Today I’m pleased to present my interview with Michelle Lelwica, ThD, associate professor at Concordia College in Minnesota and author of The Religion of Thinness: Satisfying the Spiritual Hungers Behind Women’s Obsession with Food and Weight, a thought-provoking and must-read book.

In it, Michelle proposes that “our obsessions with eating and weight mask the deeper needs of our spirits.” The pursuit of thinness has become a religion that “gives us an ultimate purpose – the ‘salvation’ that comes from being thin.”

Below, she talks about how the book came to be, how the pursuit of thinness is a religion and how we can address our genuine needs.

Q: What inspired you to write The Religion of Thinness?

A: I owe a big debt to Cissy Brady-Rogers, a therapist in southern California who emphasizes the spiritual dimensions of eating problems in her work with clients who struggle with these issues. She had read my first book (Starving for Salvation: The Spiritual Dimensions of Eating Problems among American Girls and Women, published by Oxford UP, 1999), which was a revision of my dissertation (and which was therefore quite theoretical and written in a more academic style). Cissy affirmed my hunch that eating and body image problems develop in response to unmet spiritual needs, and she encouraged me to write a book that was accessible to a broader audience. In fact, Cissy helped extensively with the writing of The Religion of Thinness during the first several summers I worked on the project.

While Cissy was the catalyst for getting me started on The Religion of Thinness, probably my biggest inspiration for writing the book was the prospect of helping women who suffer from eating problems build a better relationship with food and their body by developing some kind of inner life, that is, by finding new ways to give their life meaning, to experience happiness, and to cope with suffering—ways that are life-affirming rather than self-destructive.

At the same time, I hoped that the book would raise awareness about the spiritual aspects of eating and body image problems among eating disorders professionals. This awareness has been growing rapidly in the past few years thanks to a lot of excellent work that is being done in this area and thanks to women being more open and articulate about the spiritual dimensions of their struggles with food and their bodies.

Finally, I guess you could say that my work on the book was inspired by my own commitment to the ongoing process of healing and waking up to life. Sharing the insights and practical strategies I write about in The Religion of Thinness was a way of affirming, expanding and deepening my own journey of health, serenity and well being.

Q: How do you think the religion of thinness has replaced traditional religion?

A: We live in an era in which the authority of traditional (i.e., organized) religion is hotly contested and in some ways declining. Institutional religions’ frequently negative attitude toward women and “the flesh” has left many women feeling spiritually disconnected and homeless inside their own bodies.

This leaves us vulnerable to the (empty) promise of “salvation” (i.e., happiness and fulfillment) through thinness. Even women who identify with traditional religion find themselves drawn to this illusion, in part because it speaks to our spiritual needs for a sense of purpose and peace, a sense of love and acceptance, a sense of inspiration and security in the face of life’s problems and possibilities.

The idea that losing weight will make your problems disappear is obviously a lie; but it is a seductive lie because it speaks directly and immediately to your desire for your life to be different.

I would also say that even though the Religion of Thinness functions as a substitute for traditional religion, it also replicates some of the most harmful aspects of traditional religion. For example, it is predicated on the idea that women’s bodies cannot be trusted. This long-standing belief can be traced as far back as the story of Eve, whose unruly appetite leads to the downfall of humankind.

The symbolism of this myth is so powerful and deeply entrenched in our culture that it affects all kinds of women, including those who do not consider themselves “religious.” There are a number of other conventional religious ideologies or motifs that are resurrected and recycled in The Religion of Thinness. These include:

  • The idea that women are naturally more physical, more sexual, more “carnal” than men (who are historically associated with “mind” or “spirit”). Women’s (supposed) greater physicality means they are more prone to give into temptation, and more in need of supervision/control and salvation.
  • The belief that physical suffering is virtuous and can atone for one’s “sins.” This Atonement Theory reaches back to the late Medieval era of Christianity, when the belief that the pain of self-denial is “purifying” and pleasing to God became widespread.
  • A black-and-white/rigid approach to morality; coupled with the view of God as judgmental
  • the notion that there is only one path to salvation (i.e., religious exclusivism)—only one way to be “saved” (i.e., “one-size-fits-all”)
  • An understanding of “salvation” as other-worldly – something that happens in the future (i.e., “when I die and go to heaven,” or, “when I lose 10 more pounds”)
  • The notion that “salvation” is a personal achievement based on an individual’s private decisions, sacrifices, devotions, and beliefs
  • A “faith” that is based on a blind refusal to question authority or to challenge prevailing cultural norms

These are just some of traditional religious ideologies and beliefs that tacitly inform our culture and that subtly support the Religion of Thinness.

Q. In your book, you write that we’ve fallen into the religion of thinness because we haven’t learned to address our genuine needs. How do we identify these needs and nourish them?

A: I think a lot of people don’t recognize their spiritual needs either because they don’t consider themselves to be “religious” and they equate spirituality with religion, or because they assume these needs are being taken care of by traditional religious beliefs.

Both of these assumptions can blind us to some fundamental human needs that transcend denominational boundaries and dogmatic professions, including the need for a sense of meaning and purpose, as well as the need for unconditional love, stability, inspiration, compassion, a sense of connection and responsibility, and a general sense of well-being.

Such needs transcend the particularities of time, location, culture, etc. As the Dalai Lama points out, they are universal. When we fail to recognize these fundamental needs, and/or when we lack adequate ways to address them, we suffer, and we may unconsciously look for ways to satisfy them, even if those ways are self-destructive (as is the case with an eating disorder).

Whether or not we consider ourselves “religious,” our lives are frequently so hurried and busy (and/or we are operating on automatic pilot) that it’s difficult to hear and recognize our inner/spiritual yearnings (i.e., for meaning, love, inspiration, etc.).

So the first thing we need to do if we want to develop the capacity to recognize these needs is slow down, learn how to be still, and not be afraid to be alone and quiet. Slowing down helps move your energy out of your head, away from the constant thinking-planning-scheming mode, and it gives you space to be present to your experience and your environment as it is in the moment. This shift in attention and energy takes practice, which is why I recommend sitting meditation as a means for learning how to quiet your mind and be present in your body.

But slowing down and learning to access your inner stillness/peace is something you can do almost any time, anywhere. The next time you are driving, for example, try turning off the radio or music, slowing down for yellow lights, driving under the speed limit, and enjoying the process of going somewhere (rather than focusing on your destination).

One of the upshots of our turbo-speed, double-tasking culture is that we become alienated from our bodies. It is hard to feel present in your body when you are rushed or doing two or three things at one time. Slowing down is a way to bring your mind/body together so that you can notice what’s happening inside you (emotionally, physically, mentally, etc.) and respond appropriately rather than simply reacting out of habit.

Thanks so much, Michelle, for an insightful interview! Stay tuned tomorrow for the next part!

Today’s favorite post. You Do the Math” at ED Bites.