Shrinking Bodies: Fasting and Dieting

Words by Eleanor Barnett and Katrina Moseley

This term we focused on the theme of bodily appetite suppression, in particular, those practices of food control that we now variously term ‘fasting’, ‘dieting’ and ‘disordered eating’. Whilst academic work on the subject of eating disorders has multiplied in recent decades, scholars from different intellectual fields rarely talk across disciplinary boundaries. By bringing together academics from theology, psychology, medicine, gender studies, and history, we were able to draw out the complexity of defining and historicising food refusal.

As outlined by PhD theology student, Niamh Colbrook, the main question exercising scholars of eating disorders past and present is whether such behaviours are ‘culture-bound’ or ‘the symptom of a psychopathology that transcends history’.[1] Moreover, how might we square perspectives from medical sociology, with its emphasis on the historical contingency of diagnostic categories (AnorexiaNervosa was diagnosed in the 1870s; Bulimia Nervosa in the 1970s; and Orthorexia Nervosa in the 2000s) with equally compelling work on the innate cognitive effects of self-starvation? 

Food denial has a long history in the Christian tradition

To Dr Emily Troscianko, research associate at The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH), eating disorders are both embedded in culture and related to our underlying neurological architecture. Emily’s research connects cognitive literary studies with health humanities, asking how text, mind, and more instinctual physical processes intersect through reading, and how the process of reading, in turn, impacts on eating disorders. Her research indicates that eating disorder sufferers may intensify, rather than alleviate, their disorders by reading about characters with comparable psychological symptoms.

From a theological perspective, Niamh’s paper, ‘Christianity, culture and the shrinking body’, called for an end to the debate over culture altogether: rather than worrying about whether eating disorders are more culture bound or more bio-medical, we would do better to accept that expressions of food refusal are always culturally determined to a certain extent. In Niamh’s view, this frees us up to think across past and present in new ways, asking questions like the following: Can religious frameworks and theological messages, the language of which is often used to motivate self-starvation, be used to help eating disorder sufferers in the present? To what extent has Christian theology perpetuated a dualism of mind and body, thereby contributing to bodily anxieties? And how might Theology, with its emphasis on past scripture, seek to intervene differently in a conversation that has largely been dominated by clinical and psychoanalytical perspectives? Niamh advocated a practice-based approach to eating disorders: since definitions are constantly shifting, we should look to understand past practices of food refusal on their own terms, whilst resisting an urge to categorise them.

As Niamh’s paper made clear, organised religion has long used the denial of food, in the form of fasting, as a way of connecting the practitioner to god(s). Dr Jessica Hamel Akré, from the department of History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge, also reflected on the theme of religion, showing how the self-starvation of Ester Rogers, chronicled in an autobiographical account from the eighteenth century, was a way for her to reject the physical world in favour of her Methodist faith. (She later retreated from this view, however, arguing that food refusal was an obsession of pride and so contrary to good piety). Like Emily, Jessica reflected on the close link between food and literature; the over-consumption of literature – thought by medical and religious critics at the time to negatively affect women’s appetites – became an alternative site of absorption for Rogers as she fasted. In our reading group we discussed how religious beliefs are connected to fasting and also to eating disorders. As a scientific study by Akrawi et al. suggests, it may be that possessing both existential beliefs and religious beliefs reduces the likelihood of developing an eating disorder, though the former more than the latter.[2] The security of faith may instead make people less likely to seek to control their bodies or lives through disordered eating.

In more modern times, eating disorders (and especially Anorexia) have more often been associated with dieting and the desire to become thin. This, as we know, is exasperated by media images of ideal body types, especially in the social media age. Yet, as we discussed in our reading group, this may be too simple an explanation: the shrinking body is not always the outcome of disordered eating; moreover, thinness is a culturally relative concept, and ‘fat’ has a complex symbolism of meaning for different people.

