The Religion of Thinness

Satisfying the Spiritual Hungers behind Women's Obsession with Food and Weight

by Michelle M. Lelwica, Th.D.

From Control to Connection
"The Rituals of Thinness" and
Our Need for Transformation

Excerpt from The Religion of Thinness

Sophia's knee was killing her, but she had at least two more miles to go. It looked as though it was about to snow. She tried to distract herself from the pain and cold by going over the number of calories she had eaten that day. "200 for breakfast," she began. "Not bad for a Saturday morning," she assured herself between breaths. "500 for lunch…or maybe it was closer to 550? And did I include the mints? I'll round it up to 600 just to be safe." Having eaten nearly 800 calories already, Sophia knew she would have to be careful at dinner. That's where she frequently got into "trouble." "At least today is a long-run day," she reminded herself. "800 calories in, 800 burned," she figured, recalling the charts she'd memorized from a fitness magazine. "Now if I can only keep it to 400 calories or less at dinner…." Sophia's thoughts turned to her parents, who were coming to visit. She hadn't seen them since her divorce, and she knew they'd be impressed by her weight loss.

Life is change. One moment slips into the next, and as the tide of time flows onward our lives are altered. Sometimes these shifts take the form of major life passages, like finishing school, losing a loved one, having a baby, or getting married. But change also happens in more ordinary and subtle ways, as our aging bodies attest. Experiencing these shifting tides can be scary, because they make us aware of just how little control we actually have. Rather than go with the flow, many of us try to steer our tiny ship with ever more determination. In an effort to deal with the insecurity, stress, loss, and uncertainty that change so often leaves in its wake, we reach for ways to feel more in control.

One of the most common strategies our culture provides for "taking charge" is to focus on our bodies, particularly through the use of weight-loss rituals, such as: counting calories and carbohydrates, having daily weigh-ins, separating the "good" foods from the "bad," and running the treadmill. The Rituals of Thinness offer ways of coping with life's impermanence. However, our weight-loss rituals do more than just give us a way to feel more on top of things; they also keep us connected to the ultimate purpose of thinness. In the same ways that The Icons of Thinness are the visual reminders, The Rituals of Thinness are the everyday practices through which we recommit ourselves to this goal. The repetition of these pursuits reinforces the message of The Myth of Thinness and plants it deep inside our body, so that its supposed truths feel like second nature and our efforts to reduce our bodies become habitual, even automatic, and, in some cases, compulsory.

As a result, many of us become trapped by the very rituals we perform to free ourselves from feelings of insecurity and distress. Instead of giving us a sense of mastery, our weight-loss disciplines start to master us. If we don't do them, we feel off-kilter. If we don't eat the "right" foods, if we don't exercise "enough," if the scale shows that we weigh more than we think we should, if we don't double-check ourselves in the mirror, our whole life can feel out of balance.

When this happens, our capacity to evolve through change is stifled, and our lives tend to feel stuck or stagnant. Externally we might look cheerful and productive, but inwardly we feel depressed and numb. We find ourselves going through the motions—in relation to food and exercise and in our lives as a whole—instead of actively engaging with the challenges we encounter and using them to learn and grow.

What we really need is not to be in control of our lives but to feel capable of handling whatever situation comes our way. We need a sense of stability amid this endless flux—an inner strength that comes from being grounded. The Rituals of Thinness cannot give us this foundation. They are a ruse.

In this chapter, I explore the connection between The Rituals of Thinness and our desire for control. We will discover how rituals function and have the power to "get under our skin." I will show how our weight-control practices recycle an antiquated view of the body and fuel the war we wage against ourselves. And we will find new ways to practice peace with our bodies through mindfulness.

How Rituals Function and the Needs They Serve

Rituals are symbolic actions performed in a formulaic and repetitious manner that help us move through the big and small changes of our lives by providing a sense of stability. They can be as formal as a traditional wedding ceremony or as ordinary as a handshake. Consider some of the most commonplace rituals in our culture: watching TV sports on Sunday, going to the annual New Year's Eve party, enjoying a cup of coffee in the morning, brushing your teeth before going to bed. Each of these customs guides us through transitions—from weekend to workweek, from one year to the next, from sleeping to waking, and back to sleeping again. Not unlike their more formal religious counterparts, these informal rituals give us a sense of order that allows us to move through—rather than get lost in—the endless changes of our lives.

