Guest post: Fasting for God or holy anorexia?

20th May 2010

Guest post: Fasting for God or holy anorexia?

Speaking of women, food and god… Reader Jocelyn (who comments here by the name J.S.) contacted me a few weeks ago proposing a guest blog entry on the convergence of fasting for religious purposes and eating disorders among women of faith — and we’re not just talking here about pursuit of the Gospel of Thinness. As someone who subscribes to spiritual beliefs (Buddhism) in which followers promote many dictates around food (no meat or alcohol, eat only until you’re 80 percent full, etc…), I was intrigued to learn more about the fasting traditions held in other religions.* Many religions, such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism, incorporate fasting into spiritual beliefs, believing it to give followers a heightened sense of self-awareness and more intimate connection with god or nature. Yet I was still a bit shocked to read in Jocelyn’s guest post of the extreme fasting lengths to which some people of faith will go — and how quickly those religious motivations can morph into something entirely more dangerous and insidious.

“You have to watch it with those religious girls,” my sister murmured to me under cover of the blender noise.

I looked away from my room-mate, who was shoving a concoction of blueberries, soy milk, and bananas into the blender’s pitcher across the kitchen. “What do you mean?”

“That’s going to be her only meal today? She’s ‘fasting’?” At my nod, she added, “Didn’t you tell me she’s anorexic?”

I shifted, uncomfortable. “Well, she was. I mean, obviously she’s not starving herself now, she looks healthy…”

“Maybe she’s still trying to starve herself,” my sister said softly, just before the motor cut out.

At the time I had recently moved to the area in order to become part of a large group of Christian people who believe in something called the “fasted lifestyle.” As preached, the fasted lifestyle means voluntary restraint, from spending to housing to food—in other words, one lives in a simple fashion in order to have greater resources to devote to the Kingdom of God. As practiced by many of the early twenty-something women who devoted themselves to the cause, it became practical, religious-sanctioned anorexia.

I didn’t know this when I moved there. I had friends from a previous year spent in the city; we had all belonged to a church that was now defunct. Many of them had joined the group before I returned. I liked their message of whole-hearted devotion. I still do, which is why I’m not naming it; the leaders practice what they preach. But. When I would hang out, outside the building, I would overhear snatches of conversation that should have given me pause.

“She’s only eating one meal a day for… forever. She’s, like, totally devoted.” (This was about a church leader who was in her early twenties at the time.)

“What are you fasting from this time?” “He said we’re not supposed to talk about it so we don’t compare… Okay. I’m doing liquids only.” “Oh man. Maybe I should make mine tougher. I was just going to go no meats, no sweets.”

“It was supposed to be a 21-day fast, but I lost ten pounds so I thought maybe I should go to forty days?”

I wasn’t self-aware enough to realize it, but this was a toxic scene for me. I had recently lost quite a bit of weight through extremely regimented means, although it was all physician-approved, and I lived with the daily fear that I would gain it all back. Every time I stepped on the scale, and it was often, I would suffer a shaft of icy panic if I had even gained one pound. When my room-mate moved into my apartment, we fed each others’ obsessions. We would go and eat monster servings of frozen custard, and then declare we were fasting for the next two weeks—or at least until we could fit into our skinny jeans again. But of course, the fasting was all for God, not for us… right?

Eventually I moved back to my home state. Once there, I found a church that I felt comfortable with. They were loosely connected with my previous spiritual leaders, and preached a similar message. I slowly regained some stability in my eating habits. I stopped obsessing over weight gain. All was well for a couple of years… And then I noticed that fasting was becoming more and more commonly preached from the pulpit as a means to connect with God. Church-wide fasts were declared. The teenaged and slightly older girls grew gaunt, or gained weight—almost none stayed the same. I lost a bunch of weight, and then yo-yoed back up again. I have to admit, though, that I didn’t comprehend how dire the situation had become until my best friend, who had started attending about six months after me, came to me with the news that she and her husband were strongly considering leaving.

“Do you realize, Chris (her husband) and I added up all the days we were supposed to be fasting—I mean, church-wide fasts that were called from the pulpit? And it added up to one hundred and fifty days,” she told me. “That’s ridiculous.”

