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Food and Body Image in Young Women

September 8, 2002

Susana Carryer

Ordinary Sunday 23     Matthew 18:15-20


Anyone who keeps half an eye on Shortland Street will have worked out several weeks ago that Delphi is becoming anorexic, though her family are just starting to cotton on. But the storyline goes back several weeks further, with the attempt to pass as a boy to join the rugby team, followed by the traumatic onset of menstruation. This is one example of a girl developing anorexia around the time of menarche, and the link is not accidental. In Delphi's case the overt cause of her distress at this irrefutable sign of femaleness is a rejection of the female roles imposed by society. For many others the bodily changes that accompany puberty are the trigger for eating disorders.


In a culture obsessed with an ideal of female beauty that dictates a body shape given by nature to pre-pubescent children, and healthy teenage boys, (with the addition of perky little breasts), puberty becomes a dangerous time for the health of young women. Developing fleshy curves around the hips and buttocks is regarded as 'getting fat'. When the taut, childish stomach turns into the rounder, natural stomach shape of the adult woman, the scene is set for total paranoia. All this is true for those children who are naturally slim. For those whose genetic makeup tends towards plumpness, the trauma begins much earlier. (I do not have room here to explore the issues faced by those young women with genuine weight problems.)


As well as the changes listed above, puberty is a time when young people also grow very fast, and are often very active, and therefore need relatively large quantities of healthy food to maintain energy levels. Although young girls now do just as much physical activity as their male counterparts, the myth that boys eat more than girls prevails. When young girls respond to the fear of gaining weight by eating a bare minimum, it is often not recognised as a health issue, because of the belief that girls don't need to eat large quantities.


The ready availability of junk food does not improve the situation either. All too often parents grasp at the "fear of fat" as a last straw to get their adolescent daughters to eat a vaguely healthy diet. To some extent it does work in reducing the sugar and fat intake, but it also validates the mostly fantastical fear of gaining weight. Making a huge issue out of what is eaten, in the totally admirable attempt to promote a nutritious diet, also sets the scene for secretive bingeing. In this way the foundation stones for anorexia and bulimia may unintentionally be laid. (I am not advocating that parents abandon the attempt to teach nutrition, but highlighting the problems raised by socially defined ideals of body shape.)


In the church context, a single-minded dedication to spiritual purity is also a frequent characteristic of the early teens, as is a literal interpretation of much of what is taught by youth leaders and preached from the pulpit. Sophisticated interaction with metaphor is a skill that is gained during the teenage years. Therefore the apparently more straight-forward teaching of the evangelical Christian traditions will often appeal more to this age group, especially as it is mostly combined with an emphasis on spirituality as individual experience. Whatever one's own theological standpoint, young people brought up in a Christian environment in New Zealand today, are likely to engage with evangelical theology at this age, one way or another. (Either that, or they will reject church altogether).


The one element of more evangelical theology that is particularly relevant to this topic, is the emphasis on fasting as a form of spiritual discipline. Indeed, fasting is not absent from the more liberal theological traditions, though it is seldom as central. For many young women, this teaching provides the ultimate divine sanction to self starvation. In this way the young women of today are following an age old tradition of female spirituality. (Have you ever wondered why many of the female saints are recorded as being spared the female indignity of menstruation? Some are even described as "becoming like men". Flat breasts and facial hairs are signs of severe malnutrition in women.)


There are no simple answers to these issues - if there were, eating disorders would not be so frighteningly prevalent. However, an embodied Christian theology can provide a helpful balance to societal pressures. How often do we celebrate human physicality, when we sing praises of the "goodness of creation"? Does our theology of the Eucharist promote the enjoyment of sharing food? What messages about the health and beauty of their changing bodies do young women hear at church?

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