Sunday, May 26, 2013

Disordered spirituality

What is an eating disorder and what does it have to do with fundamentalist religions?

The hallmarks of eating disorders (EDs) are a heightened fear of gaining weight, overly restrictive attitudes about eating, and/or a sense of lack of control over food. Many times a full-blown eating disorder will start out as mildly "disordered eating." For example, with a rule like no snacking between meals, or a strict diet (e.g., vegan and self-imposed gluten free diets have been associated with eating disorders). But the rules slowly become more expansive in EDs until they become an all-consuming obsession. 

The hallmarks of fundamentalist religions are a heightened fear of disobedience, an overly restrictive system of beliefs, and/or a sense of lack control regarding sin. In my own church, the prime example of this rule/sin-obsession was purity culture. What started out as "don't have sex until you are married" (at my church) quickly morphed into, "don't date, touch, be alone with, etc. the opposite sex. (And for Godssake, don't be gay. That should just go without saying.)" But this happened in other areas too.  In an effort to be "holy," youth were told what they could and could not wear, read, listen to, and who they could hang out with, etc. Kids were encouraged to throw out all their secular music CDs, books, posters, and t-shirts.

[video]

Forgive me for living with toddlers, but it reminds me of that Abby Caddaby song, "Words." Abby sings, "words, words, and more words; how I adore words. Words help me mean just what I say!" Except substitute "rules" for "words." And the last line with "rules are the only thing standing between me and total chaos." 

What are the risks?

With anorexia, you stop listening to your body. Your hunger cues are considered a nuisance or a liability rather than a life-preserving instinct. You no longer trust your ability to eat without exhaustive sets of rules; and rather than helping, the rules start to destroy your body and life. Anorexia is one of the most lethal of the diagnoses in the DSM. With bulimia (or binge/purging subtype of anorexia), you also override the satiety cues. When this happens, you eat until you are full to the point of being so uncomfortable that you may force yourself to vomit.

With fundamentalist religion, you stop listening to your heart. Your own desires and preferences are considered a nuisance or a liability rather than the essence of who you are.  You no longer trust your ability to make decisions for yourself without relying on the exhaustive set of (sometimes very arbitrary or damaging) rules. And while nobody has ever suffered serious physiological consequences from not having sex before marriage (or even dating or being alone with someone of the same sex), or from not listening to secular music, or not being allowed to read Harry Potter, I'd argue these rules are still dangerous. Because when nearly all the decision to do (or not do) things come from outside you, it erodes who you are. And once that happens, it is usually difficult to recover that on your own. It is a process. It is important to realize that when you don't have the choice to say yes (the rules make all the choices!) you also don't have a choice to say no. And that is super messed up.

via Upworthy
Disinhibition

It should be noted that disinhibition (discussed here) is a frequent consequence of the overcontrol that is typified by anorexia  As a matter of fact, this occurs so frequently, anorexia includes a binge/purge subtype. And it is not uncommon for anorexia diagnosis to later be replaced by a bulimia diagnosis as the subtype features becomes the predominant features. 

When disinibition happens in a "purity" context, the results can be horrific. With bulimia, the trigger can be eating some "forbidden food" and the "I blew it" consequence is that you eat beyond what you want to the point that it makes you sick. With purity culture, the trigger could be some forbidden sexual activity (perhaps even against your will, as we discussed in the Elizabeth Smart case), and the consequence is that you figure it doesn't matter; you don't matter. Who cares what happens or what anybody does to you? Engaging in unwanted sexual activity is exponentially more damaging and difficult to recover from (physically and emotionally) than polishing off a whole carton of ice cream in one sitting (and unlike bulimia, this doesn't have to be a recurring thing to be damaging). Unfortunately, these are both prevalent occurrences. Especially when you stress compliance with rules over educated autonomy.

What is the treatment?

Treatment for eating disorders involves two crucial components: one is teaching patients to recognize and respond to their own hunger/satiety cues, and the other is education about what is and is not healthy. This can involve demonstrating how many calories a person needs and what that may look like during the day (e.g., an omelet and a glass of milk, not dry toast and a glass of water. This part can actually be quite frightening to patient, as it breaks so many rules it appears dangerous and against everything they believe in). This can also involve providing information about the consequences of not eating in healthy ways (how it impacts your endocrine and cardiac systems, or how it can effect you psychologically, priming you to obsess over food and perpetuate the unhealthy traits of EDs, etc.)

This same treatment applies to people "recovering from" a fundamentalist upbringing. First you need to learn how to recognize your own interests, desires, and preferences (after years of being taught those things are almost universally bad). And then you need to learn how to act on those interests. Learning how to stand up for yourself and how to deal with the consequence can be huge.

Second, you need some honest education about the real impact of your decisions: everything from disappointing people you love (hint: you'll survive) to deciding for yourself how to handle a relationship (even, gasp, having sex). Many people from fundamentalist backgrounds have been discouraged from making certain decisions for themselves and have been shielded from real, medical-based sex ed (i.e., they have been taught dishonestly, exaggerated consequences of sex and told things like condoms are useless). In reality, all the consequences of premarital sex (disease, unwanted pregnancy, miscommunication) can happen within the confines of a marriage. And the "risks" of premarital sex are actually no longer clinically significant if you wait until you are 17


Maybe it is time fundamentalists reconsider their rule and "purity" obsession. Not unlike the way Christians have reconsidered prohibitions on shellfish or touching the skin of a dead pig. Those activities used to be dangerous. Heck, in some circumstances they still are. I've thrown up oysters on more than one occasion. But just like things have changed since people in the Old Testament ate shellfish, maybe they've also changed since they got married at the age of 15 and died at the age of 40. 

Just imagine for a moment if we trusted people enough to make responsible, informed decisions for themselves? If we educated them and empowered them to think for themselves? would it really result in chaos? or would it be like what Jesus envisioned when he said all the laws of the prophets hang on love
The moral case for sex before marriage: Sexual morality isn't about how long you wait. It's about how you treat yourself and the people you're with.
Is there room for other perspectives in the evangelical conversation against purity culture? You see these posts declaring that those who have sex are NOT damaged goods, and their lives are NOT ruined! They CAN have good marriages and God CAN still use them. Many of them are empowering and refreshing, but they all have to have a disclaimer about how premarital sex is definitely still a sin. Then, more conservative blogs catch wind of these posts and respond with (totally unfounded) accusations that the people writing these posts are advocating that everyone just walk down the streets naked, carrying a box of condoms, ready to get it on with anyone in sight.

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1 comment:

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