In commenting, please respect the sensitive nature of this issue. And as is standard for eating disorder recovery discussion, do not use numbers in your comments (weight, calories, etc.)—any such numbers will be edited.
Note: I originally posted this under the name “Tirzah.”
Though my experiences at church have often been painful (as I described in my last post), I do think many LDS teachings have a lot to offer when it comes to countering the demons of eating disorders. I would begin with the most basic idea that we are children of God. As you may be aware, there are online communities which are pro-eating disorder. I’ve skimmed them at times, and in my experience, they usually reflect a deep level of ambivalence. They trade tips and encourage each other in destructive behavior, but they also say they would never encourage anyone else to do what they’re doing, talk about the misery of it, sometimes play with the possibility of getting in treatment. I can’t say I see these communities as a good thing, on the whole, but I can understand why people end up there, especially if they are looking for a safe place where they won’t be judged. (There are also, I should add here, online support communities that are recovery-oriented, such as somethingfishy.org, which I would recommend as a resource both for people who are dealing with eating disorders and for family and friends of those who are.)
But this is getting tangential—I bring it up because of an experience I had many years ago. I’ve been involved in various mental-health related support groups, and I became acquainted with other people with eating disorders online long before making such connections in real life. And I once found myself having a conversation with someone who ran a pro-ed site. It was a mutually respectful conversation, but it really forced me to ask myself why, when it all came down, I saw eating disorders as a problem. This might sound obvious to those who have never engaged in such behavior, but the question isn’t always an easy one to answer if you’ve shaped your life around it. On what basis do you even say, this isn’t okay? And I realized that for me, the answer ultimately was a religious one. That we are children of God, that we matter to our heavenly parents, and that it is a problem to treat ourselves in ways that don’t reflect that. That God wants better for us. (I’m not saying, of course, that I think you need to have particular religious beliefs to recover from an eating disorder, because obviously that isn’t the case—but this is an instance where my most basic Mormon beliefs were something I found very grounding, and powerful.)
I also think Mormons have a rich resource in our doctrines on embodiment. We came to earth to get bodies, and our ultimate goal is not to escape corporeality—we believe in an embodied God. Here I think we need to be wary of a substance dualism which frames the spirit and body as entirely distinct (e.g., the hand in glove analogy in which the spirit enters the body and animates it, and then departs), because the implication is that our spirits are our “real” selves. The problem with this framework is that it makes the body somewhat peripheral, reduces it to a kind of holding box for our spirits. But our experience of life—including religious experience—is that of embodied beings. The body is central, not peripheral. And intriguingly, there is a suggestion in Mormon teachings that the body is liberating—note the comment in D&C 138 that the spirits awaiting resurrection see the absence of the body not as some kind of freedom, but as bondage. As someone who has all too often wished to escape the unbearable weight of embodiment, I find this striking.
This can, unfortunately, go badly amiss. Growing up, I learned that the body is a temple, a gift from God, and I used it to attack myself. As I saw it, in my failure to eat correctly, I had defiled my temple, disrespected this gift, and doubtless deserved God’s wrath. But these are teachings I am trying to reclaim in more positive ways. There is a real difference between self-recrimination because of the guilt that you are supposed to be doing better, and genuine self-care. You can do the “right” things: eating nutritiously, exercising—and do them in a deeply self-hating way, based on a premise that you are flawed and in need of fixing. You can psychologically attack yourself in the name of health. This, in my experience, is a very different experience than deciding that you are going to take your body and its needs seriously, with a perspective based not from the outside (how do I look? how will I be judged?), but from the inside (how do I feel? what do I want? what is my body telling me?)
Another LDS teaching which has been involved in my recovery is that of Heavenly Mother. For a long time I raised intellectual and theological questions about her absence—and I think those are important ones—but it wasn’t something that mattered much to me in my personal devotional life. But at some point after I had gotten into recovery, it hit me. I need a divine feminine. Because a relationship with a male God, no matter how positive and powerful that has been in my life, still had me thinking of myself in terms of a male gaze and all the baggage that went along with that. I found myself desperately needing the image of a divine and embodied female. Because whatever characteristics Heavenly Mother has, I simply cannot imagine her as anorexic. This gives me a different model for strength, one that is not tied up with starvation, one that pushes me toward greater acceptance of myself. A consequence of our tendency to keep her in the background is that it reinforces a traditional notion that the female body is somehow shameful, and better off hidden. And I am trying to stop hiding. I find it reassuring to believe in a Heavenly Mother who really gets what I am going through, and who offers me a different kind of role model than so much of what I see in the surrounding culture.
