I have spent years trying to pick apart in my mind the moment when it all started, the moment when my relationship to my body and food became twisted and broken. Perhaps if I could pinpoint one or two concrete reasons why my eating disorder began, I’ve always thought, I could find a quick and easy recipe for becoming healthy and whole. Perhaps if I could simply identify the symptoms, I could apply the right cure and set this issue to rest. But disordered eating isn’t a headache or a broken arm; it is the result of a complex web of biology, experience, and culture. And, I am convinced, it can only be healed by confronting and befriending the deep spiritual wounds that this unhealthy relationship reveals.
The big question, of course, is how to confront and befriend my eating disorder, how to bring my brokenness “to the light.” One thing is clear: I am not going to simply think my way out of this problem. Understanding and transformation will begin once I can tell my story. The only way out is through, as Parker Palmer so wisely teaches in his book Let Your Life Speak. And if I am to tell my story, it must involve Quakerism—both its theology and its community.
I grew up in a very caring and supportive Quaker community, and I rarely, if ever, spoke openly to that community about my struggle around body image and food, even—especially—when it was at its worst. For the most part, I think I was fairly resigned to keeping both parts of my life separate. Throughout my adolescence, I never heard anyone in my meeting or the larger Quaker world even mention the subject. But recently, as I’ve become increasingly ready to confront my relationship with food, I began to wonder: What do Quakers have to say about the spirituality of eating and the body? And could it be of any service to me as I finally begin to confront this problem?
I searched publications for anything on the topic of Quakers, food, and eating, and found very little. Yes, I found information about Quakers and the ethics of food, but I could find next to nothing about the topic of disordered eating and the body, aside from a short article titled “My Spiritual Life, with Food” by a California Friend named Barbara Birch (FJ May 2012).
But how could this be? Quakerism in the United States is a religion composed primarily of white, middle- to upper-class families. Historically, disordered eating has been an illness of this very population. Could Quakers possibly have sidestepped this issue altogether through their strong theology and practice? This seems unlikely. Are we such a self-selecting group that somehow we avoided this particularly unpleasant and uncomfortable disease? Also unlikely. How could the issue of eating disorders have received such little attention?
Perhaps the reason why we do not talk about this issue is the very same reason why I never spoke with my Quaker community about my relationship with food: We have yet to reconcile our Quaker faith with an increasingly disembodied culture.
So where to begin? My story seems like a safe place to start (well, safe for the reader, a little scary for me). Sharing my story will hopefully begin to reveal the meaning behind our silence on this issue.
Let me be clear: I am not blaming the Quaker religion for my eating disorder. As I’ve said, the disease is much too complicated to administer blame to any one particular person or community. Instead, I intend to expose some of the consequences of our theology and culture, and call upon our communities to grow; change; and, potentially, provide tools for helping others heal their own relationships with food.
I may never find the moment when my negative relationship with food began, but I will always remember my family’s tradition of attending meeting for worship every week at Radnor (Pa.) Meeting. The meeting was filled with white, middle-class families and eccentric, older men and women who kept things interesting. I remember running around the nearby creek and climbing the giant cedar tree outside the meetingroom window. The panes of glass were old and warped, and every Sunday morning the light would filter through them in a melancholy, holy way.
But our Quaker life was not perfect. Despite external appearances, my family was in a nearly constant state of turmoil, and our excursions to meeting each week represented an opportunity to be whole again. My parents didn’t agree on very much, but Quakerism held them together. They had met at a Quaker meeting in New York City, where they eventually married, complete with a dry reception and a square dance. Quakerism was the foundation of our family and of my very existence.
Meeting became a place of solace but not necessarily one of authenticity. Being there was a time when we didn’t have to talk about our own struggles, a time when we were closest to whole. My parents sat together on the facing bench, worshiping in silence next to one another, but as far as I know they never discussed the issues they were having at home with anyone before or after worship.
