I am on a roll with these thesis related posts so I’m going to continue today. Tomorrow is a link day because of the podcast. The following selection contains a number of summarized studies with accompanying discussion. If you’d like more details about any of the studies please contact me at the firstname.lastname@example.org. Click if you missed Part I and/or Part II.
There are similarities between fasting and anorexia nervosa, such as restricted food intake and attempts to control the body. It appears that strict ascetic codes and other religious restrictions on food, paired with an emphasis on the human body as inherently sinful or evil, could lead to more cases of anorexia among the devoutly religious. This does not mean that ascetics share the other psychological symptoms of anorexics, such as anxiety disorders, perfectionism, or obsessive compulsive disorder, but rather that their attitude towards eating and the body may be similar. Harold Koenig points out in his brief survey of the literature, that there is no empirical support that belonging to an ascetic community increases the likelihood of anorexia. In fact, research into ascetic and other religious communities has shown virtually no difference between eating attitudes and body image within the group or the controls. For example, in 2003 Macias, Leal and Vaz conducted a study of 44 women living in open communities in Spain. The results of the study indicate that the distribution of body satisfaction and dissatisfaction was similar to a control group of university-aged women. The study showed that 50% of the nuns either perceived that they had a high weight or were fat. In addition these women exhibited disordered eating behaviour that was also comparable to the control. Although religious women may not be at an increased risk of developing eating disorders, such as anorexia, as outlined above, a growing body of research indicates that religious and spiritual beliefs do not guarantee protection against the development of this illness. A significant level of dissatisfaction with body shape and size, while often assumed by the public at large to be a problem of middle-class teenage girls, has been documented in communities of nuns in Spain, an Old Order Amish community, and among extrinsically religious university students. It has also been noted in case studies that some anorectics who have a strong Christian affiliation will justify their condition as a type of “spiritual starvation.”
Macias, Leal and Vaz speculate that the source of the nuns’ discomfort could come from the pressure to maintain regimented eating practices or a specified state of holiness. The daily pressures of ascetic life might create an environment conducive to anorexia. The challenge of controlling ordinary human desires and urges could lead some to control body weight and food intake. Despite the author’s initial hypothesis that a cloistered community would insulate the nuns from negative body image and disordered eating, the research showed that the conditions necessary for anorexia to develop exist in an ascetic community. Other studies of cloistered religious communities have had similar results. In their study of an Amish community, Platte, Zelten and Stunkard, found that while the young people exhibited a healthy view of their own bodies, the elders often did not. The authors proposed that this resulted from the focus on physical labour in the farming community. When members of the community became unable to contribute to the work of the farm, satisfaction with their bodies decreased. It is important to note that the community was mostly shielded from secular media, and as such, these cases of negative body image are unlikely to be connected to the “thin ideal”.
In neither the Spanish study of cloistered nuns, nor the Amish study, did the authors identify a single case of anorexia in those communities. They did, however, measure the incidence of disordered eating, which in both cases was the same as the general public. While the sample sizes of these studies are too small to draw general conclusions, they do present the possibility that even strongly religious communities need to address body image because their current theology is not creating a significant difference from the general public. In addition, because both groups were isolated from the influence of the “thin ideal”, these studies demonstrate that this is not the only factor influencing women towards poor body image and disordered eating.
Correlation between high religiosity and positive body image has been found in several studies that have attempted to quantify this relationship. Based on their own prior research, Mahoney et al. hypothesized that “greater sanctification of the body” would lead to a “great investment in maintaining one’s physical well-being.” Body sanctification refers to an individual’s view of her body that recognizes its value in religious terms. It should also be noted that studies by Levin and Strawbridge et al. have shown that general religiousness leads to health-protective behaviour. The Mahoney study was comprehensive, examining a wide range of experimental factors including manifestation of God in the body, sacred qualities of the body, general health-protective practices, as well as physical fitness and asceticism. The sample included 289 university students 77.5% of which were female. The study participants were predominately Christian (74%), which makes the results particularly useful for this thesis. The results of the study supported the authors’ initial hypothesis. Of particular note they found that higher levels of body sanctification were associated with greater satisfaction with the body. Thus those participants who attributed religious meaning to their bodies were more likely to have a positive body image.
A study by Boyatzis, Kline and Backof specifically investigated written religious affirmations and their effect on body image. The authors attempted to establish causality through pre and posttests dealing with body image and the viewing of “thin ideal” photos. The women were divided into three groups: a control group that read random statements not related to body image, a “spiritual group” that read positive secular body image statements, and a “religious group” that read similar theistic statements. The religious group showed the greatest improvement in body image on the post test, while the control group saw a decline in their body image. This study supports Mahoney’s findings about religious beliefs and body satisfaction.
The results of the studies cited above demonstrate a connection between the content of religious belief and body satisfaction. The authors’ conclusions focused on the positive effects of religious belief on body image. Research into small religious sects has shown that religious beliefs can also have a negative influence on body image. Although new religious groups are typically small, their experience represents the extreme of devout religious belief, much as anorexia represents an extreme of either the “thin ideal” or fasting. The Church Universal and Triumphant provides an example of use of restrictive diet in a new religious movement and the consequences of this practice. The leader of the group, Elizabeth Clare Prophet, dictated all aspects of eating among her followers and framed her directives in a religious context. She dictated the content and quantity of her follower’s food intake and to avoid “the appetites of the physical body and the appetites of death.” Members of the community ate primarily rice and vegetables while Prophet had a fridge stocked with “exotic food.” This last point implies that the food restrictions were related to control rather than a theology of eating practice. The Church Universal and Triumphant is an unusual example because it does not represent the normal practice of the majority of religious believers. Anorexia, too, is an extreme behaviour. This particular case, along with others cited by Paolini and Paolini, shows the negative effects of religious teachings on body image. As noted, some care must be taken in considering followers of new religious movements that are, by their nature, part of smaller tight-knit communities. These results, however, support the findings of other studies cited in this thesis, that religious beliefs can influence body image.
In addition to the studies of people or groups who have developed positive or negative relationships with food or their bodies due to religious affiliation and belief, research has been conducted to discover if certain types of people are more susceptible to poor body image or eating disorders due to their religious beliefs. A notable study by Smith, Richards, and Maglio examined religious orientation and eating attitude in both clinical and sub-clinical anorexic populations. They defined four types of religiousness based on the commonly used religious orientation scale (ROS). Intrinsic religiousness is associated with orthodox practice and personal belief, while an extrinsically religious person often belongs to a community for social purposes. On the two extremes are the pro-religious and nontraditional groups. The former scored high on both intrinsic and extrinsic scales, and the latter scored low on both and could be considered non-religious. In simplest terms the difference lies in the extent to which religiousness is an internal or external commitment on the part of the person. Although the study sample was small, no correlation was found between the intrinsically religious group and anorexia. As predicted eating disorder symptoms were most prevalent in the pro-religious and nontraditional groups. Therefore, those for whom religion was an internal commitment were least likely to develop eating disorders. From this study it can be concluded that there is no connection between religiousness and eating disorder pathology since the most traditionally religious group and the intrinsically religious group did not demonstrate a connection with anorexia nervosa. Based on the research cited above, the promotion of a healthy body image, in religious terms, has positive effects on people. This conclusion will return in Chapter 3.