I once interviewed at an eating disorder clinic, and the moment I walked in, I tensed and thought, “I would never get well here.”

It was arguably no different from your typical professional setting: clean, organized, and controlled. The three or four female receptionists who greeted me weren’t just dressed in immaculate business attire; they were also slim and fit, glowing pictures of perfect health. The underlying assumption, I found, was that what the recovering anorexic needs is an example, someone who follows all the rules, someone to model healthy eating and living for them.

I went to a conference on eating disorders several months later and had the same experience. It wasn’t just the raw vegetables and salad they served me over the course of the day or the unfortunate conversations I overheard during lunch—there was an overall atmosphere of virtue and cleanliness, of imagined health, that I found deeply disturbing.

It was particularly disturbing in light of my studies on the matter, through which I discovered that a great deal of research backs up what I already knew experientially: anorexia is an ascetic disorder, where virtue rather than beauty is at stake.1


In Holy Anorexia, Rudolph Bell writes that the so-called “holy anorexics”—who were characteristically female—were unable to return to the table because, for them, the goal of fasting was never complete. There is a distinction to be made between the behavior of those who fasted imitating Jesus in the wilderness, for a set period of time and for a clear purpose, and this particularly female experience. These women reportedly claimed that they were unable to eat, even when they were ordered to do so by their superiors, because they “believed their bodies could not be purified and actively sought to destroy them.”2

The modern anorexic is likewise concerned with purity and cleanliness, often viewing her restrictive behaviors around eating as cleansing rituals meant to counter “abjection.”3 These cleansing rituals go beyond the realm of food restriction, for anorexia does not only involve a disconnection from food and eating but from anything of the body—all bodily functions are experienced as “disgusting and out of place.”4

That the modern anorexic is, like the medieval ascetic, concerned primarily with virtue is something O’Connor and Van Esterik say “simple observation” could have explained.5 They cite Julius H. Rubin’s study of “religious melancholy” and state: “Four centuries ago English physicians could explain what now mystifies us. By observing their patients in context they realized anorexia came from leading an overly pious life.”6

In his book, Rubin describes the evangelical anorexic as a religious person who was “obsessed with personal rituals of purification” because they were painfully convinced that they were beyond God’s forgiveness.7 This is reminiscent of the fasting saints Bell and others describe, and, stripped of the God language, it sounds a lot like the experience of contemporary women with anorexia.

While the contemporary anorexic is not necessarily religious and the connection between eating and virtue is not confined to religion, Caroline Giles Banks and others have found that some anorexics do still “express their desire to restrict intake of food through religious understandings about food, the body, and sexuality provided by their religious traditions.”8 Banks attributes these findings to the continuing presence of ascetic ideals, especially those related to food and sex, within Christian traditions.9 Whether the anorexic is religious or not, her logic is a “moral logic,”10 and her behavior echoes the way that her culture moralizes everything, even the act of eating.

Though anorexia does not befall everyone who internalizes their culture’s messages about what is good and pure, those who do become anorexic often become such by simply following cultural rules. These rules are often informed by religious attitudes about the body: it is more than evident that secular diet trends “mimic religious narratives of spiritual emptiness and hunger, morality, trespass, duty, and ritualism.”11 Both within and without religious tradition, anorexia’s entryways are celebrated, and “anorexia’s escapees cannot deny the virtues that fed their vice.”12

Findings about the relationship between anorexia and virtue have serious implications for religious institutions. Within religious communities, lines are drawn between pleasure as bad and suffering and restriction as good and pure. On the whole, stories of anorexia incite questions about “the demand for ‘purity’ through over-control of the body itself,”13 and these are stories and questions that must be engaged by religious communities.

  1. Richard A. O’Connor and Penny Van Esterik, “De-Medicalizing Anorexia: A New Cultural Brokering,” Anthropology Today 24, no. 5 (2008), 8. 
  2. Rudolph M. Bell, Holy Anorexia (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 117-118. Emphasis added. 
  3. Megan Warin, Studies in Medical Anthropology: Abject Relations: Everyday Worlds of Anorexia (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2009), 153. 
  4. Ibid., 171. 
  5. Richard A. O’Connor and Penny Van Esterik, From Virtue to Vice: Negotiating Anorexia (New York: Berghahn Books, 2015), 117. 
  6. Ibid. 
  7. “The behavioral manifestations of this syndrome include food refusal, generalized anxiety, sleep disorder, and obsessive-compulsive conduct or repetitive neurotic ceremonials designed to alleviate feelings of personal sinfulness.” Julius H. Rubin, Religious Melancholy and Protestant Experience in America (Cary, NC, USA: Oxford University Press, USA, 1994), 82-83. 
  8. Caroline Giles Banks, “‘Culture’ in Culture-bound Syndromes: The Case of Anorexia Nervosa,” Social Science & Medicine 34, no. 8 (1992), 869. Emphasis added. 
  9. Ibid., 126. 
  10. Simona Giordano, Understanding Eating Disorders: Conceptual and Ethical Issues in the Treatment of Anorexia and Bulimia Nervosa (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 257. 
  11. April Michelle Herndon, “Taking the Devil into Your Mouth: Ritualized American Weight-loss Narratives of Morality, Pain, and Betrayal,” Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 51, no. 2 (2008), 208-209. 
  12. Richard A. O’Connor and Penny Van Esterik, From Virtue to Vice: Negotiating Anorexia (New York: Berghahn Books, 2015), 213. 
  13. Catherine J. Garrett, Beyond Anorexia: Narrative, Spirituality, and Recovery (Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 124. 

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