Starving For Purity
Starving is a cleaning method, and food is unpristine. Food, in my head, is associated with the disgusting (vomit, feces, fat) and the shameful (lack of control, overindulgence, weight gain). These associations were in my head before my first flirtations with pro-eating disorder forums. It has always been this way in my subconscious: bones are delicate, desirable, clean. Fat and flesh are not.
I know it’s not true. To eat means to live — the dead don’t eat, they only decay — but it’s easy to find that even people who aren’t sick the way I am think the same things. I have seen them categorizing food into the acceptable and unacceptable. I have heard so much about “clean eating,” which makes me think other forms of eating are somehow dirty. I’ve come across detoxes and cleanses and flushes, all of which involve eating nothing.
None of these things are intended to promote sickness, and do most likely have health benefits for people with the appropriate biology. But the way lack of food and starvation is associated with purity, control, something to admire, makes me wonder. It isn’t just us in modern-day industrial countries, where we live comfortably enough to give any thought into our diet. This isn’t about weight loss and the rise of the impossible “perfect” body. This isn’t one sick girl’s condemnation of society.
The best examples are in religion, where starvation and holiness are so closely connected. Anorexia mirabilis, or “holy anorexia,” is the crowning trait of so many saints and other figures in Christianity — Jesus himself had said that “Man shall not live by bread alone” (Gospel of Matthew 4:4). Ramadan requires fasting during the holiest month of the Islamic calendar. Siddhartha Gautama fasted, and up to the very brink of death, in his search for enlightenment. Denying the body of its most crucial, base necessity makes us feel detached from our flesh, something humanity across many time periods and many cultures have sought. Starving makes us feel spiritually, and not just physically, pristine.
Perhaps that’s why we relate food and purity, even those of us who are young or not religious or have never had body image issues: a friend of mine stops mid-chew with an embarrassed look when someone points out — usually fondly, but it doesn’t matter to her — that she eats “well.” Another friend makes joke after self-deprecating joke about the quantity of food she can eat in one sitting. A girl the next table over at a restaurant with a boy takes tiny forkfuls and swallows slowly, sipping water between bites. A boy in my class, hurt, says he doesn’t eat that much in comparison to his friends when someone tells him, sarcastically, that he’s “incredible.” We feel ashamed when we visibly enjoy food, consume a large amount — whatever the standard for large is — or have the either pointed out.
Without a doubt, there is a societal pressure when it comes to something that keeps us alive. It isn’t why people develop eating disorders, nor is it the sole reason fasting is a norm in so many religions. Desiring mind over matter manifests in a multitude of ways, but the pervasiveness and depth of which shame and food go hand in hand in our mainstream culture is something worth reconsidering. Mind, regardless of its purity, cannot exist without even a filthy body as its temple.