Header by Ursula Gamez from Unsplash

By Rachel Devenish

Trigger warning: in this post, I will be discussing disordered eating, body image, and diet culture. Please be aware that while I, nor the Blog, promote restricting food or exercising in unhealthy ways, I will be including images and examples of communities that do.

This post is a brief introduction to the relationship between religion, food, and the body. If you’d like to learn more, I encourage you to check out Holy Anorexia by Rudolph Bell, and Holy Feast and Holy Fast by Caroline Walker Bynum. As well, if you’d like to learn more about how these topics interact in modern diet culture, come listen to the radio show and podcast I co-host with two other Queen’s School of Religion alumni, Stephanie Nijhuis and Jacqueline Giesbrecht, called Nearly Numinous!

The overarching subject of diet culture is one I am very interested in, and which has affected my life a lot – as I’m sure it has many of our readers. You may or may not have noticed that there are very particular ways we talk about food where we tend to ascribe value to different types and amounts. For example, chocolate is “sinful”; having a side of fries instead of salad is being “bad”; perhaps you want to “detoxify” and “purify” your body; or, focus only on “clean” eating. Like most people I believe, I grew up hearing these things but not really reflecting on whether ascribing value to foods is helpful or even necessary. I became aware of it in high school when it really took its toll on my mental health, and I continued my research into it during my undergrad. I decided to combine this interest with my passion for religious studies, as I tend to do with most things these days, when I wrote a paper for RELS 236: Religion and Sex. This was one of the papers which made me realize just how involved religion is in our lives, historically and presently.

The essay I wrote focused on how modern manifestations of eating disorders relate to historical examples of religious fasting, and through this research I came across the term “anorexia mirabilis,” otherwise known as “holy anorexia.” Holy anorexia is a term used to describe the ascetic and restrictive behaviours, typically among medieval Christian women, that were used in order to bring them closer to God and salvation. Some of these young religious women saw fasting as a way to purge their body of sins and avoid giving into bodily and earthly urges so that they can grow spiritually. Two popular views on holy anorexia that I encountered were:

  • Rudolph Bell’s perspective: that anorexia mirabilis among medieval Christian women was misdiagnosed/misunderstood anorexia nervosa.[1]
  • Caroline Walker Bynum’s perspective: that fasting was a legitimate spiritual means for communicating with the divine and achieving salvation, rather than a psychological disorder.[2]

The information I found in these books about the rituals and motivations surrounding religious fasting reminded me of the often-ritualistic behaviours associated with modern disordered eating, and especially with the ways in which those suffering from eating disorders might inherit or communicate these behaviours from others online. Though it is more difficult to find them recently, there are communities on the internet that are dedicated to promoting disordered eating through the use of religious and ritualistic language and rules. These sites, communities, and individuals label themselves as pro-ana, meaning pro-anorexia, or pro-mia, meaning pro-bulimia. Pro-ana and pro-mia communities are comprised of people, generally (though not exclusively) young and female, who wish to lose weight and encourage themselves and each other by sharing photos and videos of skinny people, body goals, exercising, and more, sometimes under the hashtags “thinspiration” or “fitspiration.” Sometimes these hashtags filter into more general diet communities online, like on Twitter, particularly with the more regularly used fitspiration hashtag. Disordered eating becomes an integral part of these users’ identities and the way they see themselves through the creation and sharing of pro-ana/mia imagery and so-called inspiration.

On these sites or accounts affiliated with pro-ana/mia, you can see obvious allusions to religion via the language and terminology used. For instance, the Thin Commandments (pictured below) is an obvious allusion to the Ten Commandments but involves rules that require the follower to become pure, attractive, and strong through starving yourself. Sometimes rules are written in a similar way as the Ten Commandments, such as by beginning with “thou shalt not.”

Thin Commandments
1. If you aren't thing, you aren't attractive.
2. Being thin is more important than being healthy.
3. You must buy clothes, cut your hair, take laxatives, starve yourself, and do anything to make yourself look thinner.
4. Thou shall not eat without feeling guilty.
5. Thou shall no eat fattening food without punishing oneself afterwards.
6. Thou shall count calories and restrict intake accordingly.
7. What the scale says is the most important thing.
8. Losing weight is good/gaining weight is bad.
9. You can never be too thin.
10. Being thin and not eating are signs of true will power and success.
11. If you are thin, you will be loved and accepted.
Source: Tumblr

Another relation to religion is the worship of Ana and Mia as divine goddesses. Imagery or descriptions of them include depictions of feminine beauty standards, inspirational quotes, and very thin (sometimes grotesquely so) bodies. Ana and Mia may be prayed to for strength or for punishment for one’s perceived indulgences. They are not there to provide love to their devotees so much as strict guidance to perfection, and the promise of a salvation that is always out of reach. Mantras and prayers, such as Kate Moss’ infamous quote “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels,” become integral parts of daily “practice” to followers of their eating disorder goddesses, and meditation may come in the form of counting calories or planning meals.

"Starve" Ana said, so she did.
Source: Tumblr

Self-sacrifice and salvation, purity and purging, devotion and dedication are at the center of these pseudo-religious communities online, which are only growing larger as more and more people fall into the trappings of diet culture, which I argue is informed by Western religious tropes such as purity versus sin. Food is a medium through which we continuously act out this cosmology of good versus evil, and our bodies and minds take the beatings.

I think the first step to deconstructing these issues is recognizing that they exist, which can be an intensely personal and spiritual journey for some. The next step, possibly, is to find our meaning in relationships with ourselves and others, rather than punishing ourselves for being imperfect and human. At the end of the day, our imperfections, be them in our bodies, views, actions or words, are what make us who we are—and this is something to be praised, not punished.

Again, if you’d like to hear more about this topic, check out the podcast Nearly Numinous, hosted by myself, Steph, and Jacqueline.


References

[1] Bell, Rudolph M. Holy Anorexia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.

[2] Bynum, Caroline Walker. Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women. University of California Press, 1987.

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