Because eating food was such a nonevent at Radnor Meeting, aside from the monthly fellowship meals and weekly snacks, my relationship to food developed primarily at home, and only took on a life of its own during puberty. I had gained a good deal of weight from sixth to ninth grades, certainly more than I wanted. My Quaker community would always support me, of course, but the world was beginning to turn against my body. I began to hate my body, too.
This hatred, however, was learned. My mother also hated her body, a body that her parents had shamed when she was a girl. My mother’s body is curvy, womanly—unacceptable according to my grandparents, two ambitious doctors who confused success with thinness and control, a confusion that is deeply embedded in our American culture.
As a result, my mother developed her own conflicted relationship with eating and food, harboring intense feelings of guilt whenever she ate anything aside from fruit or hard-boiled eggs. She would often go an entire day without food, and then sit on the couch for hours after work snacking on Doritos and popsicles. She was always dieting, and she often commented on her dissatisfaction with her shape.
Despite the fact that my mother never commented on my body or how much I ate, her hatred for her curves translated into my own resentment of my excess weight. Aside from this inherited shame, I also faced the cruelty of children at camp and school, and the media was there to remind me again and again that my appearance was unacceptable.
Sobbing on my couch during the summer I turned 15, I vividly remember telling my mother through my tears how much I hated my body. She seemed concerned, but offered little in the way of encouraging words. How could she have known what to say? She had never learned to love and accept her body, let alone heard that kind of language as a young person. She also grew up Quaker, but, as she says, eating, food, and the body were issues that just “didn’t come up.”
As far as I can remember, no one at my Quaker meeting talked about body image or food, either. I was never encouraged to love my physical existence, either as a young woman or as a human being. No one said a thing to me about sexism or the fashion industry. In fact, no one ever spoke about the complications of being a woman in modern society. It was largely assumed that all Quaker women were natural born feminists, above the temptations of the material world and certainly above any pressures to look thin or attractive.
In my interview with Maggie O’Neill, a Quaker in Virginia who has facilitated workshops titled “Honoring That of Goddess Within,” she noted the importance of providing young Quaker women with opportunities to accept their bodies. She said that many of the young women she worked with during these workshops were struggling around issues of body and food, and her workshops, which she facilitated over the course of five years, provided one of the few opportunities for an open conversation. Young women were given tools for loving their bodies, including a community of young women who support one another throughout the challenges of their journeys to adulthood.
Unfortunately, I was never exposed to such a conversation or supportive community in my Quaker-saturated childhood. That issue was left at home with the broken parts of ourselves. My parents would often argue about my mother’s unhealthy eating habits, my father taking on the role of my grandparents, shaming her for her nightly binges on the couch and offering very little in the way of emotional support.
He did, however, provide her with books about food and dieting. One Christmas he bought her a book titled The Philosopher’s Diet: How to Lose Weight and Change the World, a present she likely resented. During the summer after ninth grade, I picked up the book, which was sitting on the shelf next to my mother’s red reading chair, and learned the two key ingredients to weight loss: eat less, exercise more. If you follow this simple recipe, the author explained, you will lose weight. It was very simple.
Finally, I had an answer, a solution to the only problem in my life I had any control over. I adopted this new food philosophy and stuck to it almost religiously. I started eating little to nothing for breakfast and lunch, and would return home to a fairly normal dinner, typically prepared and eaten alone.
We ate together as a family on Sunday nights. Arguments, usually between my father and my brother or mother, inevitably erupted at the dinner table, almost like clockwork. And, like clockwork, I would put myself at the center of nearly every fight, desperately trying to maintain some kind of peace. Food and the body came to represent the mess of our family, an emotional cyclone that was easier avoided altogether.
Quakerism and spirituality, on the other hand, came to represent a safe haven for me from the complications of relationships, family, and the pressures of school. Divine union, something I had experienced around this time during worship one Sunday, was my only saving grace.
This kind of division between the body and the spirit is, of course, not uncommon, particularly among young women. Female Catholic saints throughout history have refused food to the point of death, fasting as proof of their spiritual dedication, and thereby dividing the earthly body (a body theologically associated with carnal sin) from a spiritual aspiration for union with the Divine.
