How Patriarchy Gave Me an Eating Disorder, Part 1


1. This title is, of course, hyperbole.

2. My parents didn’t teach or embody patriarchal attitudes. {Not blaming you, mom! Not blaming you, dad!}

3. I might have to add more disclaimers later.

maiden with unicorn--a symbol of chastity

Criticizing fairy tales for being relentlessly patriarchal is well-trod ground, I know. It’s been nearly 20 years since Ani DiFranco first sang:

i am not a pretty girl

that’s not what i do

i ain’t no damsel in distress

and i don’t need to be rescued

so put me down, punk

maybe you’d prefer a maiden fair

isn’t there a kitten stuck up a tree somewhere?

why is the skinny, conventionally pretty Fiona the 'real' Fiona here when she's NOT in the film?

But I didn’t discover Ani until my senior year of high school, the same year that I saw Shrek and realized the power of the anti-fairy tale. Before that, I uncritically absorbed things that I learned in youth group, from Focus on the Family’s Brio magazine, from I Kissed Dating Goodbye, from the stories and tales swapped at Christian camps. So much of these things, these folklorish bits of pseudo-Biblical wisdom, reinforced the fairy-tale narrative:

1. Be pure

You know. Don’t have sex. Better yet, don’t even kiss. And better still, don’t get emotionally involved. Because any of those things might scar you, mar you, soil you for your “future husband.” Even a crush is a potential slippery slope toward some kind of emotional fornication. Or something. In other words, everything that adolescence awakens is fraught with the potential for irreversible self-destruction.

2. Be pretty

Yeah, yeah, yeah, Proverbs 31:30, “beauty is fleeting,” blah, blah, blah in between pictures of wholesome, all-American looking girls and Focus on the Family-approved hair-and-makeup tips and vague references to weight being one of the things a person can control about his/her looks. Not to mention that you should exercise regularly, watch what you eat, and floss, and look for those things in a potential mate. Don’t skimp on the cardio! Your potential mate might be evaluating you!

look how skinny and pretty these people are! look how she's looking UP at him! THIS, THIS here, is what you get IF you're godly enough.

3. Be passive

The book of Ruth? Not actually about a powerful Moabite go-getter of a woman who commits herself to the mother of her loser dead husband and works her a$$ off to make sure they don’t starve in a time and place that was notoriously harsh for women on their own without men. No. It’s about Ruth keeping busy while waiting for Mr. Right to notice her. (Never mind that Ruth goes to Boaz and pretty much proposes marriage to him.) The ‘godly girl’ waits for God to write her love story, which means waiting for some guy to write it.

So then there’s me, 14 or 15 years old, outgrowing my American Girl doll and growing out of my GapKids clothes, realizing I’d never be a ballerina and resisting admitting any crushes on any boys anywhere.

Could I admit to myself (let alone my parents, LET ALONE the boy I had a crush on) that I had a crush?

No. That might be some kinda emotional fornication. Or something. Not pure.

Could I accept the changes in my body as good, as normal, as God-given?

No. I could not. My body was now, in Ani DiFranco’s words again, a

“breakable, takeable body/an ever-increasingly valuable body/…a woman had come in the night to replace me/deface me.”

My body was now a “temptation” to boys, something to be well-hidden, well-covered, well-controlled. Oh, but beautiful. And pure. And passive.

Putting those things together in a culture that’s already pretty well body-obsessed and eating-disordered? Meant that somehow, pleasing God got tied up in my mind with exercising enormous control over my body. Excess/loose flesh signified sin and was certain to displease God and horrify potential suitors. Furthermore, since my whole feminine duty was summed up in “waiting purely & patiently” for life/love/whatever to happen to me, my endless project of self-perfection was, to my mind, righteous rather than self-absorbed.

{More to come tomorrow…}

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28 thoughts on “How Patriarchy Gave Me an Eating Disorder, Part 1

  1. Pingback: Evangelicals and Eating Disorders | Jenny Rae Armstrong

  2. I kept wanting to shout yes! As I read this. Thank you for writing about the standard of “beauty” in evangelical subculture. I look forward to reading more. I wrote a post a while ago called “temples don’t have to be thin.” And its probably my most visited entry ever. Christian women are dying to hear that “letting yourself go” isn’t a sin.

