Starving For Salvation: The Spiritual Dimensions of Eating Problems among American Girls and Women

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In recent years, eating disorders among American girls and women have become a subject of national concern. Conventional explanations of eating problems are usually framed in the language of psychology, medicine, feminism, or sociology. Although they differ in theory and approach, these interpretations are linked by one common assumption--that female preoccupation with food and body is an essentially secular phenomenon.
In Starving for Salvation, Michelle Lelwica challenges traditional theories by introducing and exploring the spiritual dimensions of anorexia, bulimia, and related problems. Drawing on a range of sources that include previously published interviews with sufferers of eating disorders, Lelwica claims that girls and women starve, binge, and purge their bodies as a means of coping with the pain and injustice of their daily lives. She provides an incisive analysis of contemporary American culture, arguing that our dominant social values and religious legacies produce feelings of emptiness and dissatisfaction in girls and women.
Trapped in a society that ignores and denies their spiritual needs, girls and women construct a network of symbols, beliefs, and rituals around food and their bodies. Lelwica draws a parallel between the patriarchal legacy of Christianity, which associates women with sin and bodily cravings, and the cultural preference for a thin female body. According to Lelwica, these complimentary forces form a popular salvation myth that encourages girls and women to fixate on their bodies and engage in disordered eating patterns. While this myth provides a sense of meaning and purpose in the face of uncertainty and injustice, Lelwica demonstrates that such rigid and unhealthy devotion to the body only deepens the spiritual void that women long to fill.
Although Lelwica presents many disturbing facts about the origins of eating disorders, she also suggests positive ways that our society can nourish the creative and spiritual needs of girls and women. The first step, however, is to acknowledge that female preoccupation with thinness and food signifies a strong desire for fulfillment. Until we recognize and contest the religious legacies and cultural values that perpetuate eating disorders, many women will continue to turn to the most accessible symbolic and ritual resources available to them--food and their bodies--in an attempt to satiate their profound spiritual hunger.

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About the Author:


Michelle M. Lelwica grew up in rural Minnesota and earned her Doctorate of Theology at Harvard Divinity School. She is currently Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at St. Mary's College of California.

Review:


"Lelwica's provocative book offers multiple rewards....Her inventive expressions, such as `culture lite' and the `politics of distraction,' help diagnose the false promises of fulfillment offered by consumer culture....Chapters addressing the popular icons and rituals of womanhood, tied to the myth that thinness reaps salvation, are especially lucid....[Lelwica deals] sensitively with the personal stories of girls and women struggling with eating problems....Her analysis of the permeable boundaries between religion and culture is incisive and valuable."--Christian Century


"A probing and intelligent explanation of dieting and weight obsession that points to religiosity, morality, and absolution from guilt as the primary agents motivating women's irrational quest for thinness."--Choice


"Lelwica's thesis that eating disorders both mask and reveal deep spiritual hungers, which she defines broadly as hungers for meaning and value, is extraordinarily well researched and clearly, cogently, and persuasively argued. Her analysis and critique make for powerful reading, and she follows up with an equally strong constructive program in conclusion. In my estimation she makes a major advance in understanding eating disorders, as well as an important contribution to more general cultural critique, viewed through the lens of eating disorders." --Paula Cooey, Trinity University


"[Starving for Salvation] is interesting, thoroughly researched, and well written....Lelwicas work is [part of] the next generation of efforts to address a complex and perplexing problem, and it makes a suggestion that has both theoretical and clinical implications." --Margaret R. Miles, Dean, Graduate Theological Union


"This is a through and creative book. Lewica engages critically with a number of different disciplines, and raises questions which reflect concerns in the wider field of mental health and social justice, in America, the UK and Australia...a rich resource for a wide range of interested groups, not only those concerned with eating disorders...a complex, challenging and rewarding book." Religion and Theology


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