In fact, this division has even been present within the history of Quakerism. The only book I could find about the connection between Quakerism and eating was published in 1969: A Suppressed Cry: Life and Death of a Quaker Daughter by Victoria Glendinning. Through letters and historical research, Glendinning tells the story of Winnie, a young Quaker woman during the Victorian period who died at the age of 20 from a host of psychosomatic illnesses, including anorexia and asthma. It is not clear why her symptoms developed—many of the documents that might give some clue have been suspiciously destroyed—but Glendinning surmises that it was connected to a love affair that received disapproval from Winnie’s family and an upbringing that denied any earthly, bodily pleasures.
In the book, Glendinning quotes heavily from Winnie’s letters, many of which were addressed to her best friend. Most of these letters are not particularly interesting; she refrains from nearly any authentic emotional sharing, aside from gratitude and self-effacement. She longed to be perfectly self-effacing, perfectly grateful, even if it was to lead to her own destruction.
I similarly faced an inability to individuate as an adolescent. I was the “good girl,” the quiet amid the storm, and I didn’t dare make too much trouble. Rebelling from Quakerism would have been nearly impossible even if I’d tried—my life was so thoroughly soaked in an all-accepting Quaker community that there wasn’t anything to rebel against. It was also the one place where I didn’t have to think of my personal failings, including my eating disorder. I would refrain from eating the plentiful spread after worship each Sunday (perhaps its own kind of rebellion), but for the most part, my body could be blissfully ignored. I could remain a child, desperately clinging to the false wholeness that Quakerism represented while maintaining a level of spiritual purity so cherished by Quakers’ mystical theology.
As my weight continued to plummet, my family began to notice and express concern in the form of desperate pleas. I had used my refusal of food as a means of distancing myself from my family while simultaneously demanding their attention. Once that attention became too overwhelming, I decided to maintain a certain weight to avoid being hospitalized, but hold tightly this newfound control over my body. Over the next decade, I was to use food and my body as a means of both distancing myself from my family and maintaining close control over a life that felt barely mine.
Did my Quaker community notice my weight loss, I’ve wondered?
I decided to speak with a young woman I grew up with at Radnor Meeting who also struggles with issues of food and weight. She had noticed that I was losing weight, she told me, and she remembers that a few adults were concerned. But she also remembers that those older people around her didn’t want to say anything for fear of upsetting my family or me. Many of them didn’t know if this was, in fact, positive weight loss. (I had been overweight, after all, and our culture typically praises those who manage to find some control over their bodies.) The result was that no one said anything, at least not to me.
I don’t feel upset at people’s silence; I would have been mortified and upset if anyone had said anything at the time. Perhaps, however, that is precisely what I wanted—some attention from a community that I felt loved me but didn’t see me. Quakerism had supported me in my childhood, but seemed unable or unwilling to acknowledge that I might become a real person with my own emotional and spiritual challenges.
My community also had no language for talking about issues of the body and food. Participation in Quakerism is often understood as committee work, education, intellectual conversations, and gentle connections over coffee on Sunday. There’s very little time to take care of our bodies. Theologically, we are taught not to trust or value external forms (and, by extension, our bodies); to sit silently and quietly for some kind of spiritual revelation (keeping our bodies under control); and to live simply, denying pleasure unless in small, liberally sanctified doses.
In many ways, I think my inability to come to terms with food and eating over the years is intimately connected to my inability to discuss it openly in a Quaker context. It has kept me distant from a religion and a spirituality that I have never deemed relevant to the unique challenge of me or my generation—one of reconnecting to our bodies and the earth. While I recognize that Quakerism is not the cause of my eating disorder as much as is white, middle- and upper-class culture, I also recognize that it could be part of the solution. By confronting Quakers’ relationship to food and the body (and lack thereof), I hope we can begin to create a more authentic spiritual community, one that helps us on our journey toward wholeness, while acknowledging and respecting these earthly vessels.