  3. Very powerful. Especially when we struggle as women to be all that God has created us to be. Does that mean passive? The Proverbs 31 women wasn’t exactly. Be pure? Yet… physically pleasing to our husband? It seems there are contradictions that we as fallen people (in our puny brains)…struggle to understand and make sense of. I believe only the Holy Spirit can wrestle with us and reveal our true hearts (both good and bad…pure and unpure) and make us closer to His perfection. The outside world cannot.

  4. It is so good to hear someone of your generation speaking out to the real life brainwashing that is happening to Christian teenagers, both guys and girls! I believe God is ready for a change. Keep writing.

  5. Fascinating and eye-opening–I couldn’t help thinking of my own coming-of-age as I read. I look forward to reading more!

  6. Yes, yes, yes! I can totally identify with this, Rachel. I had an eating disorder while I was at a Christian college, and I can honestly say that all the perfect/passive/pure/etc. messages fueled it.

  7. Great post! So genuine & honest- It’s devastating both mentally and physically having to deal with an eating disorder & it’s so important to seek help.

  8. Thank you so much for writing about this. My eating disorder was really based on my need to control, and it certainly didn’t help that I was starting to absorb with evangelical Christian subculture at the time. As a young unmarried woman, I still struggle with these attitudes to the point where it makes me question most of what I was taught in regard to relationships through church and youth group. Thank you for articulating it so beautifully.

  9. I sometimes think that I am the only christian woman who hated the book”Captivating”and it’s male counterpart “wild at heart”

  10. Pingback: How Patriarchy Gave Me an Eating Disorder, Part 2 « Eat With Joy!

  11. I really appreciate your perspective, Rachel, I always do. I am curious, though, if you’d say that you think these things do have value to some degree? I know you’re working towards telling a whole story, but I think that some of the things you mentioned in a negative way above were actually a positive influence in my own early development. Obviously anything can be taken too far and get off track (which is maybe more your point, and made clear from your story), and when you remove Jesus from the picture things spiral downward quickly, but I’m leery of feeling encouraged to entirely dismiss these things. Be pure, be pretty, be passive to me seem to be simplifications of some positive ideas that are important in shaping our approach to certain areas of life. I guess I am hopeful that you will offer perspective on how these ideas can be presented positively from a more biblical framework. Regardless, I am thankful for your thinking and writing, and looking forward to hearing more of your story.

    • Thanks for reading & commenting, Corrie!
      I hope that neither you nor anyone else feels encouraged to dismiss certain ideas and materials I’ve mentioned here in a negative light. That’s not really my intention. Every book, every idea, can be appropriated by different people in different ways. For me, certain aspects of popular evangelical discourse set in motion a kind of mind-body duelism–a sense that my faith and all things “spiritual” were radically separate from all things “physical.” And that’s not actually very Christian or biblical at all! So I suppose what I’m working toward is a kind of integration–a wholeness–and a practice that’s as much focused on loving God and others more than focused on projects of self-perfection. For me, many of the materials I’ve criticized–I Kissed Dating Goodbye, for example–encouraged an obsession with ‘purity’ that seems to entail a degree of introspection, ‘perfection,’ and a denial of the body that I’m just not convinced God or scripture requires. That’s not to say that I don’t think, for example, that Christian chastity is important. I certainly do. But I guess I’m alarmed when the “don’ts” (esp “don’t have sex!!!”) become the sum total (or nearly so) of living for Jesus as a young person. Hopefully, that makes some sense. And I certainly recognize that others (including, perhaps, you) will have had a very different experience in relation to the same things. Our sensitivities and backgrounds, I suppose, mean that what’s a good and profitable message for one person will be soul-crushing and destructive to another! Meanwhile, I’d welcome hearing more of your story!