In religious contexts, rituals have various functions depending on the setting. I want to focus on three common aspects of ritual in many conventional religions that also play an important role in The Religion of Thinness.

1. The repetitious nature of ritual gives participants a predictable course of action to rely on and trains their spirits to stay centered on an ultimate purpose. Religious examples of this are: No matter where they are or what they are doing, devout Muslims take time to pray five times a day, each time preceded by obligatory cleansings that prepare them to give honor to God. Hindus regularly serve the Divine through a practice called puja—devotion to images of beloved deities, which they honor with food, flowers, incense, song, and other symbolic gestures of reverence. Buddhists practice meditation seated in a lotus position, quietly watching their breathing. Jews observe the Sabbath with prayers over candles, challah, and wine. These activities create a reliable, habitual pattern by which devotees can find order in their lives. Participants know when, how, and where to perform them, and this consistency and repetition has a stabilizing effect.

2. The symbolic nature of ritual reflects and reinforces the ultimate purpose that is embraced by the religion and its adherents. Rituals are not just routine actions. They are behaviors that have symbolic meanings, and each time adherents engage in one, they are taking a moment out of their daily lives to remember what is most important. Symbolically, ritual gestures, movements, and recitations recommit those who perform them to their sacred values. Muslims kneel in prayer with their foreheads touching the floor to express their total submission to God. Buddhists sit with an erect and motionless posture to cultivate and express a still but alert presence of mind. Christians who participate in the Eucharist receive the body and blood of their savior (whether metaphorically or mystically) in their own bodies—a gesture that recalls and celebrates the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Eating the communion wafer will not satisfy their bodily hunger, it is a way to nourish them spiritually.

3. The embodied nature of ritual allows the ultimate purpose they symbolize to "get under our skin." Ritual practices are the most physical aspect of religious traditions. By enlisting our senses through corporeal activities—eating, drinking, singing, touching, smelling, bowing, posturing—rituals connect our minds and our bodies, creating a kind of "muscle memory" of the truths they aim to foster. It is the embodied quality of ritual practices that enables them to permeate a very deep level of our being—beyond our conscious awareness—making them highly resistant to change.

When rituals function in a healthy, positive way, these three aspects are extremely empowering. The repetitive, symbolic, embodied nature of ritual gives us a solid foundation on which to build our lives. The predictability of ritual behavior allows us to relax and let go even though we never really know what new circumstances life may bring. The symbolic character of our ritual actions grounds us in the truths we hold dear, which empowers us to deal with difficult situations and feelings. When our ultimate purpose gets under our skin, we can operate confidently from our core values and move forward amidst change with hope and courage.

But ritual can have a destructive side, as well. In fact, the very aspects of ritual that make it so powerful can also corrupt it, turning it into a means for control instead of stability and connection. That is what happens when we practice the rituals of The Religion of Thinness.

The Use of Ritual in The Religion of Thinness

The Religion of Thinness prescribes a set of rituals for its adherents just as all religions do. The activities we are expected to engage in are relatively specific, they happen at regular intervals, and they reflect the three principles outlined above. We may practice one or more of them, depending on the degree and kind of obsession with food and thinness with which we struggle. Our most common Rituals of Thinness include:

  • Counting calories, carbohydrates, and/or fat grams (before, during, and/or after eating)
  • Weighing ourselves on the scale
  • Calculating body fat
  • Measuring waist size
  • Exercising compulsively and to extremes
  • Planning and carrying out a binge
  • Purging
  • Dieting
  • Obsessive eating behaviors
  • Checking ourselves in the mirror
  • Comparing ourselves to culture's idea of a "good" body
  • Berating ourselves when we don't measure up

The problem with these food and body rituals is not their repetitive, symbolic, or embodied qualities—the three features that give traditional religious ritual so much power. The problem is that the ultimate purpose they reinforce is not our true purpose, and the security that thinness promises is an illusion. When eating and exercise patterns are rooted in a commitment to health, rather than an obsession with weight, they enhance our well-being and make us feel grounded. The strength we experience when we feel secure and connected to our inner selves has nothing to do with dress sizes.

When Behaviors become Ritualistic

Any behaviors become ritualistic—mechanical, compulsory, and empty—when we are disconnected from our ultimate purpose. Our prayers can become automatic or even selfish. Meditation can be used as a form of escape. Even everyday rituals can become mindless activities when our hearts are not engaged.

