The struggles of Christian women with sexuality, food, and their bodies reflect the Church’s historic ambivalence towards the body—particularly the female body. The embodiment of God in the Incarnation, Jesus’ embrace of lepers, prostitutes, and women, and Jesus’ bodily resurrection establish a radical foundation of body affirmation. Yet the history of the Church demonstrates a decidedly negative view of the body and sexuality. Both of these dynamics express themselves in women’s conflicts with our bodies. We desire to be fully embodied despite our learned fear of our body and appetites.
Anorexia and bulimia nervosa in particular reflect this dualistic view of the body, one evident in Western culture as well as historical and practical theology. These serious, multi-layer diseases combine biological, social, psychological, cultural, and spiritual facets. Indeed, current research suggests that both genes and environment are factors in the development of anorexia and bulimia. Some girls and women may already be genetically hard-wired with a predisposition to obsessive thinking, people-pleasing, and perfectionism1, and can slip into disordered eating behaviors when triggered by certain environmental factors (puberty, transitions, family problems, trauma, cultural idealization of thinness) .
Disembodiment and Shame
In my 25 years of ministry among women and girls in the Church (the last 15 as a psychotherapist), I have heard hundreds of stories of female disembodiment. These women speak of their bodies as alien to themselves—a “thing” to be evaluated, regulated and controlled in order to conform “it” to cultural stereotypes of beauty. One woman stated, “The mirror pulls me outside myself and turns me into an object of my own gaze. From this perspective, I lose my power, my sense of self. I am not in my body. I become an observer of my body.”
My conversations with women in recovery often turn to the impact of sexuality on their body concept. The majority of Christian women with food and body problems who I have worked with have deep sexual wounds and insecurities. Some were sexually molested, traumatized by exposure to pornography, or psychologically tormented by sibling or peer sexual bullying. All lacked healthy models or teaching on how to integrate their sexuality with their Christian faith.
The absence of a positive sexual identity among many women raised in the Church does not surprise me. As a youth worker during seminary, I felt ill-equipped to mentor high school girls through their sexual maturation. When the subject arose, they giggled and squirmed, talking about boys, kissing, and who was “going” with whom, sometimes inviting me into their discussions. At a summer camp, several of my girls confided that they were having intercourse with their boyfriends. “I know it’s wrong,” they said. “I feel guilty. But I don’t know how to stop now that we’ve begun.” I felt a similar sense of conflict—obligated by my position to uphold biblical boundaries, but deeply aware of their need to be heard, understood, and loved in the midst of their sin.
My lack of equipping may not be as common among youth workers today as it was 20 years ago. Many resources for teaching biblical values in non-judgmental ways are now available for leaders and parents. However, my current experience with teen and young adult women in recovery from eating disorders indicates that in many churches things have not changed enough. Shame, judgment, and secrecy about sexuality remain familiar dynamics for Christian girls and women both in and out of the Church.
Edward Cumella, Executive Director of Performance Management at Arizona’s Remuda Ranch (a biblically-based treatment program for eating disorders) reports that, upon admission to their treatment program, two-thirds of adolescents and three-fourths of adults exhibit significant distress in the area of shame and judgment. Dr. Cumella suggests that these patients’ genetic predisposition to perfectionism, rigidity, people-pleasing, and obsessive thinking may “make it harder for them to experience spiritual joy, grace, and freedom, and may predispose them to the massive amounts of spiritual shame and judgment that we are seeing in their assessments”.2
Spirituality and Temperament
While little empirical evidence currently exists as to the direct influence of religion and spirituality on the etiology of eating disorders or to their treatment and prevention, I propose that the same genes which predispose girls to food and body problems may also make them especially hungry for meaningful spirituality. Women with such temperaments experience the world as very unsafe—and rigidity, people-pleasing, perfectionism, and obsessive thinking temporarily address this need by providing a perceived sense of control.3
Meanwhile, their predispositions breed internal conflicts. Empathic, bright, and compassionate, they easily sense dishonesty and evasion. As children, they are often viewed as precocious, asking Sunday School teachers difficult questions like, “Why does God let people fly planes into buildings and kill other people?”—or make unsettling statements like, “How does anyone really know who goes to heaven and who doesn’t? Isn’t that up to God?” This propensity to ask questions and seek deep understanding conflicts with their desire to please people and do the right thing. So they learn to adapt, comply, and be “good.” Eating disorders help them do that by providing a concrete outlet for their bright minds and a distraction from the mysteries and uncertainties that both intrigue and frighten them.
