Mormons & Eating Disorders

By: hawkgrrrl
July 23, 2013

Help me stay a child of God.

When I was in college, I had a roommate during the summer term whose friend came to stay with us.  She had just been released from the hospital for depression and was taking meds she called purple hearts.  However, her depression started to become unmanageable again, and when she felt suicidal, she decided to check herself into the hospital again.  My roommate had left town in the meantime, and I and my other roommate were the only two people this girl knew in Provo, so we started going to the hospital to visit her on a daily basis.  Her roommates in the hospital were all Mormon girls with eating disorders.  This was my first experience talking with people who had a life-threatening eating disorder.

A study from 2008 showed that 65% of women in the US suffer from eating disorders to varying degrees.  That’s an epidemic, and it also means that most people talk from the perspective of the disorder rather than from a healthy perspective.  The most common disorders are anorexia nervosa and bulimia; these disorders are particularly common among white upper class females, although studies show that more men are being diagnosed with eating disorders than ever before (the UK reports a 27% rise in reported male eating disorders).  Anorexics restrict caloric intake to the point of starvation while bulimics often eat to keep up the appearance of health but then purge (vomit) to control their weight.  Many women with eating disorders also exercise several hours daily.  They view “normal” BMI bodies as fat.  They have a very distorted body image of themselves and others.  Eating disorders and the mental processes associated with them are usually not diagnosed or treated.  Those that receive treatment have often advanced to the state where their health is in danger due to the lack of nutrition or accompanying stresses on the body like heart problems.

Like most women in my age and economic class, I have a touch of body dysmorphic thinking.  I imagine I am fatter than I am.  I sometimes feel self-hatred for eating a high calorie food.  As I mentioned elsewhere, when I went to the temple in preparation for my mission I felt fat and horrible for a week until I had dieted down to the point that the extra layers from garments didn’t make my clothes feel tighter.  The messages women receive from society contribute to this unhealthy and inaccurate body image.   But what about the messages we hear at church?

Now we see through a glass darkly. Very darkly.

First of all, the church advocates healthy eating practices.  We have a Word of Wisdom that states our position.  Church leaders and members alike would not wish others harm.  But eating disorders are an illness with a voice.  A voice that speaks to you inside your head and reinterprets things from its own vantage point.  Eating disorders resonate with a good deal of the messages we hear frequently at church as well as some of the behaviors we see modeled.

  • Control & Perfectionism.  “Be ye therefore perfect” is a statement an eating disorder would make, with the perfectionism being always just out of reach.  Many who have eating disorders begin as teens when they feel they have little control over their lives or their maturing bodies.  Controlling one’s eating is one way to restore a feeling of power.  So is cutting.
  • Fasting.  We often hear about the spiritual reasons for fasting in the church:  to focus on prayers and scripture study, to think of God, to help the poor with our donations.  But in practical reality the message we most hear from our parents is something along the lines of our self-mastery, our ability to go without two meals without whining.  Eating disorders are also about self-mastery and self-control, beating yourself up because you ate a saltine cracker like the weak fatso you are.
  • Body Hatred.  At the heart of eating disorders is a hatred of the body and a desire to overcome it.  When we hear messages about the natural man being an enemy to God or the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak, eating disorders agree!  And the body needs to be controlled – through exercise and extreme dieting.
  • Infantilization.  One thing I didn’t realize until I met the girls who were in the hospital with my friend was that many anorexics were trying to prevent the onset of puberty.  They saw childhood as an idealized, less complicated time, and they viewed adult female bodies with their fatty bumps and curves as something to be avoided at all cost, even their lives.  What do we hear at church?  “I am a child of God,” and the need to become as a little child.  In the church environment we stay in perpetual childhood compared to non-LDS rites of adulthood.  We never drink alcohol (one age-related rite of passage in secular culture), we don’t lose our virginity until marriage (another secular indication that you have become an adult), and our activities often involve adults playing children’s games while eating children’s food (cookies and punch).  Our church culture is very focused on obedience to authority, far more than most churches, but similar to elementary schools where behaviors are governed closely.
  • Modesty.  Our modesty rhetoric is mostly geared toward women, specifically toward hiding the cleavage and curves that are the hallmarks of an adult female body.  Eating disorders would like to do the same, by halting a woman’s development, even her menstruation, and returning her to the body of a child with no hips or breasts.  In fact, I have noticed that my clothing is more “modest” the less I eat:  things don’t fit as snug, my chest deflates, and my skirts are longer as my hips disappear.

