More Commentary on "Holy Anorexia"

From The London Review of Books, an excerpt from Hillary Mantel's "Some Girls Want Out", an analysis of several Italian "starving saints'" biographies. To read the whole article, go here.

Why is starvation/purging/self-inflicted punishment ever chosen, and how could anyone have ever thought it would make them more holy? Is it not possible, that without an accurate view of God (revealed to us through His Word, the Bible), the deception of one's mind can rationalize anything?

Gemma Galgani's deathbed

"....Anorexia nervosa is said to be a modern epidemic. If you skimmed the press in any one week it would be hard to see what is perceived as more threatening to society: the flabby, rolling mass of couch-potato kids, or their teenage sisters with thighs like gnawed chicken-bones, sunken cheeks and putrid breath. Are we threatened by flesh or its opposite? Though the temporarily thin find it easy to preach against the fat, we are much more interested by anorexia than by obesity. We all understand self-indulgence but are afraid that self-denial might be beyond us. We are fascinated by anyone who will embrace it – especially if there’s no money in it for them.

Bell emphasises in his introduction that what Gemma experienced was ‘holy anorexia’ and that it is different from anorexia nervosa. But what may strike the reader of a secular orientation is how similar they are. Starvation, as Bell shows in Holy Anorexia, was not an extension of convent practice, but a defiance of it. A fast is a controlled penitential practice. Most nuns fasted to keep the rule: the anorexics fasted to break it. Most nuns fasted to conform to their community: the starvation artists aimed to be extraordinary, exemplary. The secular slimming diet is also conformist and self-limiting. Dieting is culturally approved, associative behaviour, almost ritualistic. Restaurants adapt their menus to the Dr Atkins faddists; in a thousand church halls every week, less fashionable dieters discuss their ‘points’ and ‘sins’, their little liberties and their permitted lapses. Diets are prescriptive, like convent fasts – so much of this, so little of that. The anorexic, holy or otherwise, makes her own laws. Every normal diet ends when the dieter’s will fails, or the ‘target weight’ is reached, at which point the dieter will celebrate, the deprived body will take its revenge, and the whole cycle will begin again – next Monday, or next Lent. Diets are meant to fail, fasts to end in a feast day. Anorexia succeeds, and ends in death more frequently than any other psychiatric disorder.

Should we be comfortable in regarding it as a psychiatric disorder? Is it not a social construct? If the fashion industry were responsible for modern anorexia, it would be true that we are dealing with a very different condition from holy anorexia. But the phenomenon of starving girls predates any kind of fashion industry. In The Disease of Virgins: Green Sickness, Chlorosis and the Problems of Puberty, Helen King has amassed a huge number of references to a disease entity that was recognised from classical times to the 1920s. Greensick virgins went about looking moony, and didn’t menstruate, possibly because they didn’t weigh enough; in all eras, food refusal was part of the condition. The cure was a good seeing to – within marriage, of course. The snag was that men weren’t keen to marry women of unproven fertility. They must show, by bleeding, how worthy they were. If green-sickness was a protest against fate, it was a horribly conflicted and fraught protest. The cloister is the logical destination for those who protest too much. But in or out of the nunnery, how much should a good girl bleed? Should she settle for the natural orifice, or bleed from novelty ones – palms, eyes?

Sometimes the starving saints broke their fasts, were found at midnight raiding the convent larder. How did their communities accommodate this embarrassment? They simply said that, while Sister X snoozed celestially in her cell, the devil assumed her form and shape, tucked his tail under a habit, crept downstairs and ate all the pies. Starvation can be, must be, sustained by pride. (Emphasis mine). Sîan Busby’s book ‘A Wonderful Little Girl’ introduces us to this pride in a secular context. In 1869, a 12-year-old called Sarah Jacob starved to death in a Welsh farmhouse, under the eye of doctors and nurses who were watching her around the clock. Sarah had been a sickly little girl whose parents didn’t want to force food on her. She became a local phenomenon; visitors came to look at her not eating, and left useful donations. It is likely she was fed, minimally and secretly, by her siblings. But when the medical vigil began, this source of supply was cut off, and Sarah was too polite to say she needed anything – even water. Politely, proudly and quietly, she slipped away while the doctors and nurses watched.

It is a grim story of social hypocrisy, deprivation and bone-headed stupidity, but it is also a shadowy story with a meaning that is difficult to penetrate. This is true of the whole phenomenon of anorexia. The anorexics are always, you feel, politely losing the game. When the fashionable and enviable shape was stick-thin, a sly duplicity was at work. One girl, considered photogenic, could earn a living from thinness; another girl, with the same famine proportions but less poster-appeal, would be a suitable case for treatment. The deciding factor seemed to be economic: could she earn a living by anorexia? If so, make her a cover girl; if not, hospitalise her. The case is now altered. The ideal body is attainable only by plastic surgery. The ideal woman has the earning powers of a CEO, breasts like an inflatable doll, no hips at all and the tidy, hairless labia of an unviolated six-year-old. The world gets harder and harder. There’s no pleasing it. No wonder some girls want out.

