Religion and its role in eating disorders in the Renaissance and today

Cherry Boone was the beautiful, talented, eldest daughter of the famous pop and gospel singer, Pat Boone. She and her three sisters formed The Boones, a pop group of the 1970s, and achieved fame and celebrity status in their own right. While the public saw only glamorous images of fame, fortune, and a happy family on stage together, Cherry herself suffered a hidden hell of anorexia nervosa for many of her performing years and beyond. Theirs was a close knit, loving, and protective family, with a strong commitment to the Church of Christ, and it is Cherry’s religious education which is of interest here. In her biographical account of her struggles with bulimia and anorexia nervosa, Starving for Attention, Cherry does not ascribe any causal link between her illness and the family’s religious beliefs and practices, yet there are sufficient indications in her biography to suggest that religion was a significant factor in both the onset of the condition, and in her eventual recovery. Some of these indications—fear of the devil, sexuality as sinful, an overwhelming sense of guilt, turning to the Bible as source of guidance—are remarkably similar to the experiences of many young Puritan girls in seventeenth-century England, who suffered religious anxiety marked by severe eating disorders (religious anorexia).

Image: St. Catherine of Siena besieged by demons. c 1500. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Image: St. Catherine of Siena besieged by demons. c 1500. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The role of the devil

Perhaps the most fundamental and damaging feature of the Boone family’s religion was the doctrine of fear rooted in an understanding of the devil as an ever-present force for evil at work in human nature. As Cherry tells it:

I can’t count the times that Daddy would negatively respond to my requests to go somewhere or do something beyond our predetermined limits with the statement, “It’s not that we don’t trust you. We just don’t trust the devil and we don’t trust human nature!” As far as I was concerned that meant they didn’t trust me. (17)

Pat and Shirley Boone subscribed to a religious doctrine which believed in the devil as inherent in human nature, and which regarded the Bible as source of all truth. The choice of metaphors used by Cherry to describe her torment reveals how forcefully their daughter absorbed this culture of suspicion of the body:

I still occasionally yielded to the old temptations as they moved against me with a kind of relentless power. . . .When I would relax my vigilance, the “demons” that haunted me would rear their ugly heads and attack at my weakest point. . . . repeated promises to myself and to God, I still could not control this one remaining habit [bulimia]. (94)

Temptations, demons, vigilance, attack, these are all terms commonly found in historical accounts of young women suffering from religious anorexia, starving themselves in a desperate attempts to overcome what they experienced as internal demonic influences, and to live up to expectations of religious virtues. Distinguishing between the body’s natural inclinations (appetite, sexuality), and the subtle influences of the devil was probably the principle cause of the high incidence of religious anxiety in young women in seventeenth century England.

Fear of sexual development

Menstruation came early to Cherry – too early for her to reconcile herself to this change in status: ‘On my eleventh birthday, I had received the “curse” of womanhood. It was for me a truly baffling experience in emotional contradiction—feeling so adult and so hopelessly juvenile at the same time. Physically I was becoming a woman while my parents continued to regard me as a child.’ (17) Again, the choice of term, ‘the curse,’ harks back to the Christian understanding of the pains of menstruation and childbirth as God’s curse imposed on all women as punishment for Eve’s original sin. Most girls from secular families would have been unaware of the biblical link, or have dismissed it as outdated, but that’s unlikely to have been the case for Cherry given her intense religious education. It is a remarkable fact that many of the accounts of religious anorexia from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries seemed to coincide with puberty, or the onset of menarche. For girls from godly households in Puritan England approaching ‘ripeness’, as the time of menarche was popularly called, there were powerful reasons to be apprehensive for both spiritual and physical health. Fourteen (the age commonly used to depict transition to fertility) was considered an extremely vulnerable age, either for the onset of green sickness (a secular form of eating disorder common in the seventeenth century) or for fear of the onset of sexuality and unchaste thoughts and behaviour. For girls educated in religious piety the arrival of menstruation may well have become a fearful sign of the devil’s invasion of the body, not a joyful sign of fertility, but a foretelling of lust and damnation. The Bible does nothing to alleviate such fears, since it uses the biblical symbol of menstruating women to define profanity. The Protestant religion has not been kind to sexual development in girls in the past, but is this still the case today?  Cherry’s early experiences with boyfriends were overwhelmingly guilt-ridden: ‘I felt secretive, deceptive, even tainted by the ongoing involvement. Overwhelming guilt and an undefined fear overtook me. … After this, any sexual involvement beyond the most innocent of kisses produced anxiety and alarm.’ (26).

