New Eating Disorder Data Begs Question: How Should Christians Approach Body Image?

Over nine million women have struggled with an eating disorder a recent survey reported. The heightened prevalence of poor body image in women has created a growing concern among self-esteem experts, church leaders, and health non-profits nationwide.

Harvard School of Medicine conduced a face-to-face household survey of 9.282 individuals. According to the survey preformed by Harvard’s National Comorbidity Survey Replication, .90 percent of women are suffering from Anorexia Nervosa, 1.5 percent from Bulimia and 3.5 percent from Binge Eating Disorder.

“Popular culture presents endless images of what the perfect woman looks like, conveying the message that a woman’s most important job is to be attractive,” said author of Religion of Thinness Michelle Lelwica.

The Church Health Reader interviewed Lelwica about body image and eating disorders from a Christian viewpoint. Lelwica was questioned about what the Church could do to help those struggling with a body image disorder.

Lelwica, who is an associate professor of Religion at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn., believes that an eating disorder begins with how women are taught to view their bodies.

CHR editor John Shorb asked Lelwica how our bodies relate to God.

Her response included a suggestion to return to Christianity’s central teaching of the Incarnation, in an attempt to become more aware of our spiritual dimensions. To not separate the body from the spirit, she said, so that we do not try to control them or use them to shape our identity.

“If your identity is shaped by the cultural/religious belief that you can and should control your body, it can become an all-encompassing task. These two messages – that women are more carnal and identified with the body, and that the body needs to be controlled –encourage women to be at war with their bodies,” Lelwica said.

While eating disorders are prevalent in an exorbitant number of women across the globe, there were a higher number of reports in high school and college females, according to an article in Forbes magazine.

According to Eating For Life Alliance (ELA), 91 percent of women recently surveyed on a college campus attempted to control their weight through dieting.

College survey participants were asked the frequency of their dieting and 22 percent responded “often” and “always.” They were also asked about eating disorder behaviors they exhibit. An estimated 64 percent of college women exhibit some form of eating disorder behavior.

“Certainly, ‘the thinner, the better’ is a clear message that women receive from the media, as well as other sources. The thin body is a symbol of control, which is a most-cherished virtue in our culture. Not surprisingly then, many women experience not eating as a way of being “good,” Lelwica said.

According to National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), signs of eating disorder behavior can include (but is not limited to) dramatic weight loss, dressing in layers, a preoccupation with calorie counting, refusing to eat certain foods, denial of hunger and maintaining an excessive rigid exercise regiment – despite weather, fatigue, illness, or injury.

In Lelwica’s expert opinion, some eating disorder behavior can signal triumph and sense of accomplishment in those affected by the epidemic.

“Trying to create a ‘good’ body can become an addictive process when thinness becomes a kind of false god and an all-encompassing purpose that gives meaning to life. The further you move down the path of an eating disorder, the more thinness becomes the sole source of meaning and value for you,” she said.

With a mission to ensue that colleges have access to educational resources for the prevention and treatment of eating disorders, ELA research shows that university administrators report a 24.3 percent rise in reports of eating disorder concerns among their students.

While the availability of resources and information about eating disorders is rapidly growing and improving, a large problem lies within treating the various disorders and lack of participation in treatment programs.

According to the Eating Disorders Coalition, only one in 10 people with eating disorders receive treatment. EDC seeks to advance the federal recognition of eating disorders as a public health priority.

However, Lelwica believes the church can be a catalyst for in the healing process for those suffering from eating disorders.

Shorb’s Q&A with Lelwica explored the role the Bible plays in healing from an eating disorder in the Church Health Reader, publication of the ministry Church Health Center.

She said, “Jesus challenged his culture and the norms that everyone else accepted. We should wake up to the messages from our culture that encourage unhealthy thinking and behavior.”

“Churches, church groups, congregations and youth ministries need to be keenly aware of the influences shaping young people in particular. We should talk with children and teenagers about these issues to help them and heighten their consciousness of the cultural influences that surround them,” Lelwica suggested.

She stated, “The key is to be non-judgmental: people suffering with eating disorders have such a profound sense of shame. Cultivating a compassionate, non-judgmental and non-superiority attitude is crucial.”