The Spirituality of Anorexia

A Goddess Feminist Thealogy

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Emma White
  • New York, NY: 
    Routledge
    , June
     2018.
     176 pages.
     $140.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781138478060.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Emma White’s thorough engagement with the eating disorder anorexia nervosa through the lens of thealogy in The Spirituality of Anorexia is an exceptionally helpful resource for scholars of religious studies investigating the intersection of Goddess (the author uses “Goddess” as a name for the divine, not the generic female divinity) feminist thealogy. It also thoroughly covers the sociological and psychological understandings of the etiology of anorexia within patriarchal society. Beyond providing an important addition to the literature by scholars of religious studies and feminist theology that is focused on the experiences of eating disorders among contemporary Western women, this book carves out a new place by analyzing both the origins of anorexia and some approaches to the treatment of it that flow from a serious consideration of Goddess feminism and thealogy. By focusing on the ways that female embodiment is distorted by patriarchy—with anorexia being a particularly severe result but which affects all women and men—White understands thealogy as a way of subverting a Judeo-Christian tradition that is “inherently and irredeemably patriarchal” and of “challeng[ing] our androcentric society and our patriarchal lineage, asking why men are worth so much more than women and why the female body continues to be the battleground for this gender war” (7).

White provides a helpful first chapter in which she discusses anorexia nervosa as a medical diagnosis and its triggers and risk factors. While the medical etiology of anorexia is complex, White notes that it is closely tied to the sexist demands of a patriarchal system that limits and reduces women, which results in women’s experiences of “our society’s insistence that ‘thin is good’” (8). In the next two chapters, White traces the ways that rhetorics of thinness and the diet industry shape the lives of women and how this control confines women, forcing them to reduce themselves into culturally acceptable waifs who do not have the time or energy to challenge patriarchy. In a particularly interesting discussion in her fourth chapter, White draws parallels among hysteria, agoraphobia, and anorexia as historical examples of women’s responses to the overwhelming expectations of a patriarchal society. Additional comparisons are drawn to the phenomenon of self-harm or cutting, with White drawing a distinction between cutting, which seems to function as a form of communication, and anorexia, which results from the attempts of patriarchy to silence and confine women.

In her final chapter, White proposes that Goddess feminism and thealogy provide a sufficiently robust challenge to patriarchy and “weave an alternative model of embodiment for the benefit of women” (111). She argues that the Goddess can serve, at least in part, as “a powerful psychological symbol for women today” that serves to “displace the foundational features of anorexia whilst providing us with a framework for addressing the utilization of the anorexics expression by so many women today” (111).

The real strength of White’s exploration of Goddess feminism and thealogy is her discussion of the power of ritual to counter the ritualistic behavior of women with anorexia, proposing “the construction of life-enhancing ritual practices” (136), which can help women deconstruct and replace the rituals of calorie counting, food planning, and excessive exercise that are typical of anorexia. Rituals are powerful because they are a part of every culture and because they draw people into community. In particular, rituals rooted in Goddess spirituality “can be an act of reconnection and healing which demands the participants to consciously engage in concepts of empowerment and embodiment in the raising of energy through chanting, music and body movements” (137).

White draws further attention to the incorporation of these rituals of Goddess spirituality into the psycho-therapeutic setting, which not only invites women with anorexia to address their spiritual and emotional needs, but also empowers them for the political engagement necessary to subvert the patriarchal roots of anorexia. As White concludes, “if we understand anorexia as an attempt to protest against and at the same time escape from the continued subordination of women represented by way of the powerfully promoted slender ideal, we can see how the reimagining of female identity and embodiment can provide an attractive forum for women” (143). In this context, a spirituality of anorexia is created, which, rather than attempting to be a one-size-fits-all approach to a spiritual engagement of embodiment, would, as White proposes, ground an interrogation of the patriarchal culture and a questioning of “underlying assumptions about happiness, love, acceptance and legitimacy as [women] redefine what these concepts really mean to them” (157).

For those already familiar with Goddess feminist and thealogy, this volume is a helpful practical thealogy of anorexia. For those who are interested in engagements of eating disorders by scholars of religious studies, White’s well-researched book serves as an intriguing introduction to a spirituality of anorexia that is robust enough to ground both healing for individual women with anorexia and “disrupting the gender status quo and challenging slender and reductionist rhetoric that so many women are caged by” (161).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Cynthia L. Cameron is assistant professor of religious studies at Rivier University in Nashua, New Hampshire.

Date of Review: 
April 25, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Emma White's research focuses on the spirituality of gender and embodiment, particularly regarding eating disorders. Her article titled 'Starved by Society: An Examination of Judith Butler’s Gender Performance and Society’s Slender Ideal' has been published in Feminist Theology.

Comments

Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.