By Michelle M. Lelwica
professor, Concordia College
A few weeks ago, Ralph Lauren made the news with an altered ad that featured a model with giraffe-like legs and hips so narrow that her head seemed oddly oversized. Though the image ran only in Japan, media critics in the west deplored it as yet another example of the extremes to which the fashion industry will go in digitally manipulating its spreads to capture the attention of prospective consumers.
Why should people of faith care about such images?
There wouldn’t be much to worry about if models stretched to such slender and surreal proportions were a rarity in our society today. But images like the one Ralph Lauren produced are part of a ubiquitous iconography that young women look to as they search for ways to define their worth and understand their purpose in the world. This iconography belongs to a broader network of beliefs, myths, rituals, and moral codes that encourage women to find “salvation” (i.e., happiness and fulfillment) through a thinner body. I call this “The Religion of Thinness,” for it has many of the features of traditional religion, even though it fails to deliver the salvation it promises and sadly shortchanges the spiritual needs to which it appeals.
Of course, most women don’t associate their desire to be slender with religion. But for many, the prospect of a “good” body comes to function as a kind of “ultimate purpose” that gives their lives personal meaning while connecting them to a much wider cultural devotion to thinness.
This devotion is implicitly supported by certain religious ideas and narratives. Consider, for example, the story of Eve. Remember what she does to unleash sin into the world? She eats. Throughout Christian history, this mythical incident fostered a view of female appetites as untrustworthy and women’s bodies as shameful. Again and again, church fathers returned to the story of Eve to find evidence that women are more carnal than men, and thus more prone to fall into temptation, and therefore in more need of regulation and salvation.
By the late Middle Ages, some Christian women in Europe had discovered a method for redeeming themselves by restricting their bodies. Saintly women starved themselves as a way of identifying with the suffering of Christ and doing penance for the sins of the world. Some, like Catherine of Siena (d. 1380), found it impossible to keep food down and reportedly induced vomiting with sticks and feathers. The notoriety Catherine gained by fasting enabled her to be a key player in the political and religious crises of her time–until she died of starvation at the age of 33.
To be sure, women like Catherine fasted and purged for reasons that differ dramatically from those of their present-day sisters. Medieval women wanted to please God, not to look good. And yet, both groups of women seek and find public approval through their bodies, and in both cases the pain of hunger is virtuous.
The belief that female bodies are shameful and in need of regulation/redemption continues to permeate our culture. Most women today don’t think of their dissatisfaction with their bodies as related to the legacy of Eve, but the wars they wage against their own flesh reflects our culture’s deep-seated association between women’s bodies, appetites, and sin.
Ultimately, what makes The Religion of Thinness so persuasive is that it is so pervasive. The very omnipresence of its unspoken creed–“I believe I will be happier when I’m thinner”–makes it extremely difficult to question.
But question we must. And people of faith can play a crucial role in challenging The Religion of Thinness by asking: Who benefits when images of women glamorize an emaciated bodily ideal? Why is there so little genuine diversity in our culture’s iconography of womanhood? Why must a woman be pencil thin to be recognized as “beautiful” and “sexy”?
Critiquing a cultural iconography that glorifies an unhealthy and unrealistic physical ideal can be a profoundly spiritual act. Moreover, just as certain aspects of traditional religions have tacitly supported our culture’s obsession with stick thin female bodies, so other aspects of these traditions can be harnessed as resources for resisting the all-consuming call to be thinner. Finally, though accepting and enjoying our bodies as they are–rather than perpetually trying to “fix” them–may sound heretical to our modern ears, it is a heresy worth fighting for.
To question our society’s definition of the “good” body is to follow the example of great spiritual leaders, for whom cultural criticism was a kind of spiritual practice. People like Jesus, the Buddha, Gandhi, and Mother Teresa (to name a few) challenged the false gods of their time, encouraging people to replace blind faith with compassionate critical thinking. Each in their own way pointed to a different kind of power–a power based not on controlling one’s body but on transforming oneself and one’s society to reflect the ideals of love, peace, and justice.
It is time for a revolution in the way we think about female bodies, and spiritually-inclined people ought to lead the way.
Michelle M. Lelwica is associate professor of religion at Concordia College and author of “The Religion of Thinness: Satisfying the Spiritual Hungers behind Women’s Obsession with Food and Weight.”