On Fasting and Feminism by Ivy Helman

headshotOn July 16th, I fasted for Tisha b’Av, when Jews commemorate the destructions of the temples in Jerusalem among other events.  On July 23rd I attended, as a member of GLILA, iftar, hosted by the Tolerance and Dialogue Student Association of UMass Lowell.  Iftar is the traditional nightly break-fast dinner during the month of Ramadan.  On Saturday, July 27th, I read in the Boston Globe an obituary of a sixteen-year-old girl who lost her battle with anorexia nervosa.  That small paragraph obituary gave me pause.  I have literally spent this last month steeped in mine or my friends’ religious practices of fasting.  That young woman spent much of her last years of her life fasting to the point of death.   How does a religious feminist respond?

Religious fasts regularly praise the virtues of self-denial and self-sacrifice.  Abstention from food is thought to be spiritually purifying.  The theology of fasting frequently seeks to humble the adherent in which the practitioner seeks to garner favor or be seen as worthy in the eyes of the divine.  Fasting, especially in Christianity, also separates body and mind.

From the denial of embodiment to the problematic nature of self-sacrifice, feminists have long spoken out against these theologies.  Yet, the feminist movement has used hunger strikes, a form of fasting, in protest for decades.  In May and June of 1982, seven women went on a hunger strike in Illinois’ capital building in an attempt to persuade Illinois to ratify the ERA, Equal Rights Amendment.  During the suffrage movement, women imprisoned in the Occoquan Workhouse went on a hunger strike as well.  They said of themselves, “All the officers here know we are making this hunger strike that women fighting for liberty may be considered political prisoners; weempty broken plate have told them. God knows we don’t want other women ever to have to do this over again.”  On July 24th, everydayfeminism.com urged feminists to support and the hunger strike of Californian inmates seeking rights including adequate and nutritious food, restrictions on the use of solitary confinement, the end of group punishments and more.

Feminism has also drawn attention to the objectification of women and girls and the ways in which this translates into eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia.  Do religious ideals of fasting as a form of self-control and taming the body feed right into this societal obsession?  Perhaps.  Do religious practices harm those who suffer with eating disorders because they so often tout control over one’s body and praise the spiritual efficaciousness of abstention from food?  Probably.  While the intention of fasting would obviously not be the same for the religious or feminist fast as it would be for those suffering from eating disorders, religious language about fasting and the feminist use of the fast for political reasons muddies the waters around an outright position against mindful starvation by making food denial a virtuous form of solidarity, self-control and/or spiritual enlightenment.

How do we at the intersection of religion and feminism compassionately address eating disorders?  We start with a responsibility to examine our religious’ traditions, language and theology around fasting as it relates to eating disorders.  We would be hypocritical if we told a young person to eat while we turned around and praised the virtues of fasting.

Bbuddhauddhism has an insightful teaching.  There is a story about Prince Siddhattha Gotama before he became the Buddha that has stuck with me as richly insightful in addressing this difficult intersection of religious fasting, feminism and eating disorders.  This story was told at the Iftar I attended by Rev. Ryouh Faulconer, a Buddhist missionary of the Nichiren Shu tradition.  Rev. Faulconer explained that Buddhism doesn’t really have fasting practices although it has many rituals involving food and it could be because of an experience in the Buddha’s life before he became enlightened.  (This is how I remember the story.)

Prince Siddhattha joined a group of forest monks who were attempting to control their desires.  In an effort to control his desire for food, he would eat only one grain of rice and drink the drop of dew off of one leaf every day.  At one point in their journeys, the monks came to a river, Siddhattha fell in and was too weak to save himself because of his restricted food intake.  After a woman rescued him and brought him ashore, she gave him a bowl of rice and milk to eat. rice Sitting there, shaken and wet, the Prince realized that his own starvation practices made him so weak he could do little all day.  What help was he to humans and the alleviation of suffering if he did not have the strength to save himself?  From that point forward, he decided to no longer fast and ate the generous gift of rice and milk.  His fellow monks were astonished that he had broken the fast and left him.

The Prince’s actions sound very much like the fasting practices of those with anorexia nervosa and his spiritual response to the physical weakness it caused was to look at his responsibility to care for the world.  This is a religious teaching about fasting that does not extol it as a virtue but cautions one about going to extremes.  It also praises compassion, action and self-care.  As feminists, we need more religious stories about fasting like this one.  Does your tradition have one you would like to share?

