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By Erin Hemme Froslie, Published January 25 2003

Starving for salvation: Struggle with body image a spiritual battle for women

An adolescent Michelle Lelwica, a straight-A student and cheerleader, stood in front of the mirror and saw fat.

Already thin by medical standards, she was consumed with the desire to be skinny. A struggle with anorexia and bulimia followed.

She took wanting to be thin to an extreme, but Lelwica, who is now a religion professor at Concordia College, knows her experience wasn't isolated.

In her book, "Starving for Salvation" (Oxford University Press), she notes that almost two-thirds of adult women surveyed report that one of their greatest fears is becoming fat. Approximately the same percentage of high school girls monitor what they eat.

"A lot of women who don't have an eating disorder identify with the mentality of those who do. They recognize the measures they take to stay thin and how it defines who they are," Lelwica says.

Through research and analysis, Lelwica has determined that women's struggles with their bodies is as much a spiritual challenge as a physical one.

She believes that weight loss and dieting function like a secular religion, with its own images, institutions and rituals. For American women and girls, dieting is more than trying to create an ideal body, Lelwica says. It's a worldview that feeds off spiritual hunger.

She will teach the class "Do You Think I'm Fat? Body Hatred as Spiritual Crisis and Social Disease" for F/M Communiversity in February.

"If you ask women what they care about most, they'll say God or their family or something along those lines," she says.

"But if you look at what many of them spend their time doing and thinking about -- it's trying to get this perfect body."

A troubled relationship between food and body isn't new for women in the Judeo-Christian traditions. In Genesis, the myth of Eve describes a woman's disobedient appetite and how it leads to the fall of humanity.

In medieval Christianity, the refusal or inability to eat played a role in women's piety. For example, Catherine of Siena, who lived in the 14th century, reportedly existed on the Eucharist alone and stuck twigs down her throat to induce vomiting, Lelwica writes in her book. It was a way to become one with Christ's suffering, to become holy.

Today, nutritionists estimate Americans spend about $50 billion a year on weight loss, including low-calorie foods and beverages. That's 20 times more money that the United Nations spends for humanitarian needs annually.

The relationship between women, religion and food continues in today's culture, including the language we use, Lelwica says.

Foods are assigned moral values: There are good foods and bad foods. If a woman eats too many bad foods, she pays penance by hitting the gym or running more miles.

Weight-loss programs often write their own creeds. In an article Lelwica wrote for "Religion and Pop Culture in America," she includes a creed from a weight-loss program called "Happy Losers" that is modeled after Psalm 23: "The diet is within me, I shall not cheat; It leadeth me to choose the legal food whenever I have the urge to eat."

Also, weight loss has its own icons -- the tall, slim models who fill magazine advertisements.

Like early icons of saints, these women portray the ideal for which women are to strive, Lelwica says. Unlike medieval Christians, consumers of pop culture are less sophisticated in reading the icons.

"Early Christians knew the images would have impact. They looked for a message," she says. "Today we don't realize those images have a message and that's where they receive their greatest power -- from our lack of awareness."

The reason women struggle with food and their bodies is more than just trying to be thin. They hunger for meaning and well-being -- what theologians refer to as salvation, Lelwica writes.

At some level, many women believe that if only their thighs were a bit thinner, they would be more in control of their lives. They believe good health equals a thin, sculpted body.

"The sad part is how much physical and mental energy we expend trying to look good on the outside," Lelwica says. "That energy could go toward so many other areas that would benefit from women's input."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Erin Hemme Froslie at (701) 241-5534