I read an account today of the recent Miss America Pageant. I didn’t watch it because I’m not particularly interested in that sort of contest. I was intrigued to learn that the contestants body’s have more in common with varsity athletes than super models. Perhaps this has long been the case, but I doubt it. A quick look through the contestants in the swimsuit competition (which is the easiest way to gauge body shape, size, and composition) reveals that they are indeed quite shapely though certainly not average. A quick look through past winners of the competition doesn’t give any definitive proof that the ultra thin ideal was at play in previous years, but the fact that the Miss America Pageant represents an idea of beauty that is fit rather than miniature is a good thing. I am going to ignore the other social issues associated with beauty pageants, and instead focus on the notion of the thin ideal in society. It is unrealistic to expect people to ignore their natural inclination towards subjective beauty because it’s part of our wiring. We can, however, embrace a wide range of notions of beauty and, more importantly, accept ourselves as we are. Most people are aware of the pressure of being healthy, and thin though they are not the same thing. With the growing movement against super thin models, and the often unrealistic ideal portrayed in the media, perhaps the Miss America Pageant is one sign of this change. The following is Part II of my thesis chapter on the relationship between anorexia and religion.
Anorexia has only been widely recognized among the general public since the 1970’s, a period of increasing secularization in North America, and is often connected with a society obsessed with beauty and the self. Thanks to the work of Rudolph Bell in particular, scholars have recognized what appears to be a much longer history of anorexia than had been commonly acknowledged. The relative infancy of the modern field of psychology limits the amount of historical data that exist for anorexia. In his survey of the literature, Bell states that it was not until the late 19th Century that self-starvation was recognized as a mental disorder rather than as either a devout or diabolical pursuit. Although it had been apparent for centuries that extreme fasting was dangerous and ultimately fatal, medical science and psychology struggled to make sense of what many early doctors termed hysteria. In the Twentieth Century, the advancement of psychiatry and psychology provided greater understanding of anorexia nervosa, and an increasing body of clinical research. As with other mental disorders, however, the religiosity of anorexics was generally ignored or considered part of the pathology. Thus it cannot be said definitively what, if any, effect religion has had on anorexics in the past. Fortunately there is an ever-growing body of contemporary research chronicling the connections between religion and anorexia, from Patricia Marsden’s work with English anorexics, to Richards and Bergin’s spiritually-oriented treatment. These authors, and others, conclude that religiosity has a role in anorexia. The studies discussed in this chapter examine the role of religious beliefs in the prevention, pathology, and treatment of eating disorders. This section will present the results of relevant studies in two stages of anorexia: prevention/development/pathology, and treatment/recovery.
Christianity is a religion that preaches love, acceptance, and the dignity of the human person, as part of its core message. Current research suggests that the relationship between religious beliefs and the development of an eating disorder is complex. Notably, in the areas of body satisfaction and eating habits, several studies have shown that religious communities often offer a similar distribution of outcomes to the general population.
Despite the lack of historical empirical data concerning anorexia, both, the human body and food have been major concerns of religion for thousands of years. From a biblical perspective, the human relationship with the body and consumption dates to the creation story and the earliest human activity. In the book of Genesis 3:17 an act of eating is used as the symbol for sin entering the world. This action is then connected to feelings of shame about being naked. The ancient Israelites practiced the sacrifice of edible items, animals and grains, and ritualized significant historical events with food-based celebrations, such as Passover, which features a meal as a central activity. Modern Jews (as well as Hindus, Muslims and others) continue to practice dietary restrictions. In other ancient communities, food played an important role in ritual and religious belief, particularly in relation to agriculture and fertility. To this day, faith communities continue to incorporate food into their worship through feasting, ritual, and fasting, such as Ramadan for Muslims, and Lent for Christians. Religiously prescribed limits on food intake are similar to eating disorder behaviour in that they seek to achieve a goal through control over eating.
Current research raises questions about the nature of body image presented by religious groups. One study discovered that Catholics and Jews had higher rates of eating disorders compared to other religious groups. Results such as this can lead to questions about the theology of the body that is internalized by believers and possibly leads to change when necessary. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body was itself a response to questions that were being asked about the nature of the human body in relation to sexuality. Dialogue about body image and its relationship to disordered eating and low self-esteem is an overlooked part of Christian theology. Its significance for anorexia lies in its connection to poor body image. Since the relationship with the body is an important aspect of anorexia nervosa pathology, influences on body image have the potential to impact the development of this illness. Religious beliefs have the potential to damage body image as well as improve it. Research has been done on the role of religious belief in poor body image, disordered eating, and the development of eating disorders. For example, Bell found evidence of religiously motivated behaviour that resembled anorexia among ascetic women in medieval and renaissance Italy. As well, a survey of two large collections of case studies reveals a variety of experiences among eating disorder patients. For example, some adhered to religious prescriptions while others rebelled against them. In cases of anorexia, the illness was viewed as the moral high ground, operating against greediness especially, but also the less obvious concepts of “anger,” and “sadness.” These emotions are viewed by some patients as wrong or sinful and must be controlled. The inability to completely control “sinful” behaviour can exacerbate the negative self-image that is common to anorexia.