11. You make a neat little list of ways to tell if you are a perfectionist.

Men often don’t realize how their words about modesty sound to women who already have body hatred.  It is unrealistic to think that most men would be familiar with the dangers of eating disorders as it is primarily a female illness.  More female representation at all levels of leadership might help with this problem as can more local leader training and programs to support families.  Of course, it’s a problem much broader than the church with causes that run deep into our society.

  • What should the church do to address the prevalence of eating disorders?
  • How can the church create a more healthy attitude toward female bodies, especially for our young women?

Discuss.

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23 Responses to Mormons & Eating Disorders

  1. Howard on July 23, 2013 at 7:55 AM

    The causes of eating disorders are many and complex including genetic, neurobiological, cultural, social, behavioral and psychological. Is there evidence for a greater problem among LDS? If so I would look at the church’s pharisaical obsession with sexual repression, modesty in dress and perfecting the natural man. All three of these are unbalanced to the point of being psychologically unhealthy.

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  2. Heber13 on July 23, 2013 at 9:02 AM

    Perhaps on Sundays we could teach the Word of Wisdom on health and balance and temperance in all things…and not have to talk about alcohol, tobacco, tea, or coffee at any point in that discussion. (Why do we resort to the lowest common four forbiddens as the focus of the WoW?)

    Also, I think priesthood needs to include a lesson about this stuff, and have it be fact based. (Hawkgrrrl could travel across all stakes and preach it?) It seems some older men think they are doing their priesthood duty by giving guidance to their daughters when they think they have gained some weight. I cringe when I hear well-intentioned but misguided comments from clueless men who then walk away and leave the woman to deal with all the implications.

    I find when I tell my daughters they are beautiful, that’s all they need to hear from dad. They choose to work out at the gym or go on diets on their own time and when they want to, they don’t need a man telling them about their body.

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  3. Jeff Spector on July 23, 2013 at 10:59 AM

    “What do we hear at church? ”I am a child of God,” and the need to become as a little child. ”

    Wow, this is a bit of a stretch, doncha think? I mean we also tell our YM and YW not to delay marriage and may marry when they are hardly out of puberty. Not exactly the message of staying a child.

    I am a Child of God is a primary song, isn’t it? And the reality is that we are all God’s children. And you are also the children of your parents. Did they teach you to stay a child?

    We are also taught to put away our childish ways. So it is a dual message with regard to how humble and teachable we are versus being. The fact that some take it wrong?

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  4. Angela C on July 23, 2013 at 11:08 AM

    Heber13 – I’m definitely not qualified to talk on a broad level about this topic. I would defer to someone who actually works with these disorders professionally.

    Jeff – “Wow, this is a bit of a stretch, doncha think?” Eating disorders are not CAUSED by these types of messages. These messages sometimes give a voice to the disorder. That’s a very important distinction. They don’t create a problem where none exists, and the message to become as a little child is a Christian message, not uniquely Mormon. Having said that, this is a disease that distorts what people hear. How do we work with that and avoid exacerbating eating disorders?

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  5. Jeff Spector on July 23, 2013 at 11:24 AM

    I don’t think you can shut down every conceivable trigger that may cause an individual to react. the best course of action is for those nearest that person to see the issues and get that person help.

    However, if we shut down the images that the media and entertainment use to promote what beautiful is supposed to look like, I am all for that. It is, in my mind, the biggest source of the problem.

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  6. Angela C on July 23, 2013 at 11:45 AM

    Here’s a thought I had on that one. Leaders should be given more training to identify which girls are internalizing these messages too much (e.g. girls who try to act much younger than their age) and then learn how to change their messaging or activities accordingly. But here’s the kicker. Many YW leaders may be perpetuating this stuff because they are also vulnerable to eating disorders. It’s a problem that disproportionately affects white upper middle class women.

    Some may remember the mother who was interviewed in Vogue about putting her 7 year old obese daughter on a diet: http://jezebel.com/5976178/mom-who-wrote-about-putting-7+year+old-daughter-on-diet-now-promoting-heavy-memoir. She was widely criticized as being a weight-obsessed mom who was creating psychologically unhealthy weight obsession in her kids. I don’t know about you, but most of the YW leaders I’ve seen are young, slim and pretty. Is that purely good genetics? Or are some of them weight obsessed? Given the percentages within the US, I’m sure many of them have some level of eating disorder and the internal messaging that comes with that.

    I agree with you Jeff that it’s a US problem, and yet we’re a country with both an eating disorder epidemic and an obesity epidemic. I suspect they are both on the same spectrum.

