Reading Don Brophy’s new book, “Catherine of Sienna: A Passionate Life,” an account of this saint’s (she is also one of 36 Doctors of the Church) life, brought to mind previous biographical readings on Catherine’s own personality. Brophy’s book promises to bring to light many of Catherine’s heroic deeds and inspired teaching, while another historian, Rudolf N. Bell, wrote of the sometimes tortured elements of her own personality, behaviors which could be extremely vexing to those around her. These behaviors included fasting to the point of eating once a day and encouraging frequent vomiting—symptoms today which fall under the diagnostic umbrella of eating disorders. For many young women in medieval times, there was a subculture of excessive fasting, often felt to be behaviors that would make them “perfect” in holiness. Far too many young women today, from middle school age and up, display similar behaviors, not for Catholic piety but (among many reasons) to bring them toward a cultural idea of “thin beauty”. There are websites that encourage these behaviors in young women. I find it interesting to examine these with a look back to what historian Rudolf Bell has called “Holy Anorexia”:
“In describing this behavior as “holy anorexia”, I mean to draw attention both to similarities and differences between it and “anorexia nervosa.” The modifier is the key: whether anorexia is holy or nervous depends on the young culture in which a young woman strives to gain control of her life. In both instances anorexia begins as a girl fastens onto a highly valued societal goals (bodily health, thinness, self-control in the 20th Century/spiritual health, fasting, and self-discipline in medieval Christendom.”
While centuries ago anorectic-like behavior could remain in the enclaves of small communities and those who displayed this behavior could claim it to be “holy,” thus vexing priests, confessors and parents, today similar behaviors are viewed by many young women as worthwhile. The Internet has spawned an entire culture of websites featuring an underlying assumption of, “This is my body. This is what I want to do. It is not anyone’s business but my own. This is not a mental health condition, it is a culture that I want to be a part of. Mind your own business, thank you very much.”
Unlike many other psychiatric conditions, anorexia nervosa can be deadly in its severe forms and the behaviors undertaken can do damage to a person’s hormones, electrolyte balances, heart and circulatory system, digestive and gum system (through erosion of health tissue due to the acidity of vomit), and suicide. Often a depressive or obsessive compulsive component (perfectionism) is treatment, adding to treatment complexity.
Originally, websites promoting anorexia as a “cultural choice” were called Pro-An, a shortening for Pro-Anorexia. Since then they have evolved to be called “Pro-Ana,” providing a personal face to an appealing girl who desires to remain anorectic. Not wanting to give specific details here (although I believe many middle-school age girls know how to navigate to these websites), it’s enough to say that these websites idealize thin beauty,” offer approaches to dieting, suggest ways of keeping anorectic behaviors hidden from parents, teachers and doctors, as well as other extremely negative suggestions. A number of countries in Europe, who do not have the same First Amendment laws as the United States, have tried to limit access to these sites. Major associations involved in the research and treatment of Anorexia Nervosa are against these web sites.
For any person displaying these behaviors, there is a complex interaction of heredity, environment and upbringing, and social pressure that gives rise to beginning or continuing these behaviors. As a wider culture, can some anorexia be prevented or attenuated by constructive efforts to help young people recognize the difference between excellence and perfectionism, personal appeal versus caricaturized beauty, and openness to others versus hidden socializing and secret-sharing? Can or should something be done about these websites? Within the smaller culture of the Church, are efforts being made to link caring and cherishing of one’s physicality with teachings of the faith and catechism? I think we could give needed help and encouragement to our young people be examining and talking about this topic.