January 4, 2010
Michelle Lelwica, author of The Religion of Thinness and Starving for Salvation, is an Associate Professor of Religion at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn., talked with Church Health Reader about eating disorders and related problems.
John Shorb: How do you see our bodies theologically? How do they relate to God in your view?
Michelle Lelwica: We often assume that our body has nothing to do with God. Reminding ourselves of Christianity’s central teaching of the Incarnation provides a helpful perspective — many of us have lost touch with the implications of this teaching. This idea of the Divine becoming human is a kind of metaphor for the integration of spiritual and physical reality. Understanding this perspective helps us appreciate the spiritual dimension of our bodies. Many people think of Christianity as an anti-body religion. There is the idea that the body and its desires are an obstacle to spiritual development. Practices like fasting, mortifications of the flesh and wearing hair shirts perpetuate this Christian stereotype of being anti-body. But these practices were designed to encourage an understanding of one’s spiritual development as involving a physical practice and attitude toward the body. In contrast to the image of the Incarnation, the common view of God as a judge ruling from high above the world creates the perception of the Divine as something that is separate from our experiences and our bodies. Those images that tend to foster a sense of separation from the Divine also contribute to our sense of separation from our own body. If we see God as this separate, other Being, it does not does not encourage us to experience our bodies as Spirit-filled.
How does this differ or complement the mainstream view of our bodies in the United States?
We tend to think that our body and spirit are two radically distinct things, and that the body can get in the way of our intellectual, personal, and/or spiritual development. This leads us to assume that the body needs to be controlled or tamed. This is a dilemma for women because historically women have been associated with the body. That is, women have been seen as more carnal, more sexual and more physical, while men have been characterized as closer to the Spirit, rationality and the mind. Throughout history, Christian theologians have contributed to and reinforced this dualistic perception. But if your identity is shaped by the cultural/religious belief that you can and should control your body, it can become an all-encompassing task. These two messages — that women are more carnal and identified with the body, and that the body needs to be controlled — encourage women to be at war with their bodies.
Popular culture presents endless images of what the perfect woman looks like, conveying the message that a woman’s most important job is to be attractive. This is a modern manifestation of the antiquated beliefs that identify women with their bodies. But the more you focus on how your body looks to others in an external way, the less likely you are to be working on developing an inner life. What are your internal values? How is your life connected to them, rooted to them, or perhaps not aligned with them? And what changes need to be made? If you are pouring your energies into an external preoccupation with “fixing” your appearance, you are short-changing the more fundamental part of yourself — the internal process of growth, discovery and self-definition.
How do eating problems relate to that?
If you are trained to believe that your body is your primary source of meaning and identity, and that your value depends on how you look, then you are going to be vulnerable to the messages that continually tell you the best way to be loved, and to love yourself, is to have a really good body that no one can criticize - including yourself. In some ways, these age-old ideas about women and embodiment are a perfect set-up for eating problems and body image dissatisfaction that we see today. Certainly, “the thinner, the better” is a clear message that women receive from the media, as well as other sources. The thin body is a symbol of control, which is a most-cherished virtue in our culture. Not surprisingly then, many women experience not eating as a way of being “good.” They believe it is better if they can withstand their appetite — it signals triumph and a sense of accomplishment. Trying to create a “good” body can become an addictive process when thinness becomes a kind of false god and an all-encompassing purpose that gives meaning to life. The further you move down the path of an eating disorder, the more thinness becomes the sole source of meaning and value for you. You lose your connection with other goals and sources of meaning and often other people too.
How do you see someone beginning the healing process from that? What do you think are some first steps people can take?
Everybody has a different path to recovery. The most common first steps involve becoming honest with oneself and moving out of denial. It is so easy to go on for years with an eating disorder because our culture praises that kind of behavior. Bulimic women experience this strange reality and disconnect: their lives are out of control and revolve around these cycles of binging and purging while people compliment them on losing weight. The path of recovery can be postponed for a long time because women are often rewarded for disordered eating behavior and they are often rewarded for unhealthy practices and attitudes towards their bodies.