  12. Oh, also, I would say that Lauren Winner’s Real Sex and Margaret & Dwight Peterson’s ‘Are You Waiting for the One?’ offer perspectives on love/sex/purity that are more holistic and thoroughly Christian without the shaming/guilt of many resources on these topics!

  13. Very interesting. I relate to these “standards” because I also was exposed to them in my teen years. Slightly different approach though, in that I was taught that “pretty” is totally an inner thing, and that a real, “godly” man would be looking for a woman who had a beautiful inner spirit. This meant that I didn’t wear make-up, wore loose, unfashionable clothes, didn’t exercise, didn’t have a decent haircut/style, didn’t shave my legs, etc. etc. I know I turned off a lot of (actually decent, Christian) guys by presenting myself like this (especially because they, you know, never even saw my “beautiful inner qualities” since I was also passive!). I’m at a completely different place in my life now, but I’d advise young girls: don’t present yourself in an attention-getting way, but DO dress in a way that matches your inner self. If you are a confident, lovely person, then dress that way. Outer looks really do make the first impression, so strive to make them show what’s inside. If you dress in a drab, ugly way, that gives the impression that you’re not a great person to be around! :-) So don’t be afraid of a little make-up, a top that shows you ARE a woman, or a nice haircut!

  14. You nailed it. sadly. 20 years of youth ministry and you are spot on about this really deep problem.

    Thank you for writing about this. -Bo

    p.s. I have an ongoing conversation with Julie Clawson about this and I am hearing about it from a bunch of people. It is on my mind a lot right now.

  15. Pingback: What God doesn’t say and how not to read the Bible

  16. Thank you all for your comments, and for sharing some of your stories with me. I feel blessed to receive them. xo, Rachel

  17. Rachel!

    I am so sorry I took forever to respond to you! I kept meaning to and the days kept slipping by. So yes, many of the things you mentioned were very positive in my early teens.. in fact I had completely written off dating at all by the time I was 14. I felt like the relationships I had had were pointless and already regretted most aspects of them. I was 15 when I met Ian, and at that point I had decided I was not interested in dating unless the Lord really laid it on my heart. At 17 we started ‘courting’ :) defining that as ‘dating with the intentions of marriage.’ I am SO thankful for your book recommendations and will definitely be looking into them. Having met lots of couples at this point in my life, I am realizing that our full story seems to be very unusual, but one that lots of parents put on a pedestal as we were dating through high school (much to the frustration of us and other couples (i.e. the children of those parents)). I am very concerned about pointing my boys to Christ in all aspects of their lives and I’m afraid my perspective on physical relationships and purity is fairly narrow because of my own experience. Even Ian had not dated anyone before me (though not for lack of desire or in effort to remain ‘pure,’ he didn’t become a Christian until later). I am very interested in more holistic perspectives on purity in life in its entirety. The Lord is teaching me so much about His grace and love and THAT is what I want my boys to have confidence in. Jesus, the Gospel, that there is no untouched part of us. I know that my experiences growing up didn’t hit the nail on the head accurately because I still have too many fears in places where there should be security. But so it goes. I’ll do the best I can with these babies I’ve been given.

    Anyway, time to stop. I am so thankful for your thoughtful writing and the time you have taken to engage in conversations. All the best! :)

  18. Pingback: Whining about Writing, Writing about Whining « Eat With Joy!

  19. Hey-

    I am seriously enjoying your blog. Food, senses, beauty, the poor, sacramental living (you haven’t seen Babette’s Feast by any wild chance, have you?)… such interesting stuff. Funny thing: enjoying all this wisdom, I must admit I thought you were much older than what you are. Then I read, “Brio…high school years… I Kissed Dating Goodbye” and I think, “WHAT?! You must not be much older than me!” :)

    I have to say, I appreciate a lot of what the Christian subculture you somewhatly disparagingly refer to has accomplished/ aimed to accomplish, but I am still figuring out the most sustainable, healthy way to live in and not of the world as good children of our Good Father following the risen Christ. People like you help. :) Adelante.

  20. Pingback: Why It Matters Whether a Toy is Thin and Sexy (Or Not) « Rachel Marie Stone

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