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Starving for healthier theology


She wasn’t looking for a future in theology, but when she found it, Michelle Lelwica realized, “theology is a powerful discourse.” And at times a painful one.

Lelwica, director of the Women’s Studies Program at St. Mary’s College, Moraga, Calif., and assistant professor of religious studies, comes from rural Minnesota. There “the faith was so central” in her upbringing and daily life, she grew up thinking the entire world was Catholic, and that Catholicism itself was pretty close to perfection.

That view was undone, and her development as a feminist accelerated when, as a student at the St. Benedict’s College for women in St. Joseph, Minn., her professor handed her Rosemary Radford Ruether’s Faith and Fratricide.

“It shocked me,” she said. “I’d had a pretty sheltered and traditional Catholic upbringing. This was my first introduction to the darker side of what Christianity had done to human beings, the non-flattering aspects nobody had told me about. I was incredibly alarmed.”

She decided she needed “to sort out, for lack of a better way of putting it, the more liberating and humanizing aspects of Christianity versus the more oppressive and de-humanizing aspects.” She did a project on the anti-Jewish underpinnings of Christianity and, by the time she went off to Harvard for graduate study, was hooked on theology.

At Harvard, she said, “I came to feminism through the back door of my own recovery from an eating disorder.” And, by the time she’d finished a master’s program in Christianity and culture, she was struck by some correspondences.

“I’d started realizing the parallels between some of my feminist understandings -- in particular the destruction I had caused my body -- and what feminists were critiquing in traditional theology: namely the misogynistic and anti-body messages women had received.”

What Lelwica felt she’d recognized as she moved into doctoral work were “all kinds of theological ideas and beliefs and paradigms very subtly present in the sociological influences on women’s struggles with their bodies.” Starving for Salvation is her dissertation.

One critique she has of the Catholic church, therefore, is its failure “to challenge societal norms such as, for example, the idea of thinness being supremely valued. I mean Christianity began as a religion that was very critical of the dominant social norms and the dominant social hierarchies, even the dominant gender expectations of Jesus’ day.”

Not surprisingly, when Lelwica broached her dissertation topic, reaction included suggestions she’d be better off pursing it through studying medicine or psychology.

“I insisted that I wanted to understand the way theology contributed to this problem,” she said. “Nobody had talked about it, and yet the readings I had done in feminist theology and conversations I had with other women who’d gone through similar struggles with their bodies and food convinced me there was a connection. So, I was lucky to find support from some kind non-traditional theologians I was working with -- Margaret Miles, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Gordon Kaufman -- who could think more broadly about what religion is, not just in terms of church doctrine or the Trinity or something like that.

“I mean,” she said, “if we look at the gospel, Jesus is constantly sitting down and eating with his friends. It’s so ironic Christianity picked up such an anti-body attitude.

“If we look at the stories in our own tradition, they’re very affirming of what we call earthly things. You know, Jesus is accused of being a drunkard and a glutton. It’s clear he wasn’t. It’s clear, he was enjoying himself, and this was part of the tradition,” she said. “The more earthy and more material and physical realities were not seen as interfering with one’s progress to God. That’s very much the Greek influence, unfortunately.”

So, apart from hearing the West’s thinness fixation denounced from the pulpit, what would she have the Catholic church do?

Catholicism, she replies, has a tradition of emphasizing the incarnation and sacramentality -- blending physical and spiritual realities. Let the church examine the issues, let it preach on and challenge these blatantly sexist ideals. Let the parish promote workshops and support groups on these issues as parishes do in other social areas.

A Lelwica workshop topic would be, “making peace with your own flesh,” she said. “It’s funny, I’m doing some work now and I’ve come across this in Paul: ‘As long as we are at home in the body we are never at home in the Lord.’ ”

Lelwica then used Paul as a lever to bring her material closer to the surface.

“OK, just take that phrase. My young undergraduate women wouldn’t necessarily put it that way,” said Lelwica, “but they can’t just be at peace with their bodies -- because then they’ll become fat. And if they become fat, then not only are they unattractive but there’s also the idea that there’s something almost immoral about it. That they lack self-control. They lack virtue.”

