The XX Factor

“I Prayed Myself Slim”

The New York Times reported this week on the apparently growing problem of eating disorders among young women in Orthodox Jewish communities. Some of the struggles depicted, such as rigorous rules about feasting and fasting, are specific to the Orthodox. But just as many reminded me of issues faced by another devout religious group: evangelical Christians. A concern with modesty? Check. The expectation of chastity until marriage? Check. Women who battle “the enormous pressure they feel to marry young and immediately start families, and the challenges of balancing professional careers with the imperative to be consummate homemakers”? Check, check, check.

Unlike Orthodox Jews, Christians have long embraced American diet culture, often under the guise of the verse in 1 Corinthians that calls the body “a temple of the Holy Spirit.” The latest God-wants-to-help-you-lose-weight phenomenon is evangelical author and speaker Lysa TerKeurst’s   Made To Crave: Satisfying Your Deepest Desire With God, Not Food . Released in December by evangelical publisher Zondervan, Made To Crave is currently No. 1 on Amazon’s “Theology” list, and No. 13 on the New York Times ’ paperback advice best-seller list. Early titles in this genre included I Prayed Myself Slim (1960), Devotions for Dieters (1967), More of Jesus, Less of Me (1976), Help Lord … The Devil Wants Me Fat! (1977), Slim for Him (1978), and Free To Be Thin (1979), the last of which sold 1.4 million copies. The 1980s brought Christian-branded exercise programs including Believercise, Cross Training (get it?), Jehobics, Faithfully Fit, and Praise Aerobics. (For a fascinating overview of this phenomenon, check out scholar R. Marie Griffith’s 2004 book Born Again Bodies .)

Aside from the pressure to attract a good Christian husband, there’s also the notion that a slim, healthy body is a better lure to nonbelievers than an overweight one. As Mab Graff Hoover, a sort of Christian Erma Bombeck, put it in “God Even Likes My Pantry” (1983), God wants “us aware that sloppy fat, hanging all over the place (or even well girdled) is not a good Christian witness.”

Some much-publicized recent research has suggested a connection between religion and obesity. But food and faith have a complicated relationship. A 2009 study published in the journal Eating and Weight Disorders , for example, found that Christian young people may be more prone to eating disorders than their peers. The authors interviewed more than 300 undergraduates about their eating habits, religious affiliation, and “religious angst” (negative feelings, like doubt and anxiety, surrounding faith). They found that Catholic and Protestant students “displayed significantly more disordered eating than did other students.” The Times cites a 1996 study of an Orthodox high school that found an eating disorder rate 50 percent higher than the general population’s.

As in Orthodox enclaves, various evangelical groups have founded several openly religious clinics to treat young believers with eating disorders. A. David Wall, the director of psychological services at what is probably the country’s leading Christian-based treatment center, Remuda Ranch, developed a clinical questionnaire that measures spiritual needs and determines modes of treatment based on the results. One question asks clients what they would feel if Jesus were to suddenly appear on earth, to determine the level of shame and judgment they are experiencing.

For Christian clients, Wall uses a variety of spiritually attuned counseling tools, including prayer in therapy sessions. If a girl struggles with her relationship with her father, Wall might ask her to rewrite the parable of the prodigal son, replacing the loving patriarch (who in the Bible story symbolizes God) with her own father to illustrate the idea that God does not treat us like a judgmental “earthly” father might. Wall’s emphasis is on love, patience, and kindness, and in breaking down the idea that God demands perfection of his followers. “Anorexics in general are vulnerable,” he told me, “but Christianity misunderstood can make that worse.”