Starving for Salvation: The Spiritual Dimensions of Eating Problems among American Girls and Women

Starving for Salvation: The Spiritual Dimensions of Eating Problems among American Girls and Women

Starving for Salvation: The Spiritual Dimensions of Eating Problems among American Girls and Women

Starving for Salvation: The Spiritual Dimensions of Eating Problems among American Girls and Women

Synopsis

In recent years, eating disorders among American girls and women have become a subject of national concern. Conventional explanations of eating problems are usually framed in the language of psychology, medicine, feminism, or sociology. Although they differ in theory and approach, these interpretations are linked by one common assumption--that female preoccupation with food and body is an essentially secular phenomenon. In Starving for Salvation, Michelle Lelwica challenges traditional theories by introducing and exploring the spiritual dimensions of anorexia, bulimia, and related problems. Drawing on a range of sources that include previously published interviews with sufferers of eating disorders, Lelwica claims that girls and women starve, binge, and purge their bodies as a means of coping with the pain and injustice of their daily lives. She provides an incisive analysis of contemporary American culture, arguing that our dominant social values and religious legacies produce feelings of emptiness and dissatisfaction in girls and women. Trapped in a society that ignores and denies their spiritual needs, girls and women construct a network of symbols, beliefs, and rituals around food and their bodies. Lelwica draws a parallel between the patriarchal legacy of Christianity, which associates women with sin and bodily cravings, and the cultural preference for a thin female body. According to Lelwica, these complimentary forces form a popular salvation myth that encourages girls and women to fixate on their bodies and engage in disordered eating patterns. While this myth provides a sense of meaning and purpose in the face of uncertainty and injustice, Lelwica demonstrates that such rigid and unhealthy devotion to the body only deepens the spiritual void that women long to fill. Although Lelwica presents many disturbing facts about the origins of eating disorders, she also suggests positive ways that our society can nourish the creative and spiritual needs of girls and women. The first step, however, is to acknowledge that female preoccupation with thinness and food signifies a strong desire for fulfillment. Until we recognize and contest the religious legacies and cultural values that perpetuate eating disorders, many women will continue to turn to the most accessible symbolic and ritual resources available to them--food and their bodies--in an attempt to satiate their profound spiritual hunger.

Excerpt

When people ask me about my work as a scholar in the field of religion, most of them are surprised to learn of my interest in eating disorders. Over the years, I have come to appreciate the raised eyebrows and vexed smiles, for at the heart of this confusion resides the challenge of my study: to articulate connections that are not obvious, processes that are hard to see. This articulation is appropriate, I assure those who remain interested in my work, insofar as religion has long been in the business of calling attention to that which ordinary vision cannot clearly see.

In the course of writing this book, I have come to believe that the difficulty in seeing the spiritual dimensions of girls' and women's struggles with anorexia, bulimia, and related problems has much to do with the way many of us have been taught to look, with what we are encouraged to want and assume, and what we have learned to do without. There is much talk about pleasure, but rarely joy; much striving, but little freedom; many words, but not a lot of understanding.

In reality, most people today are very busy. In this land of maldistributed abundance, some work day and night just in order to make ends meet; others strive around the clock in a wishful effort to “succeed. ” Amid this hustle and hurry, however, widespread social phenomena—from the popularity of consumer culture, to the breakup of communal ties and cultural traditions, to the wave of religious fundamentalism, to the spread of eating disorders—suggest that many people are also hoping and searching for . . .

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