The first steps happen when one becomes honest with oneself. Sometimes that happens with the help of others or it occurs when one realizes they cannot live like that any longer. Typically, that healing process involves being honest with someone else and letting go of the pretense that everything is okay and that you are in control. It can be talking with a close friend, therapist, family member, or a minister. Breaking that initial ice and coming out of secrecy is not necessarily a linear process, but it is a first step. The next crucial steps involve finding other sources of meaning to replace the all-encompassing goal of thinness. This is where spirituality can play a vital role in the healing process since spirituality can be a deep source of meaning.
How do you think churches or congregations can play an explicit role in that healing process?
We should expand our understanding of what counts as spiritual — real life struggles such as body image and eating problems have a spiritual dimension. Taking these issues seriously is a step in that direction. We also have to be willing to address some of the images, beliefs, morals and myths that circulate throughout our culture. Church members are continually exposed to these ideas that directly compete with their deepest values. Many of the images in magazines and movies that most teenage girls look to as role models are probably not healthy, and the inspiration they find from them is not very healthy. Churches, church groups, congregations and youth ministries need to be keenly aware of the influences shaping young people in particular. We should talk with children and teenagers about these issues to help them and heighten their consciousness of the cultural influences that surround them. Churches also need to take an honest self-inventory and look at parts of the tradition that have made it difficult to live peacefully in our bodies. There are parts of the Christian tradition that do not lend themselves to this affirming positive attitude towards the body. But there are parts of the tradition that can encourage a healthier and positive attitude towards one’s body. Looking at the spiritual aspect, addressing the competing cultural images, and critically looking at anti-body messages in the Christian tradition while retrieving its body-affirming resources can help churches foster healthier attitudes towards our bodies.
What role does the Bible play in healing from an eating disorder?
Jesus is a great example of somebody who was a cultural critic. I think that young people can be encouraged to follow his example by challenging the norms of our society today (such as thinness) and questioning some of the dominant values (such as control) that many people take for granted. Jesus challenged his culture and the norms that everyone else accepted. Often we do not see that cultural critique as a spiritual practice, but if you are a follower of Jesus, it is fundamental. We should wake up to the messages from our culture that encourage unhealthy thinking and behavior. The Bible is full of stories that critique social injustices and social norms that are harmful to people, and that point to an alternative vision of wholeness and healing. That is a fundamental message in Scripture — stories of new creation and transformation. The Bible contains a deep promise for that kind of transformation that is needed both on the personal level and a social level. It is clear that Jesus was interested in healing people spiritually but there was often a connection to the need for physical healing, too. That is an idea that can speak to some of those who are struggling with these issues - the promise of transformation is encouraging when you are in the throes of an eating disorder.
If you think someone in your church may be struggling with an eating disorder, what is an appropriate way to approach somebody in that situation?
The first thing is to be very clear with yourself about your intentions and concern for the person. No one is going to get better until they are ready, but you can be a catalyst in the process of their healing. If you have a genuine concern about someone, it may be appropriate to be honest with them about your concern and let them know you are there for them if they ever want to talk about it. Do what ever you can do to support them, but they have to make their choice to start healing on their own. I do not think it is helpful to avoid a situation, but I also do not think it is helpful to try and force a change. You should see your role in their healing process as a catalyst — letting them know you are a safe person to talk to and being a supportive presence.
Before confronting someone, also take an inventory of your own relationship to food and your body. Often we want to help someone have a better relationship with their body, but we are not happy with our own body. Setting a good example of a healthy, loving relationship to your own body provides a powerful, positive message to someone who is struggling with an eating disorder. Some people are ready to begin the process of healing, and it just takes that supportive presence. The key is to be non-judgmental: people suffering with eating disorders have such a profound sense of shame. Cultivating a compassionate, non-judgmental and non-superiority attitude is crucial.
Read the review of Lelwica’s book The Religion of Thinness>>
John Shorb is the Editor of Church Health Reader.