Guilt as trigger to anxiety

Feelings of guilt feature throughout Starving for Attention, as they do so frequently in historical accounts of religious anorexia. Quite often the path into anorexia seems to be triggered by some sense of guilt over an event in the family. For example, young Sarah Wight (b.1632), brought up in a godly household and aged about 12, committed the sin of lying to her mother about a piece of lost clothing. This triggered a fear of damnation and ‘the beginning of her more violent Temptations’ as she spiraled into self-starvation (Jesse, The Exceeding Riches of Grace . . . in an Empty, Nothing Creature, viz. Mris Sarah Wight 1647). In the case of Sarah Davey (1670s), also brought up in a religious household, when she was only 10 she blamed herself for the death of her baby brother, convinced that it happened because she had not observed the Sabbath, but rather taken care of the younger children. When the following day the baby died, she interpreted this as divine punishment (Davey, Heaven Realized 1670). Cherry Boone’s sense of responsibility as eldest child similarly weighed heavily on her. She writes that her most painful childhood memories were of two accidents which happened to her younger sisters when she was looking after them. She can have been barely more than 6 or 7 herself at the time, and neither accident was serious, but the incidents left her with a deep sense of guilt (5).

The dangers of Bible reading

As members of The Church of Christ, the Boone family were bound to base doctrine and practice on the Bible alone. Cherry’s biblical references are few, but one in particular is of interest; this is where she turns to the Book of Job for comfort: ‘I identified with Job, who said “my only food is sighs, and my groans pour out like water. Whatever I fear comes true, whatever I dread befalls me. For me there is no calm, no peace; my torments banish rest.”’ (Job 3.24-26). Was Cherry making the same error as so many pious girls in previous centuries, for whom the torments of Job clearly resonated with their own experiences of despair and torment? When Sarah Davey was about 15, and in desperate need of guidance, ‘I would fain have related my condition and declared my doubts, but could not do it,’ she writes; instead she turned to the Book of Job which she finds mirrors her own feelings of despair. Similarly, when sixteen-year-old Sarah Wight turned to the Bible for comfort, she found only further condemnation of her state, often citing Job. (7, 11, 9, 12). Another whose misreading of scripture only aggravated her trauma, was Hannah Allen (c1638-), who, later in her life, would attribute much of her despair to her reading: ‘I would wish I had never seen Book, or learned letter; I would say it had been happy for me if I had been born blind’ (Allen, A Narrative of God’s Gracious Dealings 1683, 34, 49, 59.) In her preface she particularly singled out Job as an example of the most tormented soul.

While religion is likely to have been a contributing factor in the onset of Cherry Boone’s anorexia, it also seems to have been a component of her recovery, with her conversion to Catholicism, and with her marriage and birth of a daughter. Her dedication of thanks ‘to God, for His endless grace and His gift of joy’ suggests her faith was instrumental in her recovery. Like Cherry, Sarah Davey’s recovery came through her conversion to a different church, in this case the congregational church known then as Independents. Hannah Allen’s marriage and birth of a child stabilised her for several years, until the loss of her husband when she lapsed back into anorexia. Sarah Wight, having reached the depths of her affliction, finally turned a corner with a religious revelation that she felt God’s mercy on her. She claimed, interestingly, that her ‘uncleannesse’ had been forgiven, possibly inferring the ‘uncleannesse’ of the onset of menstruation. Behind all these published historical accounts of religious anorexia, was a proselytising purpose intended to serve as witnesses to salvation, thus it was true religious faith which put the suffering girl back on the path to recovery. For the many girls who did not survive, their faith may well have failed them.

International research suggests religious faith can play a role in the onset or development of anorexia nervosa, and that it can be either beneficial or detrimental. Recent surveys endorse these findings, suggesting a well-grounded, private faith (intrinsic) may protect against susceptibility to eating disorders, whereas a faith which is contingent upon external observance (extrinsic) may have the opposite effect. The first Australian survey of this kind is to be undertaken in the coming year as part of a collaborative research project on spirituality and eating disorders by the universities of Sydney and of Western Sydney.

If you or anyone you know have been affected by the issues discussed in this article, help or support in Australia is available through The Butterfly Foundation at 1800 ED HOPE / or support@thebutterflyfoundation.org.au.

Dr. Ursula Potter is an Honorary Associate with the Department of English, University of Sydney, researching greensickness and puberty in young girls in early modern drama.

One thought

  1. I found this a fascinating post, Ursula, especially for the cross-temporal similarities you note in the creation of emotional regimes related to scripture and religion. Thanks. Is there a longer version?

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