Ivy A. Helman, Ph. D.: A feminist scholar currently on the faculty at Boston College teaching in its Perspectives Program and an Adjunct Lecturer at Merrimack College.  Her most recent publications include:  “Queer Systems: The Benefits of a More Systematic Approach to Queer Theology,” in CrossCurrents (March 2011) and Women and the Vatican: An Exploration of Official Documents(2012).

Categories: Body, Food, General, Spirituality

Tags: , , ,

14 replies

  1. Brilliant analysis and questions.

    Thinking about your question, I refer to the Greek Orthodox fasting customs during lent. It seems to me that there are 2 good reasons for abstaining from meat during the 40 days of lent.

    One, is that the lambs have been born and they deserve 40 days of fun and frolic in the hills before many of them will be killed for the Easter feast. For agricultural peoples killing young males and some young females is an integral part of the cycle of domestication of animals. (We can consider whether this should ever have happened at another time.) If some are not killed the whole herd would eat all the grass and die in summer. This however is a reason for not eating sheep and goats. The extension of the prohibition to all animal flesh may be rooted in the kind of life and body-denying asceticism feminists rightly challenge.

    Second, my meditations on Easter rituals as a time to “purge” pity and fear (see my blog tomorrow), have made me aware that many spring rituals have to do with clearing out the old to make room for the new. If spring cleaning also applies to the body and soul, then perhaps it is appropriate to abstain from certain kinds of foods for periods of time health reasons–if heath is in fact improved. In this case one is not starving oneself, but eating other foods, particularly vegetables.

    However, in Orthodoxy there are also ascetic traditions to do with fasting based on denial of the body. Can we separate the two?

    While I have appreciated studies of “holy anorexia” of medieval nuns, I have often felt that authors are too quick to “explain” and “explain away” and to claim these women as spiritual role models, while glossing over the pathological denial of the body involved in their life choices.

    Your example of the story of Buddha is important. Perhaps our criteria should be whether practices of “restraint” from food or foods harm the health of the body or promote it.

    But this of course gets us into theological matters. Is life good and “meant” to be enjoyed? Or are human beings “meant” to reject the pleasures of the body and to “ascend” to higher realms? Feminist critiques of body-denying fasting are generally based in immanental theological assumptions revolving around the assertion that the earth and the body are our true homes.


    • Perhaps, one way to think of a fast from an earth-centered perspective could be in imitation of the earth’s cycles of abundance (summer/fall) and scarcity (winter/spring).


  2. Interesting and much needed consideration of the double ax of ritualized self-denial as well as the consequence of this when taken too far even without ritual. Your thoughtfulness is thus much applauded and indeed well needed.

    I would, however, consider the collapsing of every ritual fast into the one purpose: learning self constraint a bit of an oversight.

    Actually, Islam has an emphasis on moderation and care for the poor, that is included in intention and purpose of the fast. That is why we fast for 30 days, but break the fast at sunset each evening.

    It is not about self denial, for indeed we have no notion of this within the tradition at all. No virtue is given to the mere restraint if it does not embody some transformation that benefits those beyond ourselves. You see, we have the option to observe restraint from food combined with the celebration of iftar, or fast breaking, at the end of each day’s observation–for every one of those 30 days.

    However, what ever hunger we may feel SHOULD put us in mind of those who go hungry with no options regarding food consumption. Thus we are meant to grow in Compassion. In a way this is the opposite of self denial as it embraces the Other with the self to create and sustain balance.

    but thanks, for your intention was inclusive…


    • Does that reminder of the poor and hungry translate into increased giving of food and monetary donations to food pantries and the like during Ramadan? Also, I imagine that if you are someone who only has the resources to eat once a day if at all and has the feelings of constant hunger, that would affect the significance of Ramadan, would it not?


      • As a matter of fact it does and there have been some wonderful photos this year: from a massive South African tent with pots on open flames cooking all night long in ready to feed the poor in the morning; to the Chisti Dargah in Ajmer, India, where they have to walk up stone stairway just to stir the enormous pot which they use nightly to provide a vegan meal for thousands of people, especially at fast breaking time every night.. to the simple me: I was not able to fast after the first week due to some surgery, so the Qur’an gives me the option to feed 60 people. My neighbor told me the Engineering College just next to our apartment complex feeds hundreds every evening. So he arranged for my donation to be transformed into payment towards one of those meals.

