We continue this series with part 2 of 4 in exploring historical ideals of the body.
To jump forward a good chunk, we are now looking at the time when Christianity becomes the official religion of the Roman Empire.
A lot of different things go on at that time, and one of the things the church started to feel is that, because Christianity had become so prevalent, it began to be absorbed into the culture.
At this time, you see the growth of monasteries and Desert Fathers who withdrew and went and contemplated and meditated out in the desert as part of this desire to not have their faith corrupted by the culture. Out of this grew the aesthetic movement.
From this, we do actually get our first early studies of eating disorders through restricting and fasting taken to extremes. It wasn’t anorexia as we see it today, but, it was certainly restriction for the sake of personal goals.
The church was influenced by both the Gnostic philosophy and the Platonic philosophy. Where Plato said the spiritual world is better than the physical world, the Gnostics went a step further and said, essentially, that the physical world is evil and bad and needed to be rejected at all costs.
A quote by Saint Bartholomew says, “we must inflict our body with all kinds of adversity if we want to deliver it to perfect purity of soul.” People in the culture began to feel that, if the body is evil, I need to control it.
Already, the idea of the body being good in early Christianity is lost, and people began doing things to control the evil of the physical body through behaviors such as self-flagellation, vows of poverty, fasting, abstinence, sleep deprivation, etc.
Even with this belief, Saint Bartholomew did incredibly wonderful things historically, so, as we look at these things, we have to be discerning. You can see how this translates to how faith and religion are practiced today related to the body.
The Puritans are another group that gets a bit of a bad deal. They were certainly overly rigid, and there were times when they did very damaging things. But, I was surprised to find, in my research, that the Puritans believed that spiritual maturity was manifested through the body through dress, speech, eating, and all of life.
In other words, if you are growing and are faithful as a Christian, that will be visible through how you live life. They had this dual view of the body that it was a temple, but it is also broken, so, it can experience illness and desires that are not helpful and sin.
They had a dual view of the body not that there was good and evil battling in it, but, rather, that at the core, the body was good. But, it is broken. They are moving from the idea that spirituality and physicality are dual and saying, “all of life is spiritual, and all of spirituality is life.”
This is important to consider because this looks at the beliefs of the Plymouth community so literally that the people that founded America held these views.
We tend to think of Puritans as very severe and rigid but they really heavily emphasized moderation, in eating, drinking, and virtually all things. Even today, we carry these ideals, for example, with Intuitive Eating.
In this era, there were a lot of health concerns at the time because of how poor health conditions were with poor sanitation, poor medical care, increased urbanization, the Industrial Revolution, etc.
Out of this era came an emphasis on health, the founding of the YMCA, the early days of professional sports.
This time and the emphasis on getting healthy through physical exercise developed into the idea of the “masculine” man who is active and in the wilderness. As such, a lot of our ideas on femininity and masculinity
This era is an Americanized version of the church that basically believes that when we die, we become angels.
Maria Shriver wrote a book 10 to 15 years ago called “What is Heaven?” and she was trying to answer that question because, if I remember correctly, a family member had passed away. So, she wrote a children’s book to help her children understand.
A quote from this book says, “Heaven is a beautiful place where you can sit on soft clouds and talk…When your life is finished here on Earth, God sends angels down to take you to heaven.”
This captures so much of what Americans, for much of the 20th century, believed about heaven and death. They believed that when you die, you lose your body and you become a spirit, a body-less creature that floats around on clouds.
This, essentially, sends the message that the body is not that important and, individuals that are very spiritual, are focusing, then, on spiritual things, heavenly things such as thinking and praying to God all the time.
This leads to the belief, for some, that it is okay to ignore the body, moving further from what the early Christian church said about the body and closer back to the Platonic view. This is very influential in our media and movies.
There is an interesting book titled “Born-Again Bodie” which traces the history of diet culture through the church through the 20th century, and it is fascinating.
Essentially, the belief became that our body and spirit are divided and that we don’t need to make it right.
But, instead, we need to escape our bodies and leave them behind. The body, in this life, becomes unnecessary, something eventually to be left behind.
This is also seen through the Evangelical movements, the view of the body being bad and the appetite being associated with it being bad as well. This results in very strict and rigid sexual, moral, ethics.
This increases a lot of shame and guilt associated with sex. This created a lot of tension with sex, and therefore, the body, specifically women’s bodies as sexual objects.
Virtual Presentation by Travis Stewart, LPC, NCC, MATS is the Director of Marketing & Business Development at McCallum Place Eating Disorder Centers in the December 8, 2018, Eating Disorder Hope Virtual Conference III: Blasting Through Bias: A Deep Dive into Underserved Populations and Global Issues 2018
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About the Author:
Travis Stewart, LPC, NCC, MATS is the Director of Marketing & Business Development at McCallum Place Eating Disorder Centers. He has worked in the field of eating disorders since 2003 in both clinical and marketing roles at every level of care. He brings a unique blend of clinical expertise and communication skills to his role with McCallum Place. He is passionate about connecting people to resources and experiences that are transformative and healing.
Travis graduated from the University of Nebraska in 1991 with a degree in advertising and immediately began working with the international ministry of The Navigators, mentoring students. After 8 years, his desire to better understand how people change and heal led to obtaining a Master of Arts in Counseling (2001) and a Master of Arts in Theological Studies (2003) from Covenant Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri where he now lives with his family. Learn More About Travis Stewart, LPC, NCC, MATS
About the Transcript Editor:
Margot Rittenhouse, MS, NCC, PLPC is a therapist who is passionate about providing mental health support to all in need and has worked with clients with substance abuse issues, eating disorders, domestic violence victims, and offenders, and severely mentally ill youth.
As a freelance writer for Eating Disorder and Addiction Hope and a mentor with MentorConnect, Margot is a passionate eating disorder advocate, committed to de-stigmatizing these illnesses while showing support for those struggling through mentoring, writing, and volunteering. Margot has a Master’s of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Johns Hopkins University.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Published on March 5, 2019.
Reviewed & Approved on March 5, 2019, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com