From Holy to Unholy Anorexia

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”:

Advertisement

“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.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Beth Cioffoletti
8 years 3 months ago
Sometimes I wonder if how we define saintliness is not undergoing a much needed evolution.

It used to be defined in terms of piety - how many prayers are said, daily masses attended - all of this a sort of tally or chart whereby one could control(?) one's efforts and chances for eternal salvation.  Nowadays saintliness is recognized more in terms of inner transformation and surrender.  Giving up on the control game, letting go and letting God.

Anorexia definitely seems to be in the realm of addiction and control.  It also seems to me to be tied to the culture in complex ways.  Just like the teenage boys who erupt in rages of high school killings, starving teenage girls seems to me to be a symptom of something terribly wrong in the culture.   Very wrong messages being registered on the psyches of the children.  

And how is it that the last 30 years, when gyms have proliferated and you see people jogging everywhere - we, as a country, have gotten fatter??!!  Is the relentless pursuit of thin-ness related to getting fat??

What is it about our bodies that is so baffling to us?  Is it sex?  Too much?  Too little?  Are we too identified with our bodies (which are dying, by the way), or are we not identified enough with them?

Those are just some random thoughts, Bill, I'm not sure where they go.  It is a very scary disease, especially for the families that are affected.
8 years 3 months ago
I remember reading a past article about Catherine and her possible emotional problems - ANOREXIA AND THE HOLINESS OF SAINT CATHERINE OF SIENA* http://www.albany.edu/scj/jcjpc/vol8is1/reda.html

It's hard to tell girls they shouldn't starve themselves to become more holy when we have self-mortification examples as recent as JPII and Opus Dei.

Maybe anxiety, a desire to control one's environment even if that means only one's own body, and a sort of self-loathing are part of what fuels anorexia and self-mortification?
8 years 3 months ago
I recently read about a fairly new, promising treatment for Anorexia Nervosa which is called Maudsley family based therapy at UC San Diego, School of Medicine.  Google: Eating Disorders Treatment and Research Program UC San Diego.    It consists of 5 days of intensive treatment of the family: adolescent, parents and siblings,(if possible).  The researchers state that AN is mainly biiologically caused (heretible) thus taking the onus offthe parents and enabling them to more freely engage in therapy. (this reminds me of the Bruno Bettelheim theory of the refrigerator mother of autistic children and what a good thing that that theory was debunked!).

The Maudsley theory is basically that the child is imbedded in the family.  Her development is seen as having been arrested by the presence of the AN.  She is viewed as not being in control of her behavior; instead the eating disorder controls her.  and she needs a great deal of help from her parents. Treatment seeks to improve parental control over the eating disorder.  The therapist should primarily focus on the task of weight restoration.  They acknowledge the complexity of the disorder-anxiety , OCD and body image distortion-which must then be addressed.  The school reports success anecdotally, but will need to do research.

As Beth pointed out, the social and cultural factors are complex.  Where does one begin?  Going to Proana sites I did find one  worthy attempt: World's Largest ED Support Group 24 hour Posting!  It is tucked amidst the toxic sites and one hopes adolescents will find it, even if accidentally, and get hooked up with it.  This blogger is relating to the social isolation these girls experience and is trying to provide it in a healthy context. 

I always seem to end up touting parental involvement and organizational power because of my own experience in the area of developmental disabillities.  Parents were instrumental in improving the lives of their children in many areas.  Maybe Catholic parents of children with eating disorders need to get together and lobby their dioceses to provide the kind of catechetical material their children need.
we vnornm
8 years 3 months ago
Beth,

maybe it is the topic that is full of contradictions. We say we want to live 80++ but sabotage our own efforts. But if we get on a real food plan, take pride in our physical beings, do we start to go over the line into narcissism? Glad I'm not a kid today, but I guess that's good, I like where I am. I can't criticize anyone on the weight issue. It's a tough one for some of us. :-) thanks for writing, bill
we vnornm
8 years 3 months ago
Crystal,

Excellent article, scholarly, too. I think there is a richness in Catholic history that remains unexplored. I think it is possible to be spiritually healthy yet have serious mental illness. And that it is possible to be "psychologically healthy" and have one's immortal soul in peril. Girls in college will be helped by Father Gerry's talk, weakness is okay, we all have, no need for perfection. bill
we vnornm
8 years 3 months ago
The Maudsley program makes great sense, and it jump starts healthy nutrition, which is essential. I hope that insurance companies are funding and will fund programs like this. Taking the onus off the parents is essential. And then giving them back appropriate parental control.
And as you mention, then there can be other problems to deal with (comorbidity/dual diagnosis).

