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?
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.
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?