Modern public awareness of eating disorders was the subject of Gender Studies PhD student Kylie Lui’s paper, a history of Anorexia Nervosa’smovement as a diagnostic category from America to East Asia following the death of singer Karen Carpenter in February 1983. Complicating the idea that “fame” and “celebrity” have had a solely negative effect on women’s embodied consciousness, Kylie’s work highlights the important role that popular culture played in fostering understanding of eating disorders in the late twentieth century, first in the case of Carpenter and later in the case of bulimia sufferer, Diana, Princess of Wales. Yet she also cautions that the story is not clear cut. When Carpenter died in ‘ignominious circumstances’ (she was found unclothed and unconscious in a closet, having died from the use of a laxative drug that was later banned as an over-the-counter medicine) some girls reported that they had begun using laxatives in an effort to lose weight as a result. Kylie demonstrated how Western beauty ideals slowly transferred to Hong Kong in the 1990s and 2000s, with Anorexia becoming more commonplace at the same time.

Karen Carpenter (1950 – 1983), American singer and drummer, suffered from anorexia nervosa

As Caroline Walker Bynum famously asserted in her book, Holy feast and Holy fast, eating disorders have, since times historic, been gendered female. Medieval holy women were more likely to use food and consumption as means of asserting their religious faith because they had control over food production in their daily lives. Bynum introduced the idea that food refusal could be a positive tool for women: ‘food behaviours helped girls to gain control over self as well as over circumstance’.[3] Even today, as we discussed in our reading group, women are more often associated with the body: a primary tool of female expression. We discussed, too, how fasting can have the physical effect of stopping the menstrual cycle, disordered eating thus being tied to notions of female sexuality and infantilism. This is not to deny that disordered eating affects boys and men, too; however more research is needed to understand how gender intersects with eating habits and disorders.

Finally, from our discussion of this term’s theme questions emerged about the embodied experience of not eating. Recognising that food denial can create a momentary clarity of mind, or a euphoric state, could help scholars to understand the religious significance of fasting throughout history, whilst also enabling us to connect to past and present experiences of food refusal in a more meaningful way. However, when discussing medieval bodies in fifth and sixth century France, Sukanya Raisharma (PhD student at the University of Oxford) emphasised in her presentation the difficulties of accessing past experience through texts alone, which fail to capture the visceral qualities of bodily sensations like pain and hunger. We end by reflecting, then, on the innumerable meanings that we might attach to practices of food refusal, and on the need for future work to take into account both scientific research and cultural and historical perspectives.


Many thanks to all our fascinating speakers – Niamh Colbrook, Kylie Lui, Sukanya Raisharma, Dr Emily Troscianko, Dr Jessica Hamel Akré – and to those all who attended and contributed to the meetings.

Food for thought:

Akrawi, D., R. Bartrop, L. Surgenor, S. Shanmugam, U. Potter and S. Touyz. ‘The Relationship between Spiritual, Religious and Personal Beliefs and Disordered Eating Psychopathology’. Translational Developmental Psychiatry 5.1 (April 2017)

Rudolf Bell, Holy Anorexia (1985)

Caroline Walker Bynum, Holy feast and holy fast: the religious significance of food to holy women (Berkeley, 1987), ‘Epilogue’, pp. 297-306.

Karen Hollis, ‘Fasting Women: Bodily Claims and Narrative Crises in Eighteenth-century Science’, Eighteenth Century Studies, 4 (2001), pp. 523-38.

Kathleen LeBesco, ‘Queering Fat Bodies/Politics’, in Jana Evans Braziel (ed.), Bodies Out of Bounds: Fatness and Transgression (London: 2001) 

Lyndal Roper, ‘Martin Luther’s Body: The “Stout Doctor” and His Biographers’, THe American Historical Review, 115 (2010), pp. 351-84.

Please do contact us with further reading suggestions.

[1] Niamh Colbrook,’Christianity, culture and the shrinking body: the place of theology in eating disorder studies’, paper delivered to the Cambridge Body and Food Histories Group, University of Cambridge, 26 February 2019.

[2] Akrawi, D., R. Bartrop, L. Surgenor, S. Shanmugam, U. Potter and S. Touyz. ‘The Relationship between Spiritual, Religious and Personal Beliefs and Disordered Eating Psychopathology’. Translational Developmental Psychiatry 5.1 (April 2017)

[3] Caroline Walker Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (London, 1988), p. 298.

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