The Religion of Thinness

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

While writing my book Gaining several years ago, I kept tripping across evidence of a curiously cozy relationship between religion and eating disorders. My research took me into works like Rudolph Bell's outstanding Holy Anorexia, which chronicles the lives of hundreds of anorexic and bulimic Catholic saints. I was fascinated and deeply moved by the memoir Spiral Staircase by the renowned theologian Karen Armstrong, who wrote about the frequency of anorexia among nuns - herself included before she left the convent. And I read biographies of the mystic and philosopher Simone Weil, who died of anorexia in 1943. I also learned about Manichaeism -- a religion founded around 300 A.D. that combined elements of Zoroastrian, Christian, and Gnostic thought into a belief that spiritual purification came through the denial of appetites for food and sex.

At the same time, I was learning that 60% or more of our susceptibility to eating disorders is genetic. So, I wondered, could it be that people with the genetics for eating disorders were guiding some of these religious "ideals"? Or, could it be that religious leaders looked around, saw what was temperamentally driving people, and incorporated rituals within the church that played on those natural tendencies? I kept thinking how perfect rosaries are as a device for people who suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorders...

Finally I interviewed Jack Miles, a former Jesuit and the Pulitzer-Prize winning author of God: A Biography and Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God. Jack was dumbstruck by the news that genetics play a role in eating disorders, but the more he thought about it, the more sense it made to him. When I asked him if he though there was a connection between eating disorders and religion he said sagely, "The Church employs affliction."

I wanted to write about all this in my book, but I am a confirmed agnostic with no religious background to speak of, and I would be wading into quicksand if I stepped too far in this direction. So I was delighted to hear recently that a theological scholar had written a book called The Religion of Thinness. Finally, I thought, someone who really understands this territory is going to see how the latest knowledge about eating disorders lines up with religious thinking.

I really wanted to love this book. I wanted to learn from it. I wanted to feel galvanized by it.

Before I tell you why I didn't, let me tell you a bit more about what the book does deliver. It breaks down the essential tools of religion -- mythology, iconography, rituals, moral principles, community, and redemptive promises -- and demonstrates how our culture has framed the idealization of thinness in much the same way. It presents the practices of mindfulness and cultural criticism as means of deprogramming ourselves from this religion. And it deconstructs numerous advertisements and magazine covers to show how this cultural criticism is done. I do not disagree with one word in this book. Unfortunately, I kept thinking that many in our culture will treat anything - from politics and vegetarianism to the right to bear guns - as a religion. And maybe mindfulness and cultural criticism would help those folks, too. But that idea didn't make it into the book.

I felt as if I was trying to get comfortable on a four-legged stool that was missing two legs. The author, Michelle Lelwica, did not mention the role of genetics in eating disorders, much less the role of genetics and temperament in one's susceptibility to religion. Even more astounding to me, there was no substantial or probing discussion of the individual circumstances that nudge - or propel - people into eating disorders. Not until the last 20 pages of the book did the author even mention that personal and sexual trauma often precede these illnesses. It wasn't until page 172 that she allowed as how the desire for physical perfection "masks a host of deeper spiritual needs"!

Instead, many pages here felt as if they were lifted straight out of the work of feminist scholars such as Susan Bordo, whose 1993 classic Unbearable Weight contained similar images of advertisements deconstructed in much the same way. Like Bordo, Lelwica explicitly and implicitly suggested that our culture makes us eating and body image disordered. "In the end," she writes, "both the present-day quest for thinness and the medieval pursuit of holiness reflect a common struggle for purity and power in societies that view women's bodies as a source of immorality and shame."

But, I kept wondering, what about all the people I've interviewed who developed their eating disorders after losing a parent or child? What about all the men with eating disorders? What about people who are blind who develop these illnesses? I'm all for boycotting designers and advertisers that use anorexic models, or magazines that tout unhealthy diets, but that's only part of the solution.

Sadly, Lelwica's suggested mindfulness practices also circled the obvious. I am a true believer in the power of mindfulness, but I'm not sure readers will grasp that power through the repetitive instructions in this book. And again, the most important aspect of mindfulness for people struggling with eating disorders was buried at the back of the book. The real magic of mindfulness occurs when we allow ourselves to feel what we are suffering without judging it or trying to escape it. By sitting with it we can examine and learn to manage it. I was on page 264 by the time I got anywhere near this magic, and it felt like too little far too late for people who are actually suffering. Also, in my experience, the biggest blind spot for most of us is temperament -- how we're emotionally wired for anxiety or depression or love. But there was no discussion of becoming mindful of one's temperament.

I'm afraid that Lelwica and I are looking at the same picture from two very different perspectives. She's standing at a distance and painting the landscape with a broad brush, while I'm looking close enough to see the actual faces and lives of individuals. She's including every woman who looks at fashion magazines or thinks twice about having a hot fudge sundae. I'm interested in the factors that distinguish those who easily maintain a healthy weight from those who are psychologically enslaved by their obsessions. The Church may employ affliction to lure more followers, but the critical questions that then follow are, what is that affliction, where does it come from, and how can we prevent it? I'm afraid The Religion of Thinness does not go there.