There is one more issue I want to mention. It is that of fasting, which in the church is an important aspect of both personal devotion and communal worship. I have been forbidden from fasting, possibly forever. And to be fair, at this point in my life it’s hard for me to imagine fasting in any kind of genuinely devotional way. (It’s a bit like having a “Drinking Sunday” for a recovering alcoholic). So I’m okay with the prohibition; I don’t feel guilt about not fasting. I don’t think any sane church leader would suggest that I do it.
But this is where things get harder. Our religious discourse about fasting frequently draws on the language of asceticism. People often talk about fasting as a way of subduing the body, as a feat of willpower and self-mastery that will lead to increased spiritual strength. This model is a problem for me because that is exactly what my eating disorder believes. Where do I go with that? I feel a need to re-think what the doctrine is about, even if I am not personally participating in the practice, because it will mess me up if I think about fasting as religious ideal of self-control that I am too weak to personally observe.
I am thinking about Lent, the somber part of the liturgical year leading up to Easter observed by many Christian communities (especially of the “high church” variety). It is often tied to fasting (like meatless Fridays), and many observe a tradition of giving up something for Lent. This can be done in ascetic ways—I’ve seen that happen—but that’s not always the case. And it is those latter situations that I want to think about. Food is far too loaded for me, and asceticism too appealing. But can I imagine giving up something as a way of strengthening a relationship with God? For it to be positive, I think it might well be challenging, but it would not be harmful, and it would definitely not be self-punitive—because acting in such a way hurts relationships, rather than strengthening them. It might be a way to call attention to the things you do in your life that perhaps numb you out a little, make you more spiritually distant, enable you to escape from yourself. In her memoir Girl Meets God, (a really fun book, if you haven’t read it), Lauren Winner describes her attempt to give up books for Lent. I found that crazy, and yet it some odd way it made sense to me. I obviously do not see reading as some sort of vice to discard, but I can appreciate how challenging it can be to spend time in the reality of your own life.
And in writing this out, it occurs to me that maybe one of the things I need to give up is the desire to be in control of everything. Maybe the spiritual discipline I need is that of letting things be. Of not running from myself—from my body and its needs, from the things about myself that I am afraid of, from God. And back to fasting—is there a difference between allowing yourself to be hungry (fasting), versus forcing yourself to do so (dieting)? In the former case, I’m thinking, you’d perhaps acknowledge your hunger and take it seriously as a legitimate need, whereas in in the latter, you’d see it as a weakness to be defeated.
On a less personal level, I also wonder what it means to talk about fasting in the context of a culture with such a conflicted relationship with food, and which idealizes not eating. It comes with rather different connotations, I would think, than it would have had in a nineteenth-century agrarian society, or the ancient Near East. I do not think that when the scriptures talk about fasting, they are talking about the kind of willpower celebrated in the contemporary religion of dieting—though it may be too easy to read them that way. We also sometimes talk about fasting as if it were a kind of extra credit that went along with prayer, something that will make God more likely to give you what you want, and that seems off to me, too. I am intrigued by the fact that fasting is at times linked with mourning in the scriptures, but that D&C 58 also equates it with rejoicing. I note that it is also tied to justice, and to concern for the poor (and I like how explicitly this connection is made in the LDS practice of fast offerings). I need to think through this more.
People go about recovery in different ways. And I have found that Mormonism is too central a part of my life to not play a role in it. Obviously I do not mean this in a facile, “read your scripture and pray your way to recovery” way. But this process has forced me to seriously question some of my beliefs, in a way that is personal as well as theological, and pay attention both to what has been harmful and what can be powerfully helpful. A therapist suggested to me that I might think of things like eating, self-care, and body acceptance not as suspect behaviors, but as spiritual practice. That would certainly be a radical reorientation of my eating-disordered worldview.