        On a final note, I meant also to add: since this was about self-negation and the female body.. only women have as many “reasons” not to fast, for menstruation, child birth, nursing a well as for all the other exemplifications that are not gender specific like medical procedures, diabetes, mental health.
        I’m just saying self-denial is not part of our tradition, Learning restraint and feeling for the less fortunate is. But fasting in Islam is not a gender specific practice, so it cannot be said to apply in the way you wisely caution us to think out such rituals.

        Also it is not one meal a day (except for people who like to sleep in, like teenagers) We have two meals a day: the pre-dawn meal called suhur before the first prayer of the day and then iftar at sunset after the fourth prayer of the day. In some parts of the world Muslims just reverse the order of their affairs and hang out all night eating then sleep more during the day. but this is NOT the custom here in Asia and I much prefer it the way its done here, which is also the custom in the west where Islam is the minority. We maintain our daily schedule as before except for the TIMES for eating and drinking.


      • I am glad Amina Wadud mentioned a VEGAN charity meal. Because, unless you are vegan, fasting will not have a positive effect on the poor of the world. If you eat meat, you are using the poor’s land to grow cattle feed and their resources to raise cattle instead of growing food to feed humans directly. Watch “Food Security” and “Environment” videos here http://www.vegansociety.com/resources/making-the-connection.aspx
        This is a problem with patriarchal religions: The All-Knowing God controls everything, so the followers do not have to revise religious laws in view of new evidence, such as the fact that meat industry is the largest contributor to global warming at the moment.
        Also, as a vegan, I cannot connect the annual slaughter of lambs at the end of The Sacred Month of Ramadan with a benevolent spiritual worldview.


  3. “The theology of fasting frequently seeks to humble the adherent in which the practitioner seeks to garner favor or be seen as worthy in the eyes of the divine. Fasting, especially in Christianity, also separates body and mind.”

    Along with Amina, I was thinking about other reasons for fasting too.

    You touch on the following 3 reasons, which are not the same.

    1) To prove humility as obedience to a higher power who decrees fasting for some known or unknown reason.
    2) To garner favor from a higher power in an exchange: I show you the depth of my concern or need by fasting, now please listen to and answer my prayer.
    3) To moderate, conquer or subdue, or rise above the desires of the flesh.

    1) comes from a theology based on hierarchical power and obedience to it.
    2) is a more relational understanding in which divinities and people negotiate with each other.
    3) may take 2 forms. a) would be to teach restraint and moderation in relation to desires of the body, while the goal of b) may be to deny, eradicate, or extinguish the needs of the body and the body itself.

    From my feminist perspective:

    1) is problematic if God is viewed as dominating male other.
    2) may or may not be problematic, I have come to appreciate its relational character in rural Greece.
    3) a) seems logical, depending on context;
    3) b) is antithetical of immanental or body and life affirming theologies.


  4. I started to comment from my Catholic feminist perspective, but it grew into a post of its own.

    In addition to the concerns you raise about extreme fasting and anorexia, I think that it can be difficult for people in our society to fast religiously, without slipping into a self-improvement mindset: “Oh, I need to lose 5 or 10 pounds: I’ll do that during Lent.” Often, that’s not actually religious fasting: it’s going on a diet, camouflaged as a religious practice.


  5. Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I’m honored gaudetetheology that your response turned into a separate blog posting. I’ll be sure to read it!

    I touch on a few reasons why people fast and I don’t think that I have collapsed all fasting to just self-restraint. Perhaps, it came off that way. Carol summarized a few of the reasons I gave. I would also like to point out that spiritual purity (close to Amina Wadud’s concept of transformation in her comment) is another rational, one of many that my Muslim friends have explained to me.

    Carol, thank you for summarizing the feminist critiques of fasting practices. I wish I could put everything I wanted in a blog but there is just not enough space. Comments are useful for those much needed additions!


  6. Great Post and very timely as have been looking into fasting traditions. I have been fasting 2 days a week for about 3 months now – maybe a little longer. It is not for religious or traditional reasons – so I can speak from a secular position. I read some very interesting material and watched a health program where they studied those that fasted as a way of life and as part of their faith, and westerners who lived a pretty good lifestyle and healthy diet who ate 3 meals a day and snacked in between. Two men took part in the initial study – they were both in their late forties and both looked fit and healthy. THey did full medicals on both and the tests showed that the man who fasted for 3 full days a month had no risk of diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol – among other things. In contrast the man who ate what we would call a ‘normal’ diet had a high risk of all of these diseases.