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  7. Kim on July 23, 2013 at 12:16 PM

    There’s also something uniquely Mormon about Eating Disorders and Self Harm- they’re very “LDS friendly….” It’s not something that breaks the Word of Wisdom, doesn’t engage in any illegal behavior, is totally supported by our perfectionistic culture, etc.

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  8. Jack Hughes on July 23, 2013 at 1:05 PM

    This is not a surprise, with LDS culture as appearance-obsessed as it is. Even when done with the best of intentions, too much emphasis on modesty causes the recipient of the message to conflate her own spiritual value and self-worth with her outward appearance and the possible perceptions of others. As a father of a pre-pubescent female, I can understand the necessity of trying to counter society’s hypersexualization of girls, but we are going about it the wrong way. By teaching our girls that the “righteous” thing to do is to wear more clothes instead of less, we are still sending the message that worthiness is somehow tied up in appearances.

    Instead, why can’t we reinforce values of self-worth and self-respect in a context completely separate from appearance? I frequently tell my daughter she is beautiful, but just as often I remind her that she is also intelligent, talented, and a lot of other things. And I try to model healthy behavior through exercise and healthy eating, while not getting too caught up in “what other people think”.

    My sister has struggled with bulimia for the better part of a decade. I know this is not something easily undone. It would be nice to have issues like this addressed in GC priesthood session, because the men who cause or perpetuate the problem are mostly ignorant to it.

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  9. Jack Hughes on July 23, 2013 at 1:17 PM

    Kim-
    These problems are also “uniquely Mormon” because the vast majority of sufferers are female; the male-dominated leadership structure of the church is largely ignorant to it because they are, in this case, the privileged class. Men are either: a) uncomfortable talking about it, or b) are responsible for causing it, and would just as soon pretend as if it doesn’t happen at all. This is also why sexual assault in the military (another male-dominant culture) is such a rampant problem.

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  10. Jeff Spector on July 23, 2013 at 1:51 PM

    Hawk,

    “I agree with you Jeff that it’s a US problem, and yet we’re a country with both an eating disorder epidemic and an obesity epidemic. I suspect they are both on the same spectrum.”

    Yes, agreed, which tells me it is a multi-faceted issue mainly driven by commercial interests and potential reinforced by parents and other under the same basic influences.

    I am still struggling with the concept that somehow modesty somehow plays a role. Whether parents and leaders reinforce incorrect principles based on societal practices is one thing, but I hardly think that telling a girl or a boy not to expose their body parts to others is a recipe for an eating disorder.

    And again, I see that some have taken the opportunity to use this topic to just slam the Church rather than direct the problem to individuals.

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  11. LovelyLauren on July 23, 2013 at 8:07 PM

    I think we would be far better off if we ditched the message of modesty entirely. Plenty of other churches focus very little on it and people still manage to look entirely age and situationally appropriate.

    I think that we just focus too much on outward appearances generally. Modesty, even when taught properly, without shame, is still basically about how you look and how others look at you. Wouldn’t we do ourselves a favor by focusing on what’s inside instead?

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  12. Jace on July 23, 2013 at 10:15 PM

    I am a man and was anorexic during my teenage years. Thankfully, I am not anorexic any more. I do not believe that Church teachings enabled/caused/made it easier to be anorexic. What did happen, though, is I used the doctrine of fasting to rationalize what I was already doing. Mormon or not, I was not going to eat- I just used fasting as a way to lie to myself. How can we blame the Church for that? I was going to do it anyway. If it weren’t for fasting, I wouldhave come up with something else.

    Anyway, I think it is unfair to blame the Church/patriarchy/doctrine for “making it easier” or whatever to have eating disorders. Is there any proof of higher eating disorder rates among LDS v. non-LDS? No, there is not. I’m sad to read the spurious accusations on this thread. I do think it would be great if word of wisdom lessons talked more about the healthy things to do rather than the don’t’s.

    I feel for anyone that is going through it. It sucks and seemingly impossible to get out of. I stopped seeing my psychologist and nutritionist about 2 years before my mission. Even in the MTC, I still struggled. Before the end of my first transfer, it was gone. I was downing dulce de leche like a boss and I never looked back. I am still very fit, but my diet is healthy and normal. I believe God blessed me with a cure.

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  13. Douglas on July 23, 2013 at 11:03 PM

    I likewise groan when I hear of men being klutzes when dealing with the weight issues of their daughters and/or wives. Especially when so many of we brethren live it large ourselves (and I once certainly resembled that remark!).