At one point in her book, Lelwica writes, “Girls and women who choose starving, binging and/or purging as a means for exercising authority must be seen against a backdrop of society that continues to restrict their access to public voice and power.”

Asked what she is getting at, Lelwica replied, “women often don’t feel like they have a lot of opportunities to really change the world.”

Does she feel men do?

“I think men tend to assume that they have that option to become someone who can really make a difference in the world. I can’t speak for men, but I think publicly we’re set up that way. Just read the newspaper,” she said, “and you’ll know that most of the stories are by and or about men. Men making the news. Women in the newspaper? They’re adverting bras and lingerie. Not always, of course. That’s a gross generalization. But, to the point,” said Lelwica.

“I think when a woman feels she’s not going to make a difference in the world she turns to an area where she can make a difference. And that is her own body. She can exercise some control over her own body.”

But the cultural norm for the body over which she exercises control is thinness, “and that’s what’s so insidious about it. It’s a false vanity because it colludes completely with the social expectations that are diminishing her,” she said.

Asked about reaction to Starving for Salvation since it was published in 1999, Lelwica said one critic said she had over-generalized Christianity.

“I wish I had been more nuanced. In the last chapter I talk about ways that I see that Christianity is also part of the solution, particularly if we take more alternative forms of Christianity.

“It’s something I should have highlighted more consistently,” she said. “There are plenty of examples of Jesus’ own interactions with women breaking social norms. I’m not going to rewrite the book, but in my next book I’ll be a little bit more careful about pointing out both sides of Christianity.”

The word salvation in the book’s title, she said, comes from the “ ‘otherworldliness’ built into the mentality of dieting. Instead of waiting to get to heaven, we’re waiting until we lose 10 pounds. Then our life will really begin. Then everything will be really great. This is exactly what girls and women talk about: I really feel if I could just lose 10 pounds, my life would be so much better. Everything would be great. All my problems would fall away.”

Of course the problems don’t fall away, said Lelwica.

“Yet this otherworldly way of thinking takes us out of the present moment. Takes us out of what we’re really experiencing. Certainly takes us out of our bodies.”

Lelwica, with her husband, Bobby Angotti, teaches a class on the spirituality of the body.

Angotti is an aikido teacher and acupuncturist. (Aikido is a Japanese martial art that emphasizes harmony of mind and body.) In class, he introduces students to aikido, then Lelwica leads the discussion on texts that look at the role of the body in religious practice.

“And how central it is,” she said, “everything from Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind on Zen meditation, to the Desert Fathers and Catherine of Siena. They look at how the body is not just an obstacle to but also a vehicle for spiritual growth.” She added, however, that asceticism is a form of body spirituality she would advocate.

Since the interview with NCR, Lelwica has gone through another body experience: Anthony Thaddeus was born to Lelwica and Angotti Oct. 9. The new arrival will no doubt provoke and promote yet more wondering about the body and salvation.

‘Feeling profoundly empty’
Michelle Mary Lelwica has a theological take on eating disorders, a group of maladies generally left to psychology, sociology and medicine.

In Starving for Salvation: the Spiritual Dimensions of Eating Problems among American Girls and Women (Oxford University Press, 1999) she writes of the “body-hatred” that afflicts millions of Americans “as the misogynistic and anti-body legacies of a patriarchal religion that have left many women feeling profoundly empty.”

Catholicism isn’t the worst culprit when it comes to encouraging believers to accommodate to dominant social norms and gender expectations, she says. Evangelical Christianity has jumped on the thin-is-ideal bandwagon with books such as More of Jesus, Less of Me and God’s Answer to Fat. Lose it.

Contends Lelwica, Catholicism’s faults rest where Catholicism’s mysogynism furthers in those who develop eating problems, “this emptiness that they carry in their bodies, feeding it, starving it, vomiting it up.”

Lelwica, who once struggled with an eating disorder herself, explores religious legacies she believes seriously malnourish women’s creative spirits. She says that understanding women’s struggles with food and their bodies requires an understanding also of how these struggles function as precarious solutions to a crisis of meaning in one’s life, as symbolic attempts to fill a void.

National Catholic Reporter, February 16, 2001