I had by no means participated whole-heartedly in that many days of fasting, though I had tried, but—150? Faced with that number, I retreated to my computer. I looked up fasting to see if I could find anybody else who had experienced something similar. The first blog I read opened with an introduction in which the author pleaded for support and understanding for her lifestyle of fasting. I thought I must have found someone from the same church… And then, as I continued scrolling, I discovered that it was a pro-ana blog. Her fasted lifestyle was one of stylized starvation. A light bulb went off in my head—not the ultimate light bulb that I was eating disordered, that came later, but I did realize, “this is not healthy. And if I’m not caring for my body, which is a temple, then it can’t be holy either.”

It took another year, but I left that church. There were other reasons, of course, but the emphasis on fasting over practical expressions of love was the main factor. I had come to realize that my relationship with food simply wasn’t healthy enough for me to deny myself all of it for a period of time without serious consequences. Nor was I ready to hear it preached as a shortcut to God’s action without experiencing crippling guilt about my inability to participate.

I have friends who are Muslim who have told me about their conflicted relationship with faith-mandated fasting. I know (partly from Rachel) that other religions recommend denying oneself food as a gateway to accessing the divine. Have you ever experienced this sort of thing, or am I the only one? I’d love to hear from The F-Word’s readership, because I’ve felt like an oddity.

* For more on fasting and Buddhism, read the last half of the post here.

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This entry was posted on Thursday, May 20th, 2010 at 10:35 am and is filed under Anorexia, Eating Disorders, Guest Blogger, Mental Health, Rachel, Religion. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

There are currently 31 responses to “Guest post: Fasting for God or holy anorexia?”

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  1. 1 On May 20th, 2010, Anna said:

    Whoa, crazy. mIt’s a little scary to think that there are women who are using religion as an “excuse” for hurting themselves….which just opens another whole can of worms.

    I am personally of the belief that a God who loves us wouldn’t want us to suffer in his/her name. But then…do they see it as suffering?

    Argh I have a lot of stuff to think about.

  2. 2 On May 20th, 2010, Toni said:

    The only experience I have with fasting is with friends who are Bahai’i. During a particular period of the year, around the spring equinox. And they only fast during daylight hours. So as long as they are up early enough, they start the day with a healthy meal, and then finish the day, late in the evening with another meal. It’s more of a symbolic fast, I suppose. And if you’re ill, pregnant, work hard labor, under 15, etc., you’re exempt. That seems like a very healthy way to go about it. But the above story is scary.

  3. 3 On May 20th, 2010, baconsmom said:

    I’m Roman Catholic, and my mother has used fasting to cover for periods of starvation for my entire life. I strongly suspect she has an actual eating disorder, not simply disordered eating, so as I look at it now, as an adult, it makes sense that she would latch onto that aspect of the culture. When I was a kid, I thought every other Catholic kid’s mom would watch her kids eat during Lent. It was a weird upbringing.

    I myself have had to deal with a limited amount of judgment because I refuse to fast on the proscribed days – Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. I simply cannot go without food or I become shaky and mean – neither of which helps me feel closer to a loving God. I have explained that it is unhealthy for me to fast, and usually people drop it. But I’ve never been to a church where fasting was expected to the degree described here, nor have I ever heard of a church that doesn’t have fasting exemptions for the old, the young, the pregnant, and the ill.

  4. 4 On May 20th, 2010, meerkat said:

    In my religion there are two days a month where we don’t eat grains or beans, and occasional fasts from all food until a certain time of day (later for more important holidays). The grain and bean days make me really crave grains, usually, and are a regular reminder that I never, ever, ever want to try Atkins. The longer fasting days make me very food-obsessed and I collect different things I’m going to eat when the fast is over and squirrel them away until it is time. My parents don’t feel up to doing all the fasting now that they are getting older, so they do less. In the community there are always people who aren’t participating in the longer fasts so there’s not much pressure.

  5. 5 On May 20th, 2010, Stacie said:

    I grew up attending a Baptist church. I distinctly remember when we were in high school my friends from church would give up sweets or other large groups of foods for Lent as a means to lose weight. It’s funny, because they would say it was for their faith and then directly follow it with — “and I’ve lost X amount of pounds!!”

