BOOK REVIEWS: The Religion of Thinness
Reprinted from Eating Disorders Review
November/December 2009 Volume 20, Number 6
©2009 Gürze Books
In this interesting and unusual self-help book, Michelle Lelwica takes the view that for many sufferers eating disorders assume religious and spiritual dimensions, and certainly take up the mental space that others accord to more compassionate religions. Since the author is a professor of theology who received her doctorate at the Harvard Divinity School and whose previous autobiographically inspired book “Starving for Salvation” received considerable acclaim, this point of view bears some consideration.
For those who experience their disorders in religious and spiritual ways, Dr. Lelwica is understanding and empathic. She offers, basically, a religious and spiritual way out—a transformative conversion, if you will, that suggests how individuals devoted to their eating disorders might upgrade their religious and spiritual beliefs, allegiances and practices to healthier ones.
Lelwica points out that many parallels exist between the closely held, sustaining and ineffectively comforting beliefs and practices of many eating disorder sufferers (her “Religion of Thinness”) and those that characterize most spiritual and religious systems. These include a sense of ultimate purpose, a set of myths regarding the purported rewards that will come to true believers and practitioners, a iconographic imagery to which the sufferer may aspire, rituals that organize daily life, a set of moral rules by which to judge oneself and others, inclusion in a community of like-minded individuals who share these purposes, and the promise of salvation. Changing the paradigm requires a transformative course, which may be gradual or may occur with a flash of inspiration. In Lelwica’s view, such transformative passages can be fostered when individuals adopt a bigger and more encompassing spiritual perspective, practice mindfulness regarding the body and inner life, and learn cultural criticism as a spiritual practice. In turn, these beliefs and practices might enable the person with an eating disorder to travel the path from illusion to insight, idolatry to inspiration, control to connection, judgment to responsibility, conformity to self-acceptance, and ultimately from escape to presence.
These themes are elaborated upon and worked through from the perspectives of the inspiring and restorative functions of religion mentioned before, so that the healed individual is rewarded with a more fulfilling sense of ultimate purpose, a better set of myths, a more complex iconographic imagery to which the sufferer may aspire, healthier rituals for daily life, a superior set of moral rules by which to judge oneself and others, inclusion in a more heartening community of like-minded individuals who share these purposes, and, depending on the person’s ultimate beliefs, either the promise of salvation or at least the satisfactions of a far more enriching life in the here and now.
I suspect that a great many of those who suffer from eating disorders will find themselves resonating with the ideas and images described here, and that some will find useful and meaningful practices that might help them transform and recover.