I hope someone who is involved in religious education with tweens and teens can offer some info about if this topic is covered in classes. Without going to the Catechism, I seem to recall some statements about taking care of the temple of the Holy Spirit. This isn't meant to judge those with eating disorders, but to remind all of us that we share the responsibility to help them.

I have seen persons with developmental disability + eating disorder + another psychiatric disorder. Very sad. thank you again for your wisdom. bill
8 years 3 months ago
Crystal: You fogot Mother Theresa. Catherine susbsisted on the Eucharist. Funny, but these gals seems to make it to Sainthood. Hmm. Something rather distinct from our vin ordinaire eating disorders...
8 years 3 months ago
Not just Mother Teresa, but Ignatius of Loyola too - he's my favotie saint - but I still think self-mortification is a sign of emotional disturbance rather than holiness.   Jesus wasn't an ascetic, didn't promote fasting or self-harming.
we vnornm
8 years 3 months ago
Maria,

Bell's book on HOLY ANOREXIA is fascinating, and it gives many examples of other saints. Thanks for writing. bill
we vnornm
8 years 3 months ago
Hi David,

I think there is a place for healthy fasting, and there are suggestions about how to do this without causing any harm to one's body. best, bill 
we vnornm
8 years 3 months ago
Hi Crystal,

I have to admit I like St. Ignatius alot, too. best, bill 
Gabriel McAuliffe
8 years 3 months ago
Ms. Watson -

Jesus "didn't promote fasting?"  What about the forty days he spent in the desert?
Gabriel McAuliffe
8 years 3 months ago
I just wanted to say that I do not promote anorexia at all but would like to say that mortification can be a very good thing. 
we vnornm
8 years 3 months ago
Hi Gabrielle,

There is a book "The Idiots Guide to Fasting." Much as I hate the name "idiot's" (this refers to the way persons with IQ's below 20 were classified prior to 1950), it's generally a good series and this book by Eve Adamson and Linda Horning Ph.D. is a good one.

They even suggest that "fasting" doesn't have to be just food and suggest one consider having one day when you don't use the car or one day when you absolutely don't spend money. I tried the latter two a few times and it gets you thinking. The food fasting is harder...

Maybe the truest mortifications are the curve balls that life sends us, when all along we were hping for a softball pitch?

thanks for writing, bill
8 years 3 months ago
John the Baptist came neither eating nor drinking, and you said, "He has a demon!" The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you said, "Look a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!" (Matthew 11:18-19, Luke 7:33-34).

"Jesus' call to conversion and penance, like that of the prophets before him, does not aim first at outward works, "sackcloth and ashes," fasting and mortification, but at the conversion of the heart, interior conversion. Without this, such penances remain sterile and false; however, interior conversion urges expression in visible signs, gestures and works of penance." (CCC 1430)
Gabriel McAuliffe
8 years 3 months ago
Crystal -

This time you help to contradict yourself:  "interior conversion urges expression in visible signs, gestures and works of penance."  Sounds like a bit of fasting to me!

You use two separate set of verses in the bible to show me that Jesus is against fasting when it really is out of context.  Again, how do you explain Jesus' time in the desert?
Gabriel McAuliffe
8 years 3 months ago
And please just don't throw a bunch of bible verses at me (or anyone else, for that matter).
we vnornm
8 years 3 months ago
yikes.....I'm gonna blame myself that I didn't write things in the best manner if great subscribers start to bicker.........consider this story about fasting that may bring different viewpoints together.....


A Franciscan stood in line in heaven while St. Peter processed a Jesuit. "Welcome oh Father of the Jesuits. Come ye into the Kingdom! There is not fasting here, only eating. Drink, eat, and be Merry! You are now in the Father's House!" And he hugged the Jesuit.

Afterwards the Franciscan was processed and brought to a tiny dorm room. He didn't even get a loaf of bread and Trappistine jellies like in the Trappist monasteries. As Saint Peter was leaving, the Franciscan said, "Hey, how come the Jesuit gets a banquet and I get this crummy side room?"

"Ah, son", Saint Peter said, "We are having a special party since we haven't had a Jesuit enter here in 200 years."

bill

Advertisement

The latest from america

After an allegation of his misconduct with a minor in the 1990s was deemed credible, Pope Francis accepted the resignation of the Auxiliary Bishop Alexander Salazar.
Gerard O’ConnellDecember 19, 2018
In his World Day of Peace message, Pope Francis warned against the vices that are too often linked to politics today and do not build peace in society.
Gerard O’ConnellDecember 18, 2018
The request is a clear indication that children, not the reputation of the church, will be the paramount concern at this meeting.
Gerard O’ConnellDecember 18, 2018
As today’s Gospel suggests, righteousness is no guarantee of a smooth life.
Elizabeth Kirkland CahillDecember 18, 2018