HOLY ANOREXIA by Rudolph M. Bell


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A brilliant, disturbing study of anorexic behavior amongst medieval Italian female saints. According to Bell, the demon that spurs self-starvation in women is an ever-elusive ideal: in modern America, ""bodily health, thinness, and self-control""; in medieval Christendom, ""spiritual health, fasting, and self-denial."" In both cases, anorexia represents a woman's ""war against bodily urges"" in a search for autonomy from a suffocating, male-dominated society. Among Italian women saints, 50 percent of whom were anorexic, this rebellion struck at the ""patriarchy that attempts to impose itself between the holy anorexic and her God."" While holy anorexia did little to weaken the patriarchy, it did create a new model of holiness--the ascetic female of absolute self-sacrifice and willpower--an image finally replaced centuries later by the ideal of female saint as do-gooder (Mother Teresa). Bell's psychoanalytical approach, which often pinpoints the partial source of ""saintly"" behavior in childhood traumas, and consequently threatens to undermine conventional ideas of spiritual development, will bother many readers. He builds his case carefully, however, with a abundance of historical documentation. Still more disquieting are some of his anecdotes about popular saints. St. Catherine of Siena, we learn, flogged herself with an iron chain until blood poured from her body; St. Veronica of Guiliani couldn't keep down simple bread and water, but she avidly consumed plates of cat vomit and scoured spider-infested walls with her tongue. An unsettling epilogue by psychologist William Davis examines the implications of Bell's study for modern medical treatment of anorexia nervosa. All in all, an original, controversial, superbly executed shocker in academic garb.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1985
ISBN: 0226042057
Publisher: Univ. of Chicago Press