“This is my body, broken for you,” Jesus says to us in the central mystery of our faith. “Take and eat.” Eating is an inherently good activity, a channel of God’s goodness.
But in recent decades, this well has been poisoned for huge numbers of people. Anorexia, rare until the 1970s, today affects an estimated 1.5 million people in the United States. Perhaps twice that number have or are recovering from bulimia, a cycle of binge eating and purging (through vomiting or laxatives); millions more have binge eating alone. Up to one in five people with anorexia die from it—the highest death rate of any psychiatric illness. Eating disorders devastate the body, eroding teeth and bones, and stopping kidneys and hearts.
Christians certainly are not immune from eating disorders (they were “everywhere” at evangelical Wheaton College, one alum in recovery reports). But when was the last time you heard eating disorders mentioned in church? The body of Christ has a vocation to speak truth about the deadly idols of this present age, but instead we’ve kept a deafening silence.
Worse, underneath that silence are rubrics that reinforce rather than unravel the problems. You’re damned if you diet (vanity!) and damned if you don’t (gluttony!). Desire (for food or anything else) is blamed on the body, and both are lumped together as potential causes of sin. Old-fashioned sexism or newer libertarianism both give a pass to the hypersexualization and commodification of women.
And those with eating disorders are just the gasping canaries in the coal mine; most of the rest of us are being bled in body and spirit. Consider this absurdist play in which we live: Every supermarket-checkout magazine blares photos of food or freakishly skinny women’s bodies. At your local Cheesecake Factory, ordering an appetizer, entrée, and dessert puts half a week’s worth of food in front of you. Forty-two percent of girls in first through third grade want to be thinner. Unhealthy body images? Bizarrely large portion sizes? We’re soaking in them. And this is true not because any person or corporation is hatching an evil plan, but because they, we, and the thousand-plus ads we see every day are part of an evil logic.
Too often, we stop seeing the problem because we feel like there’s nothing we can do. We realize that people with eating disorders need professional help, which is true—if you suspect that you or someone you love has one, you should get a referral and more information right now (see box on page 37). But we don’t talk about where the rest of us come into our society’s tangled problems of body, food, and self. We’ve got our own troubles: At least 80 percent of our diets fail, and it’s now “normal” for us to feel bad about our bodies. If we can’t bail ourselves out individually, how can we drain the swamp?
THE GOOD NEWS is that we are not just individuals; we are a body with God on our side. Because of that, change and healing are possible—they are, in fact, our job.
First, we need to stop thinking of eating disorders as freakish conditions, bizarre exceptions to everyone else’s problems with will power or waistline. It’s an easy mistake to make, since anorexia’s main deadly symptom is an excess of “self-control,” and bulimia is often mistaken for a quasi-rational strategy for eating your cake and not having it too. But if we make this mistake, we will reinforce the profound shame that augments the suffering of anorexics and bulimics—and we will miss the vital lessons their actual plight can teach us about body, self, and vicious cycles.
Although no two people with eating disorders are alike, in most cases serious problems such as enmeshed and controlling families, pre-existing anxiety disorder, or sexual abuse have derailed the person’s ability to connect with internal states, both hunger and emotions. Instead, the person resorts to binging, purging, and/or starving—over and over, because there’s never enough food (or dieting or vomiting) to meet a need that food can’t meet. Body-mind interactions add malign, addictive momentum: When the body is starved, the mind becomes obsessed with food and withdrawn from relationships, traits that fuel anorexia. For bulimics, binging and purging serve as short-term tension releases, but the backwash of shame causes the underlying problem (and the harmful coping strategy) to snowball.
Most of us have escaped clinical eating disorders, but we often are part of the vicious cycles of consumer society—cycles based on lies and false solutions. Here are a few of the main culprits.
LIE 1. Your body’s desires are insatiable. In reality, it’s consumer society that is hell-bent on convincing us that we never have enough. As the 1990s soft-drink ad put it, “Obey your thirst”—a message from the television posing as a command from “your” body, claiming it wants a specific brand of fizzy fructose water.
The truth is that a key goal of consumer society, and a key eating disorder symptom, is to divorce us from our bodies’ feelings. The stomach, after all, will eventually say “enough” (even when our fast-food nation uses high-fat, high-fructose foods, especially in liquid form, to hack our body’s natural feedback systems with a fast-waning sugar high). In contrast, the sky’s the limit if your desire is based on seeing ads or giant-sized servings. And visual cues affect our eating much more than we think, as food scientist Brian Wansink describes; the more you use them, the more likely you are to be overweight.
