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


Dying to be beautiful?


Writing about body image and self-esteem has taken me into some dark places within my own mind and given me insight into the dark places that other women’s minds take them to. But none so dark and disturbing than my realisation over the past few days that there are little girls who are literally dying to be beautiful.

I’ve read about Fiona Geraghty, a lively, charming and talented 14-year-old girl from Somerset, who killed herself because she thought she was overweight; hanged herself because she felt she did not look like girls in fashion magazines.

I’ve learned of Rosie Whitaker, 15, who jumped in front of a train in Kent after her feelings of being unattractive and overweight led her to suicide and self-harm websites.

And then there’s Ashlynn Conner, an honour roll student from Illinois, who was just 10 years old when she killed herself after her classmates called her ‘fat’ and ‘ugly’.

The list goes on.

A study of more than 14,000 high school students in the US in 2009 found that overweight teenagers and those who believe they are overweight are more likely to have suicidal thoughts than those who are not, or those who think they are not.

Monica Swahn, who led the study, said: ‘Youth feel very pressured to fit in and to fit certain limited ideals of beauty.’

How did the world become a place in which little girls can’t bear to live because they don’t feel they look right? How did the world become a place where little girls are so bombarded with messages that they are not as beautiful as fashion models that they just can’t take another moment of being alive? How did we arrive at a world where a 10-year-old will hang herself with her scarf because her classmates taunt her with ‘fat insults’? How did the world become a place where the pressure to be beautiful robs little girls of any sense of hope?

When Michael Rose, the West Somerset coroner who presided over the inquest into Fiona Geraghty’s death, gave his verdict, he gave a warning to the fashion industry.

‘The one class of person not here who I hold directly responsible for what happened is the fashion industry,’ he said. ‘The problems of eating disorders amongst young people, particularly girls, did not exist before the 1970s. From that period onwards the fashion industry and the magazines promoted thin models and the thin figure.

‘I do ask, particularly the magazines in the fashion industry, to stop publishing photographs of wafer thin girls. I do implore it, because at the end of the day for their benefit, families like this must suffer. It is, I am afraid, an increasing problem and until they control themselves it will continue.’

If I ever have daughters, I want them to know that they are beautiful. I don’t want them to even give it a second thought. I don’t want them to face the anguish and pain that so many women of my generation face all because of a sense of feeling un-beautiful.

But even as I say this and I write about it, I realise the extent of the battle that needs to be won. It’s a battle not just for our minds and our own feelings about ourselves, but it’s a battle against a culture which insists on making us feel un-beautiful.

Because people who don’t feel beautiful buy stuff, read stuff, watch stuff, which promises to make them beautiful.

Even as I researched the stories online of the tragic girls mentioned above, adverts popped up on my screen for skinny pills, anti-ageing products and one which promised to reveal how celebs get flat tummies.

As I battle with my own body image issues, I hear stories of young girls who despise their bodies; who are desperate to look like glamour models or television stars. Or feel that they should at least want to look that way. And my heart aches for them.

‘Ugly Girl’, who recently posted on the Everyday Sexism website, is a teenager who said she ‘chose to wear modest clothes for religious reasons’.

Sharing her pain, she wrote: ‘I’ve had people call me hideous, mock me for expressing feelings towards the opposite sex, and outright laugh in my face for believing I could somehow be beautiful and value myself on the inside… Just because I am a woman, my image is treated as the only thing that should define me and that should matter. This is the concept of sexism that haunts me in everyday life and I despise it.’

I think of the beautiful girls in the youth group at my church or my young girl cousins and I am certain that they are going through the same battles as we have gone through and we continue to go through.

And I think that at some point this has got to stop.

It has to stop.

But it will take some radical changes to ensure that our daughters and their daughters don’t have to go through this.

The radical step starts with believing that we are beautiful and modelling that belief in our own beauty. It will mean no longer accepting it as the norm that we think we are un-beautiful. It means showing them that we are happy with ourselves, thanks very much. And it also means challenging those words and images that might make them feel inadequate, unworthy and unloved.

Amanda King is a blogger who is modelling that radical belief about her own beauty as an example to her daughters.

The mum of two from Pittsburgh writes this on her blog:

‘I am slow and I am tired.  I am round and sagging. I am harried.  I am sexless.  I am getting older. I am beautiful.  How can this be?  How can any of this be true?

‘I don’t want my girls to be children who are perfect and then, when they start to feel like women, they remember how I thought of myself as ugly and so they will be ugly too. They will get older and their breasts will lose their shape and they will hate their bodies, because that’s what women do. That’s what mommy did. I want them to become women who remember me modelling impossible beauty. Modelling beauty in the face of a mean world, a scary world, a world where we don’t know what to make of ourselves.

‘”Look at me, girls!”  I say to them.  “Look at how beautiful I am. I feel really beautiful, today.”’

So, some questions for you:

How do we raise daughters or encourage younger women to feel beautiful?

How did your mother’s view of herself influence how you feel about your own body?

Is it possible to raise daughters with high self-esteem while you yourself have low self-esteem?