    Happily for me, actual fasts are not common to Baptist churches – I’m like baconsmom, I can’t go longer than a few hours without food without becoming shaky and VERY irritable. I know for sure that I wouldn’t behave in a Christian manner after an entire day without food!

  6. 6 On May 21st, 2010, sleepydumpling said:

    I have a friend who is about to go to a “Letting go of food for God” retreat. I am really worried about her, but she’s not ready to hear the FA message. The whole thing sounds so screwed up to me, but she considers herself a failure and offending God for not being able to lose weight.

    I tried to share my belief that God gives us one life and we need to honour it by living it to the full, not flagellating ourselves because of the body He gave us anyway. But she’s just not ready.

    It breaks my heart.

  7. 7 On May 21st, 2010, i-geek said:

    I’m a Catholic like baconsmom. I also do not outright fast on the two proscribed fasting days (me + low blood sugar = really bad things). I can’t say that I’ve ever belonged to a parish that encouraged extreme fasting practices or even one that told us to fast outside of Lent. However, I do recall reading about saints (almost always female) who fasted to extreme levels in an attempt to purge themselves of the flesh. That always sounded like an eating disorder to me and I’m really not comfortable with the promotion of such behavior as holy.

    I wonder if, in the churches that proscribe 100+ days of church-wide fasting, the fasting is being used as a tool for congregation control from the top down. If people are hungry and obsessed with food, they’re not going to question other things.

  8. 8 On May 21st, 2010, Fifi said:

    Fasting only ever made me feel lightheaded and loopy. And I never did it for religious reasons. I suppose that if one were expecting to feel closer to God, the chemical disruptions in one’s brain might give one that sense. Especially if the faster was younger, or more naive. There has been a long history of suffering = closer to God, though, hasn’t there…but I don’t think that I could ever really buy in to that…

  9. 9 On May 21st, 2010, Winter said:

    Although I’ve been Agnostic for several years, I was raised Jewish. There are those who keep kosher, which has a whole host of dietary restrictions. But it does not really impose any limits on the amount of food one eats/when/etc. I also don’t think that many Jewish people who are less observant keep kosher these days – my family never did.

    The main fasting takes place on Yom Kippur (the “Day of Atonement”). The fasting is supposed to be part of the whole idea of repenting for any wrongdoings and such. You are not supposed to eat or drink from before sundown the Eve before and until after sundown the day of – roughly 25 hours. However, people who are sick, very young/old, or cannot handle the fasting for another reason are encouraged not to (completely) fast.

    All of that said, I wouldn’t think that Judaism would necessarily push somebody/be easy to use as an excuse for extremely disordered behavior. There is a big emphasis on taking care of your own body/self, or atleast there has been in my experience. After my eating disorder emerged I did actually try using Yom Kippur and Passover (8 day long holiday that cuts out foods, mainly grains) as excuses not to eat. But that never went over to well as I had already declared myself Agnostic. In reality, Jewish holidays tend to involve a lot of food and enjoyment with eating – something that is extremely rough for somebody with an eating disorder, but something that should theoretically push somebody away from that type of behavior.

    I don’t know if I explained that accurately, so I apologize. But really all Jewish holidays are “They tried to kill us – they didn’t – let’s eat!”.

  10. 10 On May 22nd, 2010, sleepydumpling said:

    @i-geek – I think in some cases you are bang on the nail with that one. Hungry people can’t focus to question other things.

  11. 11 On May 22nd, 2010, Smaug said:

    Interestingly, it is mostly women who are expected to fast in hinduism- this angle has always bugged me. Though I’m a sikh and we’re not expected to fast, I have aunts who do it religiously (pun uninteded) every week. I think they use it as an excuse to starve themselves.

  12. 12 On May 22nd, 2010, Emerald said:

    I was married (for a while) to a non-practising Catholic with an extremely devout mother, and the only food issue she had was an insistence on not eating prior to Sunday morning mass. She hated me anyway, but not eating breakfast certainly made me, and I think her, much less likely to ‘forgive your brethren before coming to the altar’.