The church, which has a 2,000-year bad habit of blaming the body, generally buys this lie hook, line, and sinker.
LIE 2. Your worth lies in having an abnormally thin body. Boiling human merit down to body size is a great recipe for mass-marketed insecurity, which is a great way to sell us stuff. All the more so when the target weight is abnormally thin, and thus in tension not only with our supersized society but even with basic biology. According to “set point theory,” every human body has an ideal weight of its own, below which dieting will be resisted with a slowed metabolism. Women’s bodies and souls (and careers) bear the brunt of this; it should be no surprise that eating disorders are far and away the most gender-linked psychiatric illness, with an estimated female/male ratio as high as nine to one.
Though we know it’s a lie, it eats away at us—and we buy it most in our terribly vulnerable moments and ages. One young Christian woman, Monica, described her teenage fantasies of thinness to me: “I don’t know what I was expecting—the happiness, the joy, the feeling of being connected to something …. You can have it all when you reach that size or weight.” The book The Beverly Hills Diet sold the idolatry baldly: “Once you are perfect, you have your choice of everything.”
Without a critique of this societal idol, the church is left to simply blame affected individuals for selfishness. This is wildly inappropriate, especially given how early the problem starts. “Linda,” a recovering bulimic, told me she learned to count calories in first grade—from a fourth-grader who went on to become anorexic.
When the church fails to confront this lie, it fails in its vocation to grapple with spiritual emptiness. In the extreme case of anorexia, family and social pathology together leave a person with almost no identity other than the endless quest for thinness. As Amanda, a therapist who works with hospitalized anorexics, put it, “[The eating disorder] sucks away all of their outside interests and relationships, and then it becomes no longer an issue of ‘do I eat or do I not eat,’ but rather, ‘If I give this up, who am I?’”
LIE 3. Thinness is the sign of “will power,” which is all-important. Having done its best to sell us supersized desire, consumer society—never short on gall—fetishizes and markets thinness, billed as control over desire. But this focus on “will power” (basically an individual’s choice of when to consume) shuts out of the debate many essential things—God, community, family, habit, grace, and our status as broken and vulnerable beings. Without them, we are in a no-win cycle of artificial desire and insecurity.
The thinness-as-self-control lie piggybacks on the church’s bad old habits of thinking about self vs. the body. Consider the religiously loaded terms in which “Marcia” told me about her anorexia: “My body had become my enemy and it was getting in the way of my mission.” She initially told family she was fasting as a spiritual discipline.
Of course, thinness as a sign of secular self-control makes sense only in the environment of the past few decades of cheap food and gas-fueled transit and industry. Today, thinness suggests you have choices: time and money for the gym and for cooking fresh, healthy meals. But it takes something deeper to make thinness mean not just privilege, but personhood.
Too often the church only mimics this emphasis on human will power, tacitly encouraging us to repent of our weaknesses more than our sins. Linda, for example, struggled with bulimia while working as a pastor, torn between the wholeness she preached and the addiction that haunted her. She was able to move toward healing only after a spiritual director told her that “the sin was not the eating disorder—the sin was not asking God for help.” Dependence on God’s strength, and community, were also central to Marcia’s recovery from anorexia: “Christ was my comforter and strength during my weakest moments; my faith was a huge help in my healing.”
LIE 4. You’re on your own. As the shared experience of the Lord’s Supper profoundly reminds us, eating is relational, whether at the altar or in the communions of shared lunch hours and family dinners.
When the television or desk becomes our eating companion, then community—a source both of portion-size norms and emotional support—is lost, and the vacuum filled with commercial messages. The emotional freight that community should carry gets misplaced onto the food itself. This is no way to run our bodies, or ourselves.
SO, WHAT SHOULD WE DO? The answers aren’t always clear, but we don’t have to do it alone. “Alone” is part of the problem. Our individual choices are important—but choices about when and where to find fellowship, not consumer decisions, are the most key. An individual-focused church is going to need to read Walter Wink on principalities and powers. We’re going to need to be free to look in the closet mirror less and the spiritual mirror more. We’re going to need to pray, a lot. Together.
For more resources about eating disorders, visit our Web Extras section.
Elizabeth Palmberg is an assistant editor of Sojourners.
For more about bodies, eating, and our culture, check out these entries from the God's Politics blog:
What to Do if Someone at Your Church Has an Eating Disorder by Nicole Saylor
In Praise of Dimples by Elizabeth Palmberg