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