Good Girls and Dutiful Wives: The impact of Protestant femininities on sufferers of anorexia

The very term ‘Protestant femininity' could be considered a misnomer: ‘Protestant’ covers a wide spectrum of traditions; and Christian traditions tend not to theorise over constructed femininities, preferring – particularly those of a more conservative leaning – to understand woman as a stable concept with only one model.  Nonetheless, I argue that there has emerged from the more conservative Protestant churches in Western culture, a construction of ‘ideal femininity’. In my research with Christian women who have suffered from anorexia, it has become apparent that this ideal’s expectations have contributed to their illness.

Two memoirs of eating disorders offer a perspective on the Protestant feminine ideal and its relation to weight and food: Jo Ind writes of her compulsive eating disorder (Fat is a Spiritual Issue) and Emma Scrivener recounts her experience of anorexia (A New Name). Both women express the difficulty they had surrounding their own identity, the expectations of being a ‘good girl’ placed on them by their communities and the shame of their disorders and drive to be perfect. 

The ‘Protestant femininity’ is labelled by Ind as ‘Super Christian’: Super Christian is modest, prayerful, gentle and pure.  She is not ‘sexy’ but dates Christian boys and prays about whether to kiss and hold hands. She wears Laura Ashley dresses and carries a Bible in her handbag.  Ind writes that Super Christian is all those things which she is not!  The ‘good girl’ transforms on her wedding night from modest virgin to sex goddess with the ease of ‘flipping a switch’ (Knauss 2017).  Likewise, Scrivener writes of her struggles envisaging herself into the traditional ‘vicar’s wife’ role of ‘all-feminine, all-fragrant dispenser of wisdom, hospitality and traybakes’.  The ‘Good Girl’ is not only beautiful in a wholesome non-sexy way, but also wise, caring and endlessly moral. She is a ‘good girl’ not only in looks, but also morality.

Ind reports the difficulty she finds in reconciling her ideal Christian femininity with the values of the secular world, describing her religion as ‘shackles’ and her non-Christian friends as ‘liberated’ from pursuit of an unrealistic feminine ideal.  The difficulty of fulfilling these competing demands can weigh heavily on Christian women in Western culture, as evidenced by the participants of my study (Stammers, 2017).

The female body offers a point of convergence for these demands, as Sonya Sharma details in her study of Christian women, church and sexuality. Although Sharma’s participants came from diverse Protestant denominations, all depicted the ‘Good Girl’ image as their tradition’s ideal femininity.  The good girl/bad girl image is underpinned by traditional Mary/Eve or virgin/temptress typologies, suggesting that to be out of control of one’s appetites –  sexual or gastronomic – is equated with sin. Sharma notes three tensions within the good girl/bad girl script in conjunction with secular models of womanhood.  Firstly, tension between the innocence of the Christian femininity and increasingly permissive secular attitudes to sexuality; secondly, contradiction within Christian femininities and masculinities that although young women should be asexual, men face no such demands; and thirdly there is a particular difficulty for women who do not fit the heteronormative model of sexuality offered. These tensions, she claims, can lead young Christian women to struggle with their developing sexual bodies and identities.

It is impossible to offer a definitive list of factors which drive anorexia.  Current understanding is that anorexia is a multi-faceted illness which can best be understood with a bio-psycho-social model.  However, there are certain life experiences or personality traits which are well-documented to have some causal influence in the development of an eating disorder, amongst them, drive for perfection and fear of the developing sexual body in puberty (Jacobi and Fittig, 2010).  It is perhaps unsurprising that models of femininity which require a drive for perfection and demonise sexual identity can unintentionally result in fuelling self-starvation.

No discussion of a Protestant femininity could be complete without referring to the Proverbs 31 woman.  Rachel Held Evans, in her exploration of evangelical models of womanhood in the US Southern States describes the Proverbs 31 woman as "the evangelicals’ Mary – venerated, idealised, glorified to the level of demigoddess, and yet expected to show up in every man’s kitchen at dinnertime".  The woman of Proverbs 31 as packaged in the evangelical churches offers a Christian version of the ‘have it all’ woman, or the ‘supermum’.  The contemporary secular femininity of the ‘supermum’ who ‘has it all’ offers an oft-unattainable ideal, suggesting that women can – even should – have a family, happy home and glittering career, whilst of course still retaining their looks. The image intended to liberate women from the restrictive roles assigned to them becomes an additional shackle as her to-do list increases. Proverbs 31 offers an Ancient Near Eastern depiction of the same model: a woman who feeds and clothes her family, runs her own business, speculates in property, honours her husband at the city gate, is adored by her family, does voluntary work with the poor and burns the candle at both ends.  Unattainable ideals for women to live up to are by no means a solely contemporary phenomenon.  There is, indeed, nothing new under the sun (Eccl 1:9).