    I can’t say that we can “blame” any specific practice such as the monthly fast of two meals on “Slow” Sunday (LoL). Normally we don’t have a problem shoveling in the chow once the fast is over! That’s a problem with trying to explain behavior by exception. The most common eating “disorder” is, frankly, obesity, and oh how so many in our ranks pontificate about ‘gluttony’ and self-control!

    I do know a woman, a very good friend, who has struggled with anorexia at times…last fall, due to emotional stresses she was down to about 76 lbs…it got to the point that her elderly mother came out from Texas to talk some sense into her. “L” ended up taking a leave of absence from work and spent the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas of last year at the South Texas Medical Center for treatment. Now she’s at a more “normal” 96 lbs (she’s a former gymnast, only 4’11 and size zero clothes are loose on her) and at least out of danger. Yes, I imagine that of you sisters would (secretly) want to hit her (“how do you stay so slender”). Who can say what the “cause” is? I wish that I knew, but I leave treatment to the professionals…especially for someone that nearly died at age 45 from it.

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  14. natebergin on July 24, 2013 at 7:18 AM

    God turned us into monsters. He gave us instinctual aesthetic and sexual desires, and then gave us bodies and apetites which make the attainment of our desires impossible. Thus we are depressed. Then He cursed us with an overabundance of tempting, cheap calories, which are the best medication for our depression, further aggravating the contradiction within us. Like food, anorexia is also a drug, giving us the illusion of control, when actually, we don’t even realize the anorexia is controlling us.

    Every age, every culture, has suffered from this curse. If we think we’ve got it bad, just remember that the Chinese have bound the feet of their children, resulting in a lifetime of excruciating pain for over a billion women over the centuries.

    The solution is to recognize the flesh for what it is: vanity. Instead, we must celebrate the Spirit, which is eternal. This is a problem for Mormons, because we celebrate God’s corporeal identity, and the sacredness of our own bodies. Nevertheless, our current flesh is vanity, and will soon turn to dust. It is good to try to make our flesh beautiful, a reflection of our Spirit, but this is a much lesser priority than clothing the Spirit in righteousness. Getting this priority right will bring us lasting happiness, even in the midst of the terrible contradictions of our flesh.

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  15. Heber13 on July 24, 2013 at 9:20 AM

    “God turned us into monsters.”

    Huh? Perhaps God cursed nate with an overabundance of negativity in posting as well.

    My understanding of doctrine is that flesh is eternal too, as our Father who is a perfect resurrected God of flesh and bone. Flesh is what we chose to come to this world for in order to progress, and the blessings of having a body of flesh are countless.

    All things can be taken to an extreme, which is usually the lesson we need to learn in this mortal laboratory. I think we celebrate the flesh and the spirit, in balance, and love and help our brothers and sisters who become unbalanced and want some guidance to avoid the consequences of the extremes of not enough or of too much.

    1 Cor 9:25 “And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things.”

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  16. Jeff Spector on July 24, 2013 at 10:47 AM

    I suspect Nate is a bit tongue in cheek on his post in 14. In other words, we’ve actually done this to ourselves. Both personal and societal.

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  17. nate on July 24, 2013 at 10:55 AM

    It’s not tongue and cheek. We are monsters, and there is no creature more monstrous in their hen-pecking discrimination of the aesthetically underprivileged than innocent children.

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  18. steelblaidd on July 24, 2013 at 12:58 PM

    My wife has struggled with this since Middle school, she is healthier now but there is no way I can tell her that she is not fat that she will believe. One of the things that exacerbates this problem is that the official ranges for healthy BMI are so incredibly narrow.

    A couple of other thoughts. First this section out of Elder Holland’s Oct 2005 Conference address should probably be taught more as he speaks directly to this issue.

    “may I address an even more sensitive subject. I plead with you young women to please be more accepting of yourselves, including your body shape and style, with a little less longing to look like someone else. We are all different. Some are tall, and some are short. Some are round, and some are thin. And almost everyone at some time or other wants to be something they are not! But as one adviser to teenage girls said: “You can’t live your life worrying that the world is staring at you. When you let people’s opinions make you self-conscious you give away your power. … The key to feeling [confident] is to always listen to your inner self—[the real you.]” And in the kingdom of God, the real you is “more precious than rubies.” Every young woman is a child of destiny and every adult woman a powerful force for good. I mention adult women because, sisters, you are our greatest examples and resource for these young women. And if you are obsessing over being a size 2, you won’t be very surprised when your daughter or the Mia Maid in your class does the same and makes herself physically ill trying to accomplish it. We should all be as fit as we can be—that’s good Word of Wisdom doctrine. That means eating right and exercising and helping our bodies function at their optimum strength. We could probably all do better in that regard. But I speak here of optimum health; there is no universal optimum size.