This spiritually-oriented temperament makes these girls and women highly sensitized to the uncertainty, stress, and vulnerabilities of life, and enhances their need for the comfort and containment that a life-giving spirituality provides. In the United States, where a preponderance of eating disorders exist and where surveys indicate that a significant majority of the population (84% in a 2004 Gallup study) identify with either Protestant, Catholic, or other Christian religions, the Christian community has a unique opportunity to be a part of the healing and prevention of eating and body image problems among the young women who spend their key developmental years under our spiritual care.
The Church and Disembodiment
A recent insight into the study of eating disorders from self-objectification theory sheds light on the Church’s role in female development. Maria Cottingham, a doctoral student at Fuller Seminary’s School of Psychology, writes, “Objectification theory posits that girls and women are socialized to believe that they are objects to be viewed by other people, and that this belief affects the ways that women think and feel about themselves.” Specifically, it creates “a tendency to see their bodies as alien to themselves” and disrupts their capacity to read cues about hunger, fullness, and other bodily instincts. Some research indicates a direct relationship between self-objectification and disordered eating.4
Sexual and physical objectification of females in the media as well as a variety of social experiences (unwanted touching, leering, gesturing, teasing, overt or covert training in sexual manipulation, exposure to pornography, sexual trauma) contribute to the development of an objectified sense of self. While popular culture establishes female objectification as a norm, the Church may exacerbate this problem through the ways we communication about gender and sexuality in the Church.
Varying degrees of self-objectification and disembodiment are the hermeneutical grid through which a predisposed girl or woman digests her experiences, including what she hears, reads, or sees modeled about God and Christian faith. For those with the genetics and environmental factors in place, an “eating disorder mind” can begin to develop in an effort to manage the vulnerabilities of life. According to Dr. Cumella, it is “quite possible that, regardless of their faith background, these girls and women interpret the spiritual messages they hear through these cognitive filters—thinking that God expects perfect behavior (perfectionism), that there is no room for error (rigidity), feeling as though God is disappointed in them because of their less than perfect behaviors including their eating disorder (people-pleasing), and ruminating about their failings so much (obsessive thinking) that they feel ashamed and judged”.5
The Church may reinforce self-objectification through inadequate and sometimes damaging teaching regarding sexuality and gender. While the media trains us to view our bodies as sexual objects and to strive to look like the women glamorized on screen and in print, the Church gives little or no alternative perspective. Few women I have known in my personal or my professional life recall any helpful teaching on sexuality, embodiment, or being a woman from the Church.
Instead, what women hear from the Church typically establishes rules for behavior apart from the context of relationship with self, God, and others in which sexuality develops and is expressed. Such teachings in the Church might include: don’t explore or touch your private parts—that is dirty; good girls keep their legs crossed and don’t let the boys see their panties. In some churches even knowing about anything sexual is perceived as sinful; one woman reported that in her Baptist church “my wanting to know about my sexuality made me feel like a horrible person, so I kept my questions to myself.” Many women report being taught that modest dress was required, lest they “cause their brothers to stumble.” Others learned that sex was God’s gift for married couples but was sinful when expressed outside marriage—leaving the impression that sexual desires were themselves sinful if felt outside marriage. These and similar messages teach girls that it is their responsibility to suppress their own desire and to avoid arousing male desire. That is quite a burden for an adolescent girl to bear.
Teachings that convey a dualistic view of humans further reinforce a young woman’s perception that the very nature of women is objectification. Biblical concepts such as “flesh and spirit” or “old self and new self” can convey a splitting of the self into unacceptable (flesh, old self) and acceptable (spirit, new self) parts. The eating disorder mind uses these juxtapositions to reinforce the separation of the “good/spiritual self” from the “bad/flesh body.” The use of biblical metaphors including body references can be confusing to children still in the concrete thinking stages—especially to those with the inclination to negative body image, the precursor to eating disorders. A girl with a rigid, perfectionistic tendency hears Scriptures such as 1 Corinthians 9.27 “…I punish my body and enslave it…” as a reinforcement of her own negative feelings about her body.
The absence of women in visible leadership further complicates our integration of sexuality with spirituality. Even churches theologically supportive of an egalitarian model of gender often lack equality in practice. Girls may grow up seeing and hearing women lead and teach on occasion, but in most churches men continue to dominate in roles of visible leadership. This imbalance in practice, even when men in leadership demonstrate and teach mutuality, instills a developing girl with a sense of being the lesser gender, thereby creating a need to find a way to redeem her body and integrate her physicality into her faith experience.
The Church can contribute to the prevention of eating disorders by avoiding language and practices that perpetuate self-objectification. The majority of American girls and women are dissatisfied with their appearance—and are potentially suffering from varying degrees of self-objectification.6 In this state, a woman or girl will report perceiving her body as an object (an “it” to be seen by others) rather than an instrument of which she is the subject (the “I” who acts and operates as a physical body to love, work, play, live her life). She experiences herself as having a body rather than being a body.