    I’ve identified as pagan for some years. Many pagans are vegetarian/vegan on ethical grounds, and they mostly seem pretty balanced about it – as an earth-honoring religion, we tend to have an attitude of acceptance towards the body and its needs. I’ve come across a few people who advocate fasting to attain altered consciousness, which I think is getting into dangerous territory (aside from the issue of cultural appropriation – the whole ‘I’m going on a Native American shamanic vision quest’ thing – even if it were OK to use other people’s traditions in this way, them being traditional doesn’t make them safe.)

    Then you get the broader New Age spectrum of beliefs – with whom there’s some overlap in paganism – and there, fasting is often billed as a form of physical ‘purification’, but frequently recommended as a spiritual practice too. Some people take this to an extreme; there’s a lady known as Jasmuheen who advocates giving up food entirely and living on ‘prana’. She herself claims to live a food-free life, although she’s been caught eating cookies when she thinks nobody’s looking. However, there’s been at least one incident where one of her followers starved to death at a retreat in Scotland. A brief Google tells me that she’s still out there and still promoting this stuff. Scary.

  13. 13 On May 22nd, 2010, Teri said:

    Hi, I’m new to your blog but this caught my eye, I was also brought up Roman Catholic. The belief is in fasting on Fridays and during Lent fasting fairly strictly. On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday particularly however, there are exceptions made for children, the ill or the elderly. During the year, no eating one hour before receiving Communion. We also were encouraged to abstain or be moderate in our food intake during Lent (giving up sweets as kids) or as adults, eating simple meals in order to more identify with those who had nothing to eat. This is based on the belief that Jesus Christ fasted 40 days in the desert prior to going into Jerusalem, and during Lent, to offer up “our worldly desires of the flesh” by limiting our food intake. In some ways, I guess the famous 7 deadly sins, one of which was gluttony was based on the belief that extremism in this form led one away from a spiritual path. I agree with i-geek in that historical saints (mostly female) purged themselves of eating and were known to subsist on the Eucharist alone. I know of Catholic churches who during Lent encourage a communal supper of broth or soup with the proceeds of the money one would have spent on food going to the poor.

  14. 14 On May 22nd, 2010, R.H. said:

    I agree with i-geek: 100+ days of fasting likely means the preacher has some preoccupation with control mixed with poor theological understanding of what the principle of fasting in Christianity (in this case) really is. This is an excellent post, because it points out once again how when faith-based communities focus on the completion of self-absorbed deeds and works, it turns individual’s attention from others and onto their own ‘body project; it results in nothing but ‘dying fruit’ (literally) and shame-riddled folks who miss the whole experience of being welcomed for who they are, presently. Then…there is no community.

  15. 15 On May 22nd, 2010, J.S. said:

    Thank you guys so much for responding; it’s comforting to know that others have experienced food issues related to religion, even if they’re not the same as mine.

    @baconsmom, this body of believers had the same exemptions you mentioned, preached from leadership, although they were not always observed by the congregants.

  16. 16 On May 24th, 2010, Alyssa (The 40 year-old) said:

    This seems to be getting more and more common. First it was “cleansing,” which is fine, but not for an entire month. Now it’s for religious/spiritual purposes. And, yes, I’ve heard of the “air” and “prana” diets (and I imagine Patanjali is banging his head against a celestial wall right about now). It’s one thing to give up material things in order to live more simply and feel closer to G-d. It’s another to use spiritual beliefs to legitimize an ED.

  17. 17 On May 27th, 2010, rg said:

    as smaug said, the hindu religion has a lot of fasting done by women. One annual ritual is fasting for your husband. A close relative “fasted” twice a week to “atone” for sins or to grieve her mother or something like that. It’s modified fasting – she’s allowed drinks, fruits, nuts, plus one vegetarian meal – but it felt like anorexia when I lived with her. Then there’s Martin Berkhan’s Intermittent Fasting – the idea that a 10-hour “fast” is healthy and helps digestion and reset hunger signals. He certainly doesn’t look anorexic. I tend to feel better if I don’t eat 3 meals and regular snacks, but it’s a chicken and egg – if I’m happy and busy, then I’m not eating to fill a void. If I’m not eating every 2 hours, my blood sugar stays more stable and I stay focussed and happy.