    Frankly, the world has been brutal with you in this regard. You are bombarded in movies, television, fashion magazines, and advertisements with the message that looks are everything! The pitch is, “If your looks are good enough, your life will be glamorous and you will be happy and popular.” That kind of pressure is immense in the teenage years, to say nothing of later womanhood. In too many cases too much is being done to the human body to meet just such a fictional (to say nothing of superficial) standard. As one Hollywood actress is reported to have said recently: “We’ve become obsessed with beauty and the fountain of youth. … I’m really saddened by the way women mutilate [themselves] in search of that. I see women [including young women] … pulling this up and tucking that back. It’s like a slippery slope. [You can’t get off of it.] … It’s really insane … what society is doing to women.”

    In terms of preoccupation with self and a fixation on the physical, this is more than social insanity; it is spiritually destructive, and it accounts for much of the unhappiness women, including young women, face in the modern world. And if adults are preoccupied with appearance—tucking and nipping and implanting and remodeling everything that can be remodeled—those pressures and anxieties will certainly seep through to children. At some point the problem becomes what the Book of Mormon called “vain imaginations.” And in secular society both vanity and imagination run wild. One would truly need a great and spacious makeup kit to compete with beauty as portrayed in media all around us. Yet at the end of the day there would still be those “in the attitude of mocking and pointing their fingers” as Lehi saw, because however much one tries in the world of glamour and fashion, it will never be glamorous enough.

    A woman not of our faith once wrote something to the effect that in her years of working with beautiful women she had seen several things they all had in common, and not one of them had anything to do with sizes and shapes. She said the loveliest women she had known had a glow of health, a warm personality, a love of learning, stability of character, and integrity. If we may add the sweet and gentle Spirit of the Lord carried by such a woman, then this describes the loveliness of women in any age or time, every element of which is emphasized in and attainable through the blessings of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

    Second, and this is not meant to be a stick , but I read a couple observations recently that the Lords anointed that we should not be speaking evil of includes, at least, everyone who has been endowed and all who are working to build the kingdom (JUNE 1981 PRAYER—TRY AGAIN). My first thought was that this includes the negative self talk that we to often indulge in. The “voice” of eating disorders (and depression for that matter) with whic satan will tray to “deceive the very elect.(Mat 24:24)”

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  19. Gail on July 24, 2013 at 11:33 PM

    hawkgrrrl: “As I mentioned elsewhere, when I went to the temple in preparation for my mission I felt fat and horrible for a week until I had dieted down to the point that the extra layers from garments didn’t make my clothes feel tighter.”

    Yup.

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  20. hawkgrrrl on July 25, 2013 at 11:00 AM

    I love the idea that negative self talk is also evil speaking of the Lord’s Anointed. Well said! Thanks for the E Holland talk excerpt.

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  21. Ziff on July 26, 2013 at 1:58 PM

    FWIW, I was curious about eating disorder rates by state to see if Utah would stand out. I found this chart, from an article in Biological Psychiatry. You have to calculate percentages yourself (the chart doesn’t show them), but eating disorder rates in Utah are unremarkable: 4.7% of women and 2.2% of men, versus national rates of 4.7% of women and 2.1% of men.

    I’m actually persuaded by comments like Kim’s above (and by the points in the OP) that eating disorders seem to me to be problems that might be exacerbated by being Mormon, but at least the data I found don’t suggest there’s much of a difference. (I realize that taking Utah as a proxy for Mormon works less well every year, though.)

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  22. wideopenspaces on July 26, 2013 at 3:11 PM

    I’m a psychiatrist doing my residency training here in Utah, so I’ve seen a good number of folks who have eating disorders. What I can say is that while being mormon does not cause one to have an eating disorder, there is often a distinctly mormon flavor to the eating disorder, if that makes sense. Like the OP was saying, those with an ED have a ‘voice’ that is driving the disorder and in the case of many mormons, it is a mormon voice. It’s similar to the way that folks with schizophrenia in Utah often have delusions based around Joseph Smith rather than Jesus (which is what I always saw when I was doing med school in Texas). You incorporate what is familiar into the disease process.

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  23. GBSmith on July 29, 2013 at 9:33 AM

    the mormonwomenbare.com project offers some interesting insights to body image and the problems it can cause.

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