The timeline for the Christian season of Lent, which starts on Ash Wednesday and ends 40 days later on Easter Sunday, is based upon the biblical account of Jesus’ 40 days spent alone without food in the desert. In the Bible, this period was a time of reflection and self-sacrifice, as Jesus withstood the devil’s temptations as he prepared himself to preach the truth about God to the masses. As an evangelical teenager trying to fast away my puberty pounds, I read this narrative of self-denial obsessively — and for all the wrong reasons.
As an evangelical teenager trying to fast away my puberty pounds, I read this narrative of self-denial obsessively — and for all the wrong reasons.
In my religious upbringing, specifically at my fundamentalist Christian school, there was an unspoken creed. To be good, you must learn how to not need. Abstention was to be sought over abundance. There was a particular holiness to anorexia. And this holiness is grounded in a very specific and overt historical record.
Before anorexia was classified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, those who were able to transcend the appetites of the body were not considered patients in need of psychological treatment. They were often lauded as literal saints.
“Cultural histories of eating disorders start with the saints,” Susan Burton states at the beginning of her memoir, “Empty.” And indeed, from Joan of Arc to Catherine of Siena, there are countless individuals who achieved heightened spiritual status due, in part, to their ability to deny themselves food.
In early church history, a movement arose out of Christianity called Gnosticism. Amongst other teachings, gnostics believed that the body was bad and that the spirit was good. Literary and religious critic Harold Bloom has argued that Gnosticism is America’s primary religion — not Christianity. He asserts that this religion is self-focused and individualistic, lacking concern for the troubles in society.
Though Gnosticism has been considered heresy throughout the history of Christianity, the belief that the flesh is sinful and a source of shame is still present in the church today. This demonization of the body is central to the evangelical purity culture of the 1990s. Linda Kay Klein discusses in her book “Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free,” that purity referred to abstaining from the desires of the flesh, specifically sexual appetites. And there is significant overlap between modern-day purity culture and diet culture. Both are concerned with keeping women small. Both frame appetite as suspect. Both glory in self-denial.
I came of age at the height of purity culture. I did not need to turn on the television or open a magazine to learn that my body was wrong — although they certainly didn’t help. But even putting aside the pop culture messaging, I was taught this lesson at church and at my religious school. In sermons, my body was objectified as a stumbling block to the male gaze. I watched teachers evaluate girls’ outfits, surveying the slopes of our bodies to determine whether any curve was too visible or too much. If you maintained the straight and narrow lines of girlhood, you could avoid reproach. Those who allowed themselves to mature into womanhood were forced to change their clothes. For many, this resulted in attempts to change our bodies.
I longed to be dutiful, and sought to control my body. I did this, primarily, by denying myself food. Many evenings of my adolescence, I returned home from school more than hungry, with my breath stale and hands shaking. Famished, I devoured whole boxes of cereal. I shoved handfuls of cold, leftover pasta down my throat. I tore through packages of granola bars. I ate as if in a fugue state. When I returned to myself, I surveyed the mess of the kitchen and my own body. I repented through restriction and compensation.
I did not know then that I was caught in the binge-restrict cycle, a common pattern for those who struggle with eating disorders. To binge after a period of restriction, though, is biological. Unlike Jesus, we flesh and blood cannot actually escape the needs of our bodies.
I did not know this at the time: I just felt like a failure. I believed that if I tried harder, I could cultivate more self-control. It was a doctrine shared both by diet culture and my perfectionistic religion. Diet culture co-opts religious language in much of its marketing. Food is good or bad, clean or sinful. Pleasure is guilty. We are all just one careless bite away from a fall from grace.
As a teenager, it was hard to imagine Christianity as much more than a set of prohibitive rules. As an adult, it is still difficult for me to divorce religion from restriction. My attempts to transcend my own appetites, though, only left me hungry.
As I prepare for Lent this year, rather than myopically focusing on what I put in my own mouth, I believe it would honor the life of Jesus more to direct my energy toward meeting the needs of others. To donate to UNICEF as it seeks to provide clean water and other resources to those suffering in Ukraine. To support the International Committee of the Red Cross as it works to deliver health care and repair infrastructure in this humanitarian crisis.
Part of what continues to draw me to the life of Jesus is not his martyrdom, but the care he showed for the bodies of others. Jesus said, “what goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.” He fed the hungry and healed the sick. He looked outside of himself to consider the needs of the marginalized. He saw those who had been forced to shrink away, and rather than turning from them, he touched them. “Take and eat,” he said breaking bread at the Last Supper, symbolically offering his body up as a meal, an invitation to abundant life.