  18. 18 On May 31st, 2010, Crimson Wife said:

    The description of St. Teresa of Avila reminds me of bulimia and St. Catherine of Siena reminds me of anorexia with bulimic episodes. During the medieval times in which they lived, their highly disordered eating was viewed as a sign of piety rather than of a mental disorder.

  19. 19 On May 31st, 2010, Willow said:

    This issue reminds me of something Frank McCourt wrote in Angela’s Ashes. He said that for the Irish poor, Lent happened all year long.

  20. 20 On June 1st, 2010, Comment Cultures « Me So Fat said:

    [...] a particular blog entry from The F-Word that caught my attention. The entry discussed the fine line between religious [...]

  21. 21 On June 4th, 2010, Anna said:

    @Toni (comment #2): I am a Baha’i! And yes, we have a nineteen-day sunrise to sunset fast, March 2-20. It’s reasonable in that because it’s near the equinox, you’re never going more than twelve hours without food. As you mentioned, here are exemptions for the young, the old, the sick, the traveling, people whose jobs involve hard labor, and women who are pregnant, nursing, or menstruating.

    Still, it’s been hard for me. Fasting teaches you that you can control your food intake, and although my first fast at 15 did not coincide with anorexia, by the following year I was deep in its throes. At the same time, it was a really good thing, because my family got up and ate at five in the morning all together, and then again after sunset, and for the first time in my (admittedly only) eight months of anorexia, my parents saw the way I ate. Or, rather, didn’t. If we hadn’t been fasting, there’s no telling how long it would have taken for them to intervene . . . .

    The year after that, at seventeen, I can definitely say was not the best thing for me. I didn’t fast the whole way through anyway, because I was playing high school tennis and my parents wouldn’t let me fast while I was doing sports (part of the “labor” exemption – I had an obligation to my team) I didn’t relapse, but I recall around five o’ clock (an hour before sunset) in the afternoon on a non-tennis day feeling dizzy as I climbed the stairs and thinking, “I remember this. This was what I used to feel like all the time.” I was still in and out that year, so it was hard.

    But this March, though I was at college and completely free of my parents’ observing eyes and could potentially have (for example) skipped breakfasts and not eaten anything till after sunset every day, I didn’t. Two years after the start of my recovery, fasting didn’t remind me of anorexia anymore. (It helps that, with my post-ED wonky metabolism, my weight is glued in one place and no matter how much or how little I eat, it doesn’t change. So there was no loss to tempt me to further deprivation.) There were two or three of the nineteen days when I had eating disordered thoughts, but it wasn’t a testing experience anymore. It was a spiritual one. And I think ultimately fasting is only a bad thing if you live in a culture, like ours, that glorifies thinness and equates it with limited eating.

  22. 22 On June 5th, 2010, luvinlife said:

    after being a strict vegan for almost 20 years and a member of a religion that advocated fasting or eating one meal a day, I can totally relate. Looking at pictures of myself and seeing all the bones in my neck was alarming, but I looked young, was considered righteous and was complimented always on being thin. The mental block was the hardest to remove, after anything with dairy being referred to as cow pus or chicken fetuses for all those years . To this day seeing someone eat meat is revolting and I cant see chewing it, ever again. One day however, I felt like I wanted to eat yogurt and I did. Not the lite, fat free kind but 300 calorie full fat Greek style. I felt like that was the closest to heaven I’d been in a long time. I eat it almost daily now. I look thin but healthy now, my teeth have stopped hurting, and I almost look like a grown woman at 37 years of age. Its only been about 6 months. Some of my “righteous” friends have since passed away from seemingly harmless stuff that their bodies were too weak to fight. Others younger than me are loosing teeth, hair etc. There needs to be another name for this because anorexia doesn’t happen to us. Its for white girls (sarcasm intended). I’m still scared to admit the yogurt thing which I’m hiding like a crack habit. I would’ve never made the connection until I started researching religious anorexics and saw myself. Thankfully I’m not another martyr for some ungodly cause.

