Spirituality and Eating Disorders

Kristina Sandy

Reprinted from "Eating Disorders" issue of Visions Journal, 2002, No. 16, p. 11

Some years ago, I walked into the eating disorder clinic in Victoria BC, books in hand, ready to do research for a psychology course. Several frail looking women were waiting in the reception area accompanied by — one could only assume — their mothers, who were noticeably distressed and concerned. My heart went out to these women who were watching their children disappear before their eyes, unable to stop the terrifyingly destructive nature of this illness. What turmoil lived inside these young girls who, like ephemeral angels, did not allow themselves to be nourished by life so they could grow into beautiful vibrant women?

The short and long term health risks of this illness impact the individual, their families and communities and warrant serious attention from the medical community.

According to ANRED (Anorexia Nervosa and Related Eating Disorders, Inc.):

  • the mortality rate for anorexia is higher than for any other psychological disorder

  • it is the number one cause of death among young women

  • 1 out of every 100 young adolescents between the ages of 10 and 20 suffer with anorexia nervosa „

  • 1 out of every 4 college-age women suffer with bulimia.

Given the secretive nature of eating disorders, these figures are quite likely underestimated.

Ideas about the causes of eating disorders have been divided by Harvard researchers into four types: biological theories, family theories, individual/personality theories and cultural theories. Feminist theorists believe that all women suffer with disordered eating of some kind, varying only in degree. They believe that the illness is a response to a woman’s experience in a world in which she feels devalued. Sharlene Hesse-Biber, author of Am I Thin Enough Yet?, refers to this world as the “cult of thinness,”3 where one believes the myth that when one achieves thinness then one will be beautiful, successful and loved. This world holds great appeal to the millions who are inundated with the messages of media advertisers marketing consumer products.

When I learned about all these theories, as much as I agreed with them all, something still seemed to be missing. I found this missing piece in books about the effectiveness of spiritual intervention in counseling, and for my Master’s thesis, I explored the role of spirituality in the lives of women who had recovered from an eating disorder. Each woman defined spirituality in her own unique way. For one, it meant a sense of being free, for another, a feeling of being connected to the source. Yet another called it a sense of ‘letting go.’

The word spirituality comes from the Latin root spiritus, meaning breath of life. Individuals who communicate with whatever object of belief — Brahman or the larger self, the Tao, Jesus — all testify to the immediate experience of the smaller self expanding into a larger self. It is a loss of many small selves in union with a greater whole that is at the root of the spiritual experience.7 Have women suffering with eating disorders become disconnected with this larger self?

In Western society, health has been defined in strictly clinical terms by physicians, with the fate of the spirit being relegated to religious authorities. However, from early times of humanity, and for many societies around the world today, the priest and physician continue to be considered as one. It is understood that the condition of the spirit determines the physical state of the body.

Eating disorders have their roots as far back as the 13th century, seen in religious women referred to as ‘holy anorexics.’ These women held high status in the church and society; some like Saint Catherine of Sienna sadly ended up starving themselves to death.

Joan Brumberg, historian and author of Fasting Girls2, compares the fasting girls of the past and eating disordered women today, claiming that they both use their bodies as a vehicle for making a statement about their identity. While fasting girls of the past sought perfection in the eyes of God, today’s women with anorexia seek perfection through society’s perception of physical beauty.

Many of the women I spoke to found the tools available for dealing with their eating disorders inadequate. Perhaps the traditional medical approach that focuses on the emotions and cognitive functions is not enough. The use of spirituality, whether through meditation, dance, yoga, visualization exercises or simply learning to connect and trust one’s inner intuition may prove to be particularly valuable tools.

A closer look at the spiritual and emotional worlds of those who have transcended their eating problems reveals many similarities. All the women seemed to learn that connecting to their true selves is the real answer. To them, this meant seeing, accepting, and loving themselves for who they were, and ceasing to starve themselves of their Self4. Women are starving themselves to be thin and to be ‘well,’ as they hunger for a sense of fulfillment and well-being.1 The women in my study learned to redefine their hunger and listen to the hunger of their spirit.

 
About the author
Kristina graduated from the University of Victoria with an M.A. in Educational Psychology. She currently facilitates a woman’s group through Awareness and Networking Around Disordered Eating (ANAD) in West Vancouver. Her interests include women’s health issues, self-development, eating disorders and spirituality
Footnotes:
  1. Bruch, H. (1979). The golden cage: The enigma of anorexia nervosa. NY: Vintage Books.

  2. Brumberg, J.J. (1998). The fasting girls: The history of anorexia nervosa. NY: Random House.

  3. Hesse-Biber, S. (1997). Am I Thin Enough Yet? The cult of thinness and the commercialization of identity. Oxford: Oxford UP.

  4. Kesten, D. (1997). Feeding the body, nourishing the soul: Essentials of eating for physical, emotional and spiritual well-being. Berkeley, CA: Conari Press.

  5. Leichner, P., Brown., Atkinson, S., Henderson, R.,& Jacek, D. (2001). Spirituality groups for people with eating disorders. Abstract obtained from St. Paul’s Hospital and BC Children’s Hospital, Vancouver.

  6. Normandie, C.& Roark, L. (1998). It’s not about food. San Francisco: Berkley Publishing Group.

  7. Pratt, J.B. (1907). The psychology of religious beliefs. London: MacMillian.

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