I had a small wooden statue of Mary in my room when I was a young child. She wore a blue veil and a warm smile, and she stood inside a maple case with two tiny doors. I liked to stand her up on a snack table, slowly open the doors to look at her, and feel her radiance, which I thought of as something like "goodness power." Those felt like holy times.
By the time I was twelve, I had put Mary away. My girlfriends and I hung out together in our rooms after school, leafing through copies of Seventeen. We knew Cheryl Tiegs and all the other models by name, and, awestruck, we read that they lived on grapefruit and steak and Melba toast. We passed around a measuring tape and compared our thighs, we tried spot-reducing exercises, and we frowned at what we saw in the mirror. None of the models were shaped quite like any of us. At five foot six and 110 pounds, I decided my body was all wrong. Fat.
Most American women, according to survey after survey, are unhappy with their bodies. Ten to 20 percent of female college students are estimated to suffer from anorexia or bulimia. That's why February 14-20, National Eating Disorders Week, is an important reminder for all of us who care about girls.
Why are we at war with our bodies?
There are lots of ways to answer this question, and there's a lot we don't understand. But some theorists are suggesting that here in the U.S. dieting has turned from a habit of healthy eating into a new religion of sorts. With its emphasis on strict rituals, like calorie-counting, its denial of the natural variety of women's bodies, and its promise of salvation to a blessed few who attain "perfection," this is a religion that judges women's desires for food as harshly as the Victorians did our sexuality.
This "new" religion is right in line with the patriarchal strain of Western religious tradition that separates mind and body, celebrates female self-sacrifice and condemns female desire. It was Eve whose disobedient appetite led to the fall from Eden. Holy women are fasting martyrs like Catherine of Siena, the brilliant political and religious leader who starved herself to death.
In her new book "Starving for Salvation" (Oxford), Michelle Mary Lelwica focuses on the spiritual dimension of girls' and women's eating problems. She says media images of emaciated models have taken on a religious function in our culture--serving as icons for today's girls, who seek to emulate them in an intense but misguided search for holiness and meaning. "By starving, gorging, or purging herself," Lelwica, who was bulimic as a teenager herself, told me, "I believe a girl or woman is trying to escape from the narrow norms and shallow expectations of a society that has failed to nourish her creativity, her spirituality, and her passion."
Lelwica, who holds a doctorate of theology from Harvard Divinity School and directs the Women's Studies Program at St. Mary's College of California, quotes many girls who express their spiritual yearnings through extreme self-denial and perfectionism. They echo Marya Hornbacher's words from "Wasted," her powerful memoir of anorexia: "At school we were hungry and lost and scared and young and we needed religion, salvation, something to fill the anxious hollow in our chests. Many of us sought it in food and thinness."
What can parents and faith communities do to nurture today's girls? In a culture of empty and damaging images of women how can we offer them icons and stories that are truly nourishing?
Learning starts early. Long before they reach puberty, girls need opportunities for strong connections with one another and with flesh-and-blood women. They need icons to counterbalance the ones they see daily in the media--feminine images of God, and richer, more nuanced stories of women prophets and disciples.
They need our respectful listening. Healthy teen girls are refreshingly opinionated people, with so much to teach us. In order to find nurture in our faith traditions, they need the freedom to raise their critical voices.
Girls need to learn body prayer that incorporates movement and breathing, to develop their awareness of the connection between body and soul. They need approaches to spirituality that engage not only their intellects, but also their natural creativity, through art, music, drama and dance.
And day by day, girls need our affection and appreciation to know that their growing bodies are unique, precious, and sacred.
As they grow into women, girls need to know that they have a place at God's table for the breaking and sharing of bread. Otherwise we shouldn't be surprised if some of the most sensitive and accomplished among them find they have nothing to worship but magazine pictures, and no one to listen to but the diet gurus.