Dr. Michelle Lelwica is the author of Starving for Salvation: The Spiritual Dimensions of Eating Problems among American Girls and Women (Oxford, 1999), which is an academic analysis of the religious and cultural underpinnings of eating disorders and related problems. She has also published a number of scholarly articles, delivered papers, and lectured widely on the role of religion and spirituality in women’s conflicted relationship to food and their bodies.

She is currently Associate Professor in the Religion Department at Concordia College—Moorhead, MN where she teaches classes that deal with embodiment, mindfulness, religion, gender, and cultural critique. She studied religion at Harvard Divinity School, where she received her Doctorate of Theology (Th.D.) in the area of Religion, Gender, and Culture in 1996. Michelle lives with her husband and two children in northern Minnesota. She is motivated by the dream of creating a world in which the bodies and spirits of all people—and all beings—are loved, nurtured, and respected not in spite of but because of their marvelous diversity.

For Michelle Lelwica - Author
The Religion of Thinness:
Satisfying the Spiritual Hungers behind Women’s Obsession with Food and Weight

1. You believe society worships thinness as though it were a religion. Why?

I believe society worships thinness like a false god. The pursuit of a slender body isn’t really a religion, but it functions like one. Most importantly, The Religion of Thinness provides many women with a sense of purpose, and that is a primary function of all religions. For many, whether or not they consider themselves religious, creating a better (which means thinner) body is the “ultimate value” that gives meaning to their life.

2. How does society add to our unrealistic fantasies about what thinness offers us?

Various aspects of society—especially the media and consumer markets like the weight loss industries—work together to indoctrinate us with the so-called “truths”. There is an assumption in The Religion of Thinness that women are not okay as they are, and that they need to adhere to some external dogma and ideal (i.e., the necessity of thinness) in order to be “saved” (i.e., happy, healthy, successful, at peace).

3. Why would intelligent, educated women buy into the false promise of unnatural thinness as the epitome of beauty?

I know so many intelligent, beautiful college students who have been taught to believe that being thinner will make them happy or that losing weight will make their problems go away. They know such beliefs are not logical. And many of them recognize the extent to which our culture conditions us to believe this lie. But, sadly this knowledge isn’t enough to protect them from the pull of The Religion of Thinness. I think this is because the belief that being thinner will make us happier taps into something deeper than our intellects—it appeals to us on a spiritual level. It addresses the part of us that wants to feel that our lives are meaningful and that we are connected to a larger purpose.

4. What is your personal story regarding suffering from bulimia at an early age?

One night when I was 14 years old, the cheerleading squad I was part of gathered in a bathroom to experiment with this new method for losing weight that involved sticking our fingers down our throats to make ourselves vomit. None of us were very good at it, but a few of us continued to do it for the next several years (unbeknownst to each other). For me, the next three years were consumed with an obsession about losing weight and binging and purging. Looking back, I think I felt terribly alone, and utterly ashamed, even as outwardly I was a “normal,” “happy,” and “successful” teenager.

5. Your eating disorder ended at age 17. Did spirituality help you recover?

I got so scared and tired of all the obsessing, binging and purging, that I decided I had to stop. My real recovery didn’t start until later in college when I finally told some friends about my eating disorder. Some of them had also struggled with food issues, and we started meeting in a 12-step like fashion to support our recovery. We used some of the spiritually oriented guidelines from that program. The spiritual aspects of my recovery are also in the critical perspective I had towards toxic messages. All the spiritual giants I respect were cultural critics. People like Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad, Dorothy Day, Mother Theresa, Alice Walker, Winona LaDuke, and Martin Luther King, Jr., all shared a critique of the norms their societies took for granted; all questioned the status quo; and all of them urged people to recognize and alleviate the real sources of human suffering.

6. Do you believe that Christianity can be harsh towards women, and if so, how might that impact how they deal with their weight issues?