    The kidneys and liver produce enzymes to break down food, the liver helps regulate insulin, so if we are constantly eating, snacking between meals our liver and other organs never get a break from producing all of these enzymes – they then go into overdrive and insulins and other enzymes do not get broken down as they should and sent through the body and show up in the blood as high cholestorel etc. So the westerner fasted for 3 days. He was allowed water, one cup of soup and a cup of tea. He underwent the same medical tests and all of the levels of insulin and enzymes had disappeared….dieticians are now discovering so many health benefits for fasting. But in our busy lives 3 days a months is too hard for most. So they did extensive testing and found that if you fasted for 2 days a week, limited to 500 calories, so this means one meal a day – whatever you choose, as much water as you like and a cup of tea or 2 (i drink green tea). The westerner did this for 1 month and underwent all the medical tests yet again and his risk of all the diseases mentioned and more had actually gone to a 0%.

    They thought at first that people would over eat the next day and eat the wrong foods, but they were proven wrong, in fact they found that most people would only consume about another 100 calories and not go for junk food. They then looked at primitive diets and cultures that still live in this manner – hunting for their food etc and found that their calories are very limited and they would only eat one large meal a day – because all was reliant on hunting and gathering.

    So I started doing it for health reasons. It was about the fourth week in on a Wednesday night – I choose to have a salad with an egg at lunch time, it was about 7pm and I felt this amazing opening of my mind. It’s so hard to explain. I felt connected, a sense of clarity washed over me and I felt like I was floating. I wasn’t hungry at all. And then it occured to me that while my intention was not spiritual, I had in fact had a spiritual experience of some sort from fasting. I stopped thinking about food all the time, and what I was going to eat next…Im often wondering what I’m going to have for dinner at breakfast time!! My mind and body had room for other information other than digesting food and thinking about food. I also find that the next morning I am not hungry…my body starts using the fat I have stored as energy so as a result weight is also regulated. Indeed I felt amazing for the strength of will power and self-denial and I most certainly thought of those who suffer by hunger.

    We only need to to look at the prevalence of disease and the nature of the western diet to see that our relationship to food is not healthy. Yes we are abundant – but to the point of excess. Here in Australia the rates of diabetes, high cholesterol and heart disease are alarming – diabetes in children is out of control….food just seems to be the only thing on every one’s mind.


  7. I am positive that fasting, when prescribed as obligatory by a religion, is an anti-woman practice. Although one can say that it is not gender specific because both men and women fast, in reality, it is like saying that the right to breastfeed in public is non-gender specific, because it is not denied to men. Only women breastfeed. And men do not have menstrual cycle. Fasting will surely disrupt a woman’ menstrual cycle: when fasting is obligatory, women lose opportunity to listen to the bodies and respond to various stages of the menstrual cycle appropriately. We might need more food during our Virgin (post-bleeding) phase. We might not want much food at all during the Crone (bleeding) phase. Or not. Or something completely different. Each woman is unique.

    It is different of course, if a woman chooses to fast for her own reasons, in her own time, in a particular relation to her menstrual cycle.


    • Surely this depends on how fasting is construed and implemented? In the Roman Catholic church, regulations for fasting are:

      When fasting, a person is permitted to eat one full meal. Two smaller meals may also be taken, but not to equal a full meal.

      And there are only two obligatory fast days in the year, six weeks apart, at the beginning and end of Lent.

      After learning about the fasting practices in Islam and Judaism, I’ve sometimes felt as if the Catholic version of the discipline was hardly worth the name. But your comment makes me realize that it does allow a lot of freedom for a person to listen to her body and fast in a way that is spiritually fruitful without being physically harsh.


      • Yeah, absolutely – this is what I meant by my very last sentence in the comment: as long as a woman has freedom to define what exactly she is fasting for, and if there is freedom to respond to her body needs, then there is a way to reconcile feminism and religious fasting. Menstrual cycle is a spiritual asset for a woman if she is left to work with it on her own terms. Menstrual cycle is a way of humiliating, suppressing and controlling a woman if she is denied connection to it.



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