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Dec 15 2011

Fasting Away To Nothing for an Imaginary Deity

Anorexia is a serious mental illness that wastes your body as it ravages your self-image. Some people find it a display of piety to simply not eat for forty days, mimicking all the mental illnesses that lead anorexics to the same behaviour. This is disturbing, especially when you can see them waste away and their already religiously-degraded mental functions dissipate over time. This video, via Andrew Skegg, is disturbing in exactly that way, especially when viewed in its proper context.

This woman is starving herself repeatedly over three forty-day fasts, engaging in anorexic behaviour by ingesting nothing but a multivitamin and water, breaking the fast with a week of Passover-kosher food then repeating the cycle, all for the purpose of getting in good with a deity that very probably does not exist. And on the chances that it does, it very probably does not care that you have starved yourself for so long out of supplication.

Below the fold. Trigger warning for anorexics.

This is delusional behaviour. By the end of the video, she is emaciated, and has to apply a ton of makeup not to look like a skeleton. She is very lucky that she did not die. If she had started out any skinnier, I strongly suspect she might have. If she had committed this fast in an era where multivitamins didn’t exist, the absence of that particular “cheat” would probably have prevented her from completing her three fasts — she would have almost certainly died.

The entire endeavour reminds me of the classic pigeon superstition study. When you’re faced with a complete absence of answer from the god that you are convinced exists, you develop more and more elaborate dances in hopes that you will please this god and gain infinite rewards. The fast is simply a more elaborate dance than ordinary prayer or giving something up for lent. Through the fast, while your body and faculties waste away, your “relationship” with this nonexistent entity improves only through self-reinforcement mechanisms. It is the Ouroboros prayer function that tricks you into believing that your particular dance must be pleasing God, even as your body deteriorates. And you never get the rewards you expect and believe yourself to deserve, but this slow self-immolation serves as its own reward via your twisted cognitive functions.

Sad. And distressing.

15 comments

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  1. 1
    JT Eberhard

    Thank you for this.

    JT

  2. 2
    Anthony K

    I’ve only a passing familiarity with anorexia, and by that I mean I’ve had a few friends in the past with the disorder, but is it particularly meaningful that this woman is using religious terminology for her delusion?

    In other words, is this a case where religion led to this person having anorexia, or is it a case where a person with anorexia just happens to give religious justification, as opposed to some other?

    She’s clearly hurting, and I’m sad for her; I just wonder if she would not be in a similar situation were she not religious.

    (I figure I shoot at religion enough in my life that this might be a good time to stop and make sure it’s the right target while I reload.)

  3. 3
    Jason Thibeault

    I don’t know, Brownian. I can’t tell either. She could very well have had the same sorts of pathways that anorexics have, triggered by religious motivations, and she’s not even aware that that’s why she started fasting. Or she could have fasted wholly independent of any of those mental triggers. In absence of evidence that she had any sort of bad body image, I would suspect it’s all religiously motivated, but that’s my own bias creeping in.

  4. 4
    RTH

    Given that she’s Jewish, I think the headline is wrong.

  5. 5
    Jason Thibeault

    Probably right, RTH, though I don’t see any specific evidence that she’s Jewish outside of the mention of Passover. Commenters keep referring to Jesus and that quote that askegg put on the front of this compilation video. Could be a sect of Christianity just as easily. I’ve updated the title to be slightly more generic, though the URL slug will have to stay.

  6. 6
    Ibis3, Let's burn some bridges

    There is a long history of this type of behaviour (starving or eating disgusting things as an expression of religious devotion). There was a very influential book on the history of medieval women that was about this very subject. Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women by Carolyn Walker Bynum. I know she discusses the modern (as of 1987) understanding of eating disorders as it pertains to this religious form of anorexia, but it’s been far too long since I read it to recall what she concluded.

    Surely, it’s mental illness, whether the religiosity is causing the fasting or the fasting is being rationalised as religion (as opposed to body image, e.g.).

  7. 7
    Anthony K

    There is a long history of this type of behaviour (starving or eating disgusting things as an expression of religious devotion).

    Well, in the absence of psychotropic drugs, fasting is the easiest way to trigger mystical experiences.

  8. 8
    Erin

    She has kids…she did this to herself IN FRONT of those kids. Not only was she hurting herself, but think of the message she sent to her children. I can guarantee that at least one of those (seven!) children will have an eating disorder, too but as long as the child approaches it the same way she did, she’ll be okay with it. That’s totally irresponsible.

    In all likelihood, religion was the excuse to go through with starving herself. She even mentioned her weight (180lbs)…she wouldn’t have done that if she wasn’t concerned about it.

  9. 9
    Nadine

    Horrifying. Especially since she has kids. She says in a follow up video, she is pregnant with her eighth, and she notes no lasting health issues – but just look at her hair line!!! If that’s what we can SEE, what else did she do to her body? What does she do to her kids??? If not overt messages, what subtle messages does she send??? This makes me so sad.

  10. 10
    WMDKitty -- Survivor

    O.O”

    That’s disturbing.

  11. 11
    JohnnieCanuck

    Somewhere I read that the ancient Church at one point had to specifically forbid people from following the otherwise accepted practice of self-torture, if they were doing it more because of their OCD or other mental disorders, rather than devotion.

    Dead people pay no tithes, I suppose.

  12. 12
    F

    And she records this on video? Disturbing is right.

    Given that she’s Jewish, I think the headline is wrong.

    Unless the headline has changed, I don’t see how. The deity of religious Jews is equally imaginary as the one christians believe in.

  13. 13
    F

    Oh, I see it did, Never mind.

  14. 14
    Jason Thibeault

    Someone in a comment on the Youtube video mentioned that a common practice in this sort of “look how awesome faith is” documentary is to not wear makeup at the beginning, and to start wearing makeup halfway through, as though to prove how much more life and vitality the faith treatment is. I would not be surprised if the makeup thing I mentioned was intentional. She continues wearing makeup in the follow-up videos.

  15. 15
    Granny Weatherwax

    Late to the party, but I VERY much doubt she’s a standard Jew. She’s probably a Sacred Name Christian, or possibly a Messianic Jew (many of whom are born gentiles). She would be eating kosher food because it’s more “pure”, being biblically-commanded. I had a relative, about as Christian as you could get, who ate matzohs during the Pesach season simply because it was in the Bible (he later joined the Seventh Day Adventists, btw).

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