Christianity, like other world religions, can be a tremendous source of empowerment and healing for women. But, it can also be (and has been) an enormous source of oppression and pain for women. With regards to women’s bodies, Christianity has largely taught that they get in the way of our spiritual and moral progress—leading us (and men) into temptation. Take, for example, the story of Adam and Eve. What happens in this creation myth that leads to the fall of humankind? It’s the simple act of a woman eating. This legacy sends a powerful message about female appetite that continues to impact women today, including those who are not Christian or not even religious.

7. Why do you feel that plans combining religion and weight loss can be harmful?

I think most weight-loss plans—religious or not—are problematic insofar as they tend to foster an antagonistic relationship to our bodies, pitting us against our appetites and imposing external rules about food and eating, rather than teaching us how to listen to our bodies and practice peace with them. When diet plans are steeped in traditional religious language and beliefs, they tend to reinforce any number of unhelpful beliefs, including the idea that God prefers us thinner and that fat is an outward manifestation of sin.

8. You believe Christianity doesn’t have the allure it used to. Yet, with so many spiritual avenues, why aren’t all women finding spirituality in their life?

Christianity doesn’t have the allure it used to among certain segments of the population (it is flourishing in the Southern Hemisphere and among portions of the U.S. population). But among many educated women in particular, Christianity has become problematic because they are realizing how the tradition has largely neglected or distorted their experiences. There are also many women who are not aware that their spiritual needs are not being fulfilled. They may assume that their traditional religious beliefs are working well enough. Without this spiritual exploration many women experience a profound kind of emptiness. And these very feelings of emptiness, dissatisfaction, anxiety and angst make us vulnerable to the promises of The Religion of Thinness.

9. You stress that the media presents the ideal woman as thin with big breasts. Why would magazines put a woman on the cover who was obviously overweight?

When we stop looking at the magazine as “merely entertainment,” we notice that the cover is supposed to sell the magazine by sparking our interest and drawing us in. The image of the tall, slender model is not only reminding us of our society’s definition of female “beauty,” it is also teaching us that our primary value as women is based on how we look. The cumulative effect of our repetitive exposure to such uniform images is that we lose our freedom to see, much less to choose, alternative forms of beauty.

10. A main problem is too many overweight Americans. Why do you think differently? Should those grossly overweight be happy in their own bodies?

I would encourage everyone to love their bodies. Even those who might feel better if they lost weight would do well to start from a standpoint of radical self-acceptance, rather than shame or self-disgust. Paradoxically, such acceptance can be the most important step we take in the process of self-transformation. It’s important to remember that the problems of overeating and under-eating are not two opposites. When your body feels deprived you are more likely to overeat, and when you overeat, you are more likely to deprive yourself.

11. What’s wrong with trying to lose weight to look and feel better?

There’s nothing wrong with trying to lose weight to look and feel better. But I question whether losing weight is really going to offer the satisfaction, empowerment, and peace you are looking for. To feel more energy in our lives, to experience ourselves as capable, creative, connected, and loved—these are not things being thinner can give us.

12. You say that eating disorders are social problems, not personal failures. Should those with an eating disorder bear no responsibility? Is it all society’s fault?

I’m not saying that those with eating disorders bear no responsibility, but their choices are shaped by the larger cultural context that rewards a pre-occupation with weight and eating. When consumer markets encourage us (on the one hand) to indulge, dig in, super-size and enjoy those highly processed, sugary, salty, fatty foods, and, (on the other hand) to abstain, refrain, shape up, and sacrifice pleasure for the sake of thinness, is it really a surprise that many have developed an unhealthy relationship to food and our bodies?

13. You believe eating disorders can be a rational response to our culture. Why?

Those who hate their bodies and are addicted to losing weight are responding to the dictates of our culture rather than operating out of some inborn defect of reason.

14. If there’s one message you could leave readers with, what would it be?

In order to heal from eating disorders, we have to recognize the unmet spiritual needs that have drawn us to The Religion of Thinness. I hope to reinforce that whatever kind of eating or body image problem we struggle with, it is an opportunity for spiritual growth.



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