In my research I interviewed nine Christian women who were current or former sufferers of anorexia nervosa, five Protestants and four Catholics. Every one of them spoke of the effect that the pressure to live up to such an ideal had on the development and maintenance of their illness. Some could in retrospect point to a clear causal link to their church’s teachings on women.  For others, the influence was more implicit but clearly present.  One participant, ‘Tracy’ (a pseudonym) referred nine times to the pressure she felt came from the church and church teaching to be ‘perfect’ and ‘submit to your husbands’.  She felt particularly uncomfortable with the Mary/Eve typology which, although not so pronounced as in the Roman Catholic tradition, is still clear.  For Tracy, the belief that sin entered the world through the actions of a woman eating proved a stumbling block that she could not overcome.  Such teachings have long-standing in the Christian tradition and can be traced back to the early Church Fathers: Tertullian wrote: "You are the devil’s gateway… Do you not know that you are each an Eve?" and  "Emaciation displeases us not… more easily, it may be, through the strait gate of salvation will slenderer flesh enter".  Held Evans offers a particularly poignant reflection of how such teachings have justified the oppression and subjugation of women in the Christian tradition: "symbolically, the blood of Eve courses through each one of her daughter’s veins.  We are each associated with life; each subject to the impossible expectations and cruel projections of men; each fallen, blamed and misunderstood; and each stubbornly vital for bringing something new – perhaps something better – into this world.  In a sense, Tertullian was right.  We are each an Eve".

It is clear from not only my own research but that of others (e.g. Grenfell, 2006) that conservative models of Christian womanhood have an impact on the development of anorexia in Christian women, although the exact nature of the impact (causal or compounding an existing disorder) requires further exploration.  In Western culture we can trace historical progression of the dual threads of the Christian tradition’s attitude towards women and the secular demands for thinness.  These threads converge on the site of women’s bodies: bodies created for men, and as such, must be moulded to please men.  Edwards writes of eating disorders as a way in which women reject the (male-derived) ideals of femininity.  When Christian women are faced with such demands from two sub-cultures, it should be no surprise that they turn to the ultimate feminine symbol of resistance, the substance over which they have control – food.  Food has acted as a symbol of femininity, nurture, and female resistance throughout history: from the starving saints of the Middle Ages to the suffragette hunger strikers of the 20th century.  In starving herself, the Christian woman takes the passive line of submission, as required by St Paul, whilst nominally conforming to secular beauty ideals.  In conforming to extremes, she passively resists the very expectations she is obeying. 

It would appear then, that there is a requirement for Protestant churches – particularly those at the more liberal end of the spectrum who do not subscribe to such images – to offer an alternative female image which enables Christian women to celebrate their own embodiment.  Jantzen writes of the irony that "women cook actual meals but men preside over Eucharist". LisaIsherwood points out the incongruence between an ethic of starvation and the incarnated fleshly Christ who breaks down barriers and shares food with his friends – male and female.  A model of femininity which uses food and body as a symbol to oppress women: as bringers of sin; as temptresses; as gluttons; is at odds with a true Christian understanding of food as life-giving and transformational. A model of femininity which requires women to feed others but not themselves, to reject their bodily appetites in favour of self-denial and which attempts to restrict women’s creative spirituality cannot be compatible with an incarnated Christ who offers his own body to all – men and women – and who invites all to join him at the Eucharistic table.

Hannah Stammers is a doctoral researcher in the Theology and Religion Department at the University of Birmingham, and a secondary school Religious Studies teacher and school chaplain.  Her current work on spirituality and anorexia nervosa looks at models of Christian femininity and the morality and beauty demands which they place on Christian women. 

References
  • Jo Ind, Fat is a Spiritual Issue (Mowbray, 1993)
  • Emma Scrivener, A New Name: Grace and Healing for Anorexia (Inter Varsity press, 2012)
  • Stefanie Knauss, ‘Let’s Talk about Celibacy! How Western Christian Culture affects the Construction of Sex, Body and Gender in Popular and Scholarly Discourse’ Interdisciplinary Journal for Religion and Transformation (2017)
  • Hannah Stammers, ‘Towards a feminist theology of liberation from anorexia nervosa’ Journal of Academic Perspectives (2017). Accessible online: https://www.journalofacademicperspectives.com/back-issues/volume-2017/volume-2017-no-1/
  • Sonya Sharma, Good Sex: Women talk about Church and Sexuality (Fernwood Publishing, 2012)
  • Jacobi & E. Fittig, ‘Psycho-social risk factors for eating disorders’ in The Oxford Handbook of Eating Disorders, ed. W.S. Agras (OUP, 2010)
  • Rachel Held Evans, A Year of Biblical Womanhood (Nelson Books, 2012)
  • Tertullian’s writings can be found online at http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/tertullian.html
  • Joanne Grenfell, ‘Religion and Eating Disorders: Towards understanding a neglected perspective’ Feminist Theology, no. 14 (2006)
  • Emily Edwards, ‘Are Eating Disorders Feminist? Power, Resistance and the Feminine Ideal’ Quest 4 (2007). Accessible online: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.514.2007&rep=rep1&type=pdf
  • Grace Jantzen, Becoming Divine: Towards a Feminist Philosophy of Religion, (Manchester University Press, 1998)
  • Lisa Isherwood, The Fat Jesus: Feminist Explorations in Boundaries and Transgressions, (Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd, 2008)



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