The Spiritual Quest for Thinness

The Spiritual Quest for Thinness

Back in the 18th Century, ascetics fasted, starved themselves and wasted away to anorectic proportions in pursuit of spiritual purity. The belief stood that thinness was equivocal with purity, goodness and moral transcendence. Fasting would cleanse a woman of her sins and make her feel ‘pure’. Food was seen as a poison, a source of contamination that would rid a person of their spirituality. These people were known as Holy Anorectics.

Today, many women in our society starve themselves, but this quest for thinness is not viewed the same way. If anything, it is the opposite – aside from valid health and medical concerns that motivate a portion of our behavior, much of it is supposedly materialistic and superficial – wanting to look a certain way; needing approval and validation of our external casing; attracting attention based on our looks. The process of fasting or using food to seek a deeper truth has been medicalized, secularized, coded – giving rise, in extreme cases, to the labels anorexia and bulimia nervosa.

Eating disorders are rampant in our society. They are explained in terms of family dynamics, control issues, media pressures and other societal constructs, none of which are incorrect. The fields of medicine and psychology work hard to understand the driving forces behind such behavior, while simultaneously walking the tightrope of promoting healthy eating, exercise and weight management as essential elements of good health to the general community.

The body and mind is better understood in the language of our society and our quest for thinness, but what about spirit? How is this a spiritual quest? Anthropologists and historians have denied any connection between Holy Anorectics and the “starvers and dieters” of the 21st century. The context is different, they say, these cultures cannot be compared.

But do we not have two similar manifestations? Women using their bodies to express a need or desire for growth, a dissatisfaction with their status, an inability to assert their power or desires in other ways. That spiritual void that has not been filled, prompting us to believe that thinness and external beauty will give us the happiness and fulfillment we are searching for.

Anorexia and bulimia are both serious and potentially life-threatening conditions. I am not glorifying them in any way. But such conditions can also represent a spiritual journey, a rite of passage.

In a rite of passage, there is a negative and a positive phase. In the negative phase, there is a hunger for meaning and an extreme spiritual pain. There is extreme dissatisfaction with the body, an inability to overcome self-loathing, alienation from other people and difficulties around food. There are also rituals, including taboos on certain foods, stringent ways in which foods must be prepared and eaten, and other behaviors bordering on ceremonial.

The positive phase is one of increased awareness of connection with themselves and the outside world. A conscious choice towards life has been made, and there is frequently recognition of the body as a sacred entity and a reconnection with Nature and God. Thinness is no longer necessary as an expression of spiritual searching for meaning and value.

Many women today view thinness within a moral context. Thinness is associated with being a ‘better person’; turning away from many foods is viewed as ‘virtuous’. Overweight individuals within our society describe feeling like ‘bad’ people; stigmas we have assigned that make being overweight a moral crime. Such moral judgments are unlikely to be vehicles for spiritual growth. Instead, they are reflections on the discontent we feel with ourselves and our bodies, projected both internally and outwardly towards others.

The extent to which the pursuit of thinness represents a spiritual seeking is unique to the individual. In a culture obsessed with diets and thinness; driven by media; backed by the lucrative diet and fitness industries; and topped with reward for beauty, the spiritual aspects are frequently forgotten.

The spiritual quest for thinness of the 18th Century is not so different from what we experience today, we have just learned to relate to it differently. Reframing our pursuits and viewing them in terms of the spiritual rites and rituals they are may help create positive growth from something that may otherwise be a negative downward spiral. Positive rituals can be created to replace the negative, and the quest for thinness can be a transformative experience leading to a higher level of spiritual growth.