The young women who survive anorexia do not like themselves. Their memoirs burn with self-hatred, expressed in terms which often seem anachronistic. In My Hungry Hell, Kate Chisholm says: ‘Pride is the besetting sin of the anorexic: pride in her self-denial, in her thin body, in her superiority.’[*] (emphasis mine). Survivors are reluctant to admit that anorexia, which in the end leads to invalidity and death, is along the way a path of pleasure and power: it is the power that confers pleasure, however freakish and fragile the gratification may seem. When you are isolated, back to the social wall, control over your own ingestion and excretion is all you have left; this is why professional torturers make sure to remove it. Why would women feel so hounded, when feminism is a done deal? Think about it. What are the choices on offer? First, the promise of equality was extended to educated professional women. You can be like men, occupy the same positions, earn the same salary. Then equal opportunities were extended to uneducated girls; you, too, can get drunk, and fight in the streets on pay-night. You’ll fit in childcare somehow, around the practice of constant self-assertion – a practice now as obligatory as self-abasement used to be. Self-assertion means acting; it means denying your nature; it means embracing superficiality and coarseness. Girls may not be girls; they may be gross and sexually primed, like adolescent boys.

Not every young woman wants to take the world up on this offer. It is possible that there is a certain personality structure which has always been problematical for women, and which is as difficult to live with today as it ever was – a type which is withdrawn, thoughtful, reserved, self-contained and judgmental, naturally more cerebral than emotional. Adolescence is difficult for such people; peer-pressure and hormonal disruption whips them into forced emotion, sends them spinning like that Victorian toy called a whipping-top. Suddenly self-containment becomes difficult. Emotions become labile. Why do some children cut themselves, stud themselves and arrange for bodily modifications that turn passers-by sick in the streets, while others merely dwindle quietly? Is it a class issue? Is it to do with educational level? The subject is complex and intractable. The cutters have chosen a form of display that even the great secular hysterics of the 19th century would have found unsubtle, while the starvers defy all the ingenuities of modern medicine; the bulimics borrow the tricks of both, and are perhaps the true heirs of those spider-swallowers. Anorexia itself seems like mad behaviour, but I don’t think it is madness. It is a way of shrinking back, of reserving, preserving the self, fighting free of sexual and emotional entanglements. It says, like Christ, ‘noli me tangere.’ Touch me not and take yourself off. For a year or two, it may be a valid strategy; to be greensick, to be out of the game; to die just a little; to nourish the inner being while starving the outer being; to buy time. Most anorexics do recover, after all: somehow, and despite the violence visited on them in the name of therapy, the physical and psychological invasion, they recover, fatten, compromise. Anorexia can be an accommodation, a strategy for survival. In Holy Anorexia, Bell remarks how often, once recovered, notorious starvers became leaders of their communities, serene young mothers superior who were noticeably wise and moderate in setting the rules for their own convents. Such career opportunities are not available these days. I don’t think holy anorexia is very different from secular anorexia. I wish it were. It ought to be possible to live and thrive, without conforming, complying, giving in, but also without imitating a man, even Christ: it should be possible to live without constant falsification. It should be possible for a woman to live – without feeling that she is starving on the doorstep of plenty – as light, remarkable, strong and free. As an evolved fish: in her element, and without scales."


  1. Hi Marie,

    I tried to find an email address or a way to contact you privately. I found you over on the "watchman's bagpipes" in the interesting discussion of Beth Moore. I don't want to appear insensitive and say I have no interest in reading this blog. I intend to return and follow up with your blogs as I find it very fascinating. However, I am focused on learning about false teachings.

    I noticed in your profile that you are an interpreter. Are you an interpreter for the deaf? This is of particular interest to me because I am deaf.

    Hope to hear from you...you can contact me privately at cuemommy (at) gmail (dot com).

    Thanks and God Bless
    Julie Ann

  2. Hi Julie Ann,

    I have added you to my e-mail address book and would be happy to hear from you any time! My e-mail is marie4thtimemom@yahoo.com.

    No, I am not an ASL interpreter; I am a Bulgarian<=>English medical and courtroom interpreter in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

    Thank you for the comments on my blog. The previous entry sparked quite a debate over at my other blog, "Musings from a Theo-Geek". Glenn is an excellent apologist, and his writing about Beth Moore's false teachings is spot-on.

    Nice to "meet" you!


Thanks for visiting! Please leave me a message, share your testimony, or feel free to ask questions. Anonymous comments are welcome. Or e-mail me privately at marie4thtimemom@yahoo.com.