On Saturday, Twitter informed the world that, Nikki Grahame, of reality television Big Brother fame, had died at the age of 38. What made this death even more tragic, was that as the story unfolded, it became evident clear that her death was the result of her well documented struggle with Anorexia Nervosa. Not only had she publicly commented on her struggle with the illness, but friends had recently raised £65,000 for her to have private treatment, due to the long waiting lists that many sufferers are face.
Waiting lists for specialist services are at an all-time high, given increased demand. Waiting for up to a year or more, is sadly the norm. Sufferers are often told that their Body Mass Index is not low enough to get help, and so they are almost given an incentive to lose more weight to access vital services.
This is not just another celebrity story, but it is a human story.
For the past year as we have lived through lockdown, we have all read, or heard reports about the need to stay active, the need to try and be ‘healthy’, and the need to watch what we eat and consume. As we ease out of lockdown conversations around ‘losing lockdown weight’ feature in newspaper articles and magazine features. Though this is not a new story. Ever since Kate Moss remarked that ‘nothing tastes as good as skinny feels’, fad diet after fad diet, has entered the popular zeitgeist, and the rise of social media has provided young people with images of ‘the body beautiful’. Resulting in many unhealthy relationships with food, body image, and diet developing and becoming entrenched.
Eating Disorders affect both sexes. It is suggested the 10% of people struggling with an Eating Disorder are men, of which 20% identity as gay or bisexual. Eating Disorders have the highest mortality rates