On 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; we 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.
Buddhism 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. 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).