Do we in the Church directly or indirectly communicate a dualistic view of human nature that feeds this self perception? Or do we offer body affirming perspectives that encourage the integration of body and soul? Do we use metaphors that split the body in ways that seem to give more honor to some parts than others? As one women in recovery asked, “Why do we invite Jesus into our hearts and not into our stomachs?”
The Church and Prevention of Disembodiment
Pastors and teachers can give thoughtful examination of the view of human nature embedded in their theology and communicated in their teaching. Nancey Murphy, Professor of Christian Philosophy at Fuller Seminary, writes that it is “important to be aware of this…since whatever we believe on this subject will influence how we think about a great number of other issues”.7
Welcoming and embracing the unique temperament of children and youth who think outside the structures of standard Christian education curriculum might be another way that churches can help prevent eating disorders. We can affirm the validity of questions or uncertainties rather than feel compelled to provide the “correct” theological answers. We nurture children’s spirituality by not fearing the unknowns ourselves. By modeling secure faith in the face of questions we reveal a God who is big enough to contain the existential anxieties of those under our care. Our example encourages children to see the safety of a Savior who holds all things together even when the world appears to be falling apart.
We can train girls and boys to critically evaluate popular values and models of female beauty. We can put their questioning temperaments to work for them by encouraging questions both within and outside the Church. Equipping girls who are genetically predisposed to eating disorders with faith-based critical thinking skills may decrease their need to adopt maladaptive coping tools such as rigidity and perfectionism.
Finally, we can help girls embrace their sexual instincts as a normal part of development and teach biblical guidelines for sexuality within the context of relationship with God, self, and others. While relationally-based sexual education programs and curriculum might be effective avenues for guiding sexual maturation, the greatest expressed need of young women is older Christian women who are not afraid to talk about sex and who model integrated sexuality. “We want role models who live in all of life’s colors,” as one young woman said, “women who can be sexual, experience sexual things, and acknowledge that they are sexual beings…who live in a way that is pleasing to God because it’s an expression of their relationship to God and not just because they are following rules.” Women model this through developing comfort and security with their own sexuality. This was the missing piece for me in my days of youth ministry; I had not been mentored through my own sexual maturation, so I stumbled about in my efforts to guide teenagers through theirs.
I am encouraged by what I see in the young women working with teenagers and college students today. Many are far more sexually integrated than we were twenty years ago. But older women cannot leave it to the next generations to find their way through the tumultuous waters of sexual maturation alone. Kristen Ritzau, a research coordinator at Azusa Pacific University who mentors young women in various ministry capacities, says, “We need to talk about these things in the open, in a normalized way. We need to stop making sex shameful. And we need mentoring. Younger people need older people who’ve been through stuff, to share it with us”.8
Ultimately the Church needs to model and teach an integrated view of the female body that celebrates diversity of beauty and embraces female appetites for both food and sex as necessary and good parts of being created in the image of God. We need to offer an alternative to the degrading sexual values offered in popular culture. But we need to do so in a way that normalizes sexuality as a gift from God that influences our actions and engagements with people, ideas, work, and play. Communities of faith that honor female passions, desires, and instincts and that nurture integration of physicality and spirituality will be the places of refuge and empowerment that the women of the 21st century need.
- Tori DeAngelis. Anorexia nervosa: A genetic link? Eating Disorders Today, 3(1), 10-11, 2005.
- From personal e-mail correspondence with Dr. Edward Cumella, November 30, 2006.
- The material here expands on ideas originally presented in professional workshops at the Renfrew Center Foundation's annual conferences in 2003 ("The Spiritual Dimensions of Eating Disorders in the Clinical Setting," co-presented with Michelle Lelwica, Th.D.) and 2004 ("Eating Disorders and the Search for Meaning and Purpose," co-presented with Carolyn Costin, LMFT). Anita Johnston reports similar observations about the heightened intuitive and emotional capacities of eating disorder patients in her book Eating In The Light of the Moon (Carlsbad, CA: Gurze Books. 2000).
- Maria Easter Cottingham, unpublished doctoral research on “Self-Objectification, Spirituality, Purpose in Life, and Disordered Eating in College Women,” Fuller Seminary, 2006.
- From personal e-mail correspondence with Dr. Edward Cumella, November 30, 2006.
- For statistics on body dissatisfaction and related issues see “Statistics: Eating disorders and their precursors,” at www.edap.org.
- Nancey Murphy, Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies? Cambridge University Press, 2006.
- From a personal interview with Kristen Ritzau, December 4, 2006.