost 16 stone after a bypass and realised that it really wasn’t about the weight or the food, but about the soul-pain issues which eventually led to her quest for control and self-worth.

In a survey I did earlier this year (which you can also take part in here), I found that it was around one on five  Christian women – with a further 10 per cent ‘unsure’ about whether or not they had suffered from eating disorders.

Here are just a couple of the things women told me in the survey:

 “Eating disorders are a way to regain control over your life when you can’t control other things and stem from much more than just feeling unattractive. I was bulimic for a while at school, but have struggled with food most of my life. Having an unhealthy relationship with food and/or an eating disorder is really isolating. You can’t separate food from life, it’s there on all major occasions, good and bad, social situations as well as everyday life. Food can be used as a reward and as a punishment. For someone with an eating disorder, food is terrifying, regardless if you are a bulimic, anorexic or compulsive eater. It consumes your world, becomes all you think about.”

 “I spent about three years in a food restriction/binge/purge bulimic cycle, but prior to that was about another five years of very unhealthy food and body image thought processes and action. The main perpetuating factor for this was anxiety/control issues but heavily influenced by a low self-esteem and negative body image. I was healed amazingly by coming to an understanding of God’s love and grace in my life, and was also hugely supported by outpatient hospital care which helped me reset a lot of my thought processes and habitual eating/activity behaviours. I believe I may always be susceptible to the thoughts and behaviours I had during that time but it does not define/control my life like it did.” 

Increasingly, I’m realising that when we talk about body image, beauty, food anxiety – we are talking about something much deeper; something which needs holistic inner healing and an encounter with He who “satisfies the longing soul, and fills the hungry soul with goodness” (Psalm 107:16).

Image: St Catherine of Siena, Creative Commons


6 thoughts on “Holy anorexia

  1. Catherine would whip herself for an hour and a half a day. With chains. That was about the length of time she allowed herself to sleep. Every other night.

    And all this self-imposed suffering was, in her own words, “to atone for the sins of the church.”

    Eating disorders (and self-harm, depression, suicide) are about so much more than “size zero models”! Emma’s account of the religious/existential roots is the best I’ve come across. Here’s a good summary:


  2. I knew people who used religious fasting to lose weight. When women would compliment other women on their weight loss, I remember one of them saying that she was on the olive fasting diet. I remember thinking that was a bit odd…

    I saw it as people just calling dieting by another name to make themselves look better in front of other people, and had nothing to do with meditation on God’s word. Your post was very interesting too… and it makes a lot of sense. Denying your body pleasures does not just mean denying sex, but it is also about food… and misinterpreting information.

  3. I’m a bit uneasy about the connection you make between Christian ascetic practices and anorexia. Clearly there are some similarities, but someone like Catherine of Siena lived in such a dramatically different context that we certainly can’t draw a straightforward equivalence between her fasting and contemporary eating disorders. And however uneasy we might be about the sorts of eating practices medieval women engaged in, I don’t think we can straightforwardly dismiss them as dysfunctional; it’s more complicated than that, and the idea of disciplining or controlling our bodies and our relationship with food goes very deep in Christian tradition. You’re right that it raises all sorts of bigger questions about the relationship we have with our bodies, our sense of self, and the place of discipline, but I don’t think it’s necessarily very clear what wholeness looks like or how we get there. Caroline Walker Bynum has some really great, nuanced stuff about medieval women and their relationship with food and fasting – you might want to check out her ‘Holy Feast and Holy Fast’.

    • Thanks Marika, I know you’re much more versed in this area than I am, so great to hear your thoughts. Thanks for another good book suggestion – will look it up. I myself wasn’t drawing the similarities between Christian asceticism and anorexia – that’s already been done, including in the research I cited. I don’t think Catherine of Siena for example was necessarily equivalent to anorexics today. But, it’s clear that (i.e. in the Amy Frykholm example of Ashley) some anorexics today use rhetoric that is similar to asceticism. I think there is obviously no one-size-fits-all reason for people having anorexia. But in some cases – the reasons are not too dissimilar from medieval asceticism.

      • Yeah, I guess partly I’m aware that the attempt other people have made to connect contemporary anorexia to earlier ascetic practices is pretty controversial. Illness and wellness are always socially constructed. So especially with something like anorexia nervosa, which is a contemporary psychiatric diagnosis, it’s important to be aware that, even if the symptoms are the same, the *meaning* can be very different; and to give very medieval-sounding reasons for the way you’re eating in the modern world, as Ashley does, is different from using that same language in a context where it’s less anachronistic. But I think what comes out both in what Ashley says and in the Reda and Sacco article you mention is that how we eat isn’t just about how we feel about ourselves as individuals, it’s also about our relationship to the world we live, to the way that society is structured, and to God. And isn’t it fascinating that women who the church has held to be deeply godly have what seems to us to be a really unhealthy relationship with their bodies? It reminds me a little of some of the things I’ve read about madness and mental illness more generally; that pre-Enlightenment often people who we would now see as mentally ill were thought to have some real insight into God’s character.

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