  23. 23 On June 12th, 2010, Miao said:

    For Ramadan fasting is from early morning to sunset and then you can eat all you want until the next day. I actually gain weight during that month because the family makes special food and people visit each other to break the fast together. If you eat right in between, there is no chance of starving yourself and people who are sick or otherwise not able to are prohibited from fasting. You also can’t fast during your period when you lose iron and other nutrients through blood. So it is fine if you do it right.

  24. 24 On June 19th, 2010, Heather said:

    Like Miao said, Muslims fast on Ramadan, and it is only from sunrise to sunset. It is recommended to eat before sunrise and it is required to eat/drink something to break the fast after sunset. Maybe people who have a problem with it tend to not eat before or after for one reason or another.

    Big meal before dawn and a big meal after sunset isn’t the same as attempting starvation. One can use fasting as an excuse to attempt starvation but the fast is for God, not to lose weight – and to have that ulterior motive derails you from the right intention.

  25. 25 On June 19th, 2010, Heather said:

    Oh and it is observed by both men and women.

  26. 26 On June 19th, 2010, J.S. said:

    Heather, this fasting was observed by men and women too, but because I didn’t talk to any men about my disordered eating I have no way of knowing how it affected them, if at all. I’ve read a couple of articles by NRIs who’ve stated that they observe Karwa Chauth with their husbands instead of only for their husbands, and obviously that’s Hindu. And I certainly don’t mean this as an indictment of fasting per se, whether Muslim or not. I’m observing that if you have a tendency toward disordered eating anyway, religious fasting can be a trigger that carries it over the edge and that provides you with a nice, “spiritual” excuse to continue the behavior, often without anyone around you noticing if it’s a part of your church/temple/whatever’s culture.

  27. 27 On September 21st, 2010, ilangirl said:

    Fasting is a Biblical principal. As christians we fast because it helps us 2 limit the distractions in our lives so we can fully focus on God. Fasting is not solely based on food. You can fast anything that you feel has become an idol in your life (I.e tv, music, facebook etc.). I don’t like the fact that some people are taking fasting overboard to the point where it becomes a health issue. Clearly God loves you and that’s not what He wants for you. I also don’t agree with a church telling its members 2 fast for more than 150 days. As christians we should feel lead by Holy Spirit to fast, not necesarily because our pastor told us to. Fasting is a beautiful thing where God is able 2 move miraulouly in peoples lives if they do it rite and its for the sole purpoe of getting closer to God. I fast wen I feel lead to fast and I’ve never fasted more than 3 days because I know I have a small frame and I would not be able to handle it. And when I fast I only do half a day of liquids or 3 days of fruits and vegetables. Some churches nowadays are trying to be 2 Holy and don’t even realize they could be damaging their members. I don’t know about anybody else, but I’ve seen the benefits that fasting has brought into my life. I’ve heard God’s voice clearly when I didn’t have direction in my life. It has brought healing to my body and has strengthend my relationship with God. I wish everyone who is strugling with fasting issues the best.

    Love, ilangirl

  28. 28 On September 26th, 2010, Willow said:

    “Clearly God loves you” and that’s why He invented psychiatrists who prescribe benzodiazepines to people who become addicted to them and suffer unimaginably awful withdrawal symptoms for years at a time. Withdrawing from benzos is worse than withdrawing from heroin.

    Feeling prickly today about the cheery “Clearly God loves you” line when there is so much suffering in the world.

  29. 29 On September 26th, 2010, Lily said:

    Oh man, this reminds me of the memoir “Devil in the Details: Scenes from an Obsessive Girlhood” by Jennifer Traig…

    You know, whenever I hear a church talking about fasting, I take a step back and look at WHY they are fasting. Typically, it’s for worldly reasons, like losing weight, fitting in with everyone else, etc. I’ve decided to fast from other things, like caffeine, etc. when I do decide to follow along with fasting in the church setting.

  30. 30 On October 1st, 2010, lori lieberman, RD, CDE, MPH, LDN said:

    Funny, I wrote a piece right after fasting for Yom Kippur this month that speaks to this issue.
    Great blog! Thanks.
    Lori Lieberman

  31. 31 On October 1st, 2010, lori lieberman, RD, CDE, MPH, LDN said:

    oops! need to edit above post!

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