The Rituals of Thinness are particularly prone to becoming ritualistic because they do not reflect our fundamental values in the first place. Instead of promoting our health and recommitting us to the qualities in life that we truly cherish, like love, compassion, courage, and wisdom, they keep our attention fixated on the tenets of The Religion of Thinness.
For most of us, our involvement begins when we engage in seemingly innocent behavior. You may have started counting calories, monitoring your appetite, and exercising regularly in a genuine effort to be more healthy. One young woman describes the well-intended beginnings of her eating disorder:

I was in high school and had several friends who wanted to lose about ten or fifteen pounds—though now that I think of it, none of us were really overweight. We all started dieting and exercising and I was pretty good at it. I started to get hooked on the compliments and gained confidence. Losing weight made me feel in control—for the first time. So I intensified my efforts until it got to the point where if I ate anything that normal people ate—like a sandwich or spaghetti—I'd spent several hours burning off the calories.

Good intentions can blind us from seeing the extent to which our efforts at self-improvement can function as a form of self-destruction—particularly when their primary aim is not peace of mind, body, and spirit, but thinness.

Exercise is a prime example. Various studies suggest that young women exercise more for appearance (i.e., thinness) than for reasons of health.1 One study found that 95 percent of female respondents said their primary motivation for exercising was weight-loss.2 Often, the preoccupation with burning calories removes any potential pleasure or satisfaction that comes from staying fit. For many women, exercise either becomes a burden and they quit or they develop unhealthy compulsions around it. However, when women exercise to improve their fitness, to relieve stress, and even to cope with psychological trauma, it can be a life-affirming way to connect with the body. Popular articles that encourage fitness reinforce the link between exercise and thinness and turn ordinary activities—such as walking—into symbolic rituals that recommit us to The Religion of Thinness. The article from Fitness magazine shown below is a good example of this. Here you are told you can "walk off your weight." That sounds like a very good idea. Even if you don't try the fat-blasting, bun-chiseling, treadmill workout this article recommends, you have to walk sometime. Why not use the process of getting from here to there to serve the ultimate purpose of thinness? However, when we connect an activity as ordinary as walking to this goal, we see the world through a distorted lens and become more deeply tied to the weight-loss mentality.

The slippery slope from healthy to harmful exercise illustrates how difficult it is to recognize the insidious nature of The Rituals of Thinness. Many of us are not aware when our well-meaning effort to "get in shape" turns into a method to "get in control." We may not realize how easily our attempts to eat in a more healthy way can become obsessive patterns of consuming only certain foods or counting every calorie we ingest. It is extremely difficult to recognize that many of our various efforts to monitor, measure, and contain our figures simply reinvest our bodies and spirits in the tenets of The Religion of Thinness.

This religion grips us on a very deep level precisely because we incorporate its myths and ideals into our very flesh through our repetitive actions. Just as religious practitioners engage in rituals sanctioned by their tradition, so we honor and embrace the ultimate purpose of The Religion of Thinness through our body-controlling disciplines. As a result, our weight-control efforts plant the belief that thinness will "save" us—that somehow it will make everything okay—deeply in the soil of our flesh and spirit, making it very difficult to uproot, even when we know, at some level, that it's not true.

What's most insidious about weight-loss rituals is that they distort two of the body's most basic needs: eating and movement. Once you've bought into The Religion of Thinness, it becomes very difficult to engage in—much less enjoy—these natural functions without feeling compelled to use them as an opportunity to further your "progress" on the road to a better body. Eventually, it becomes all but impossible to perform even the most innocent of actions, like eating breakfast or going for a walk, without tying them to the goal of thinness.

Even if you are aware that your exercise and eating patterns are harmful or obsessive, you may not be able to stop them. This is not because there is something wrong with you. Their repetitious, symbolic, and embodied qualities make them extremely compelling, if not compulsory, especially when other areas of your life seem to be spiraling out of control. A woman who began exercising excessively as a way of dealing with her mother's cancer describes the progression of what she called an addiction:

I used to run several miles every evening both to keep my weight down and to unwind from the stress at work. But when I learned of my mother's illness, this healthy habit became an addiction. I not only needed to run every day—missing a day made me feel crazy—but I needed to run farther and farther just to feel okay. Part of me couldn't fathom giving up running any more than I could fathom living without my mother. So I had no interest in stopping.

Our unhealthy rituals may masquerade as their more helpful counterparts, but they not only fail to provide the inner strength we need to handle adversity, they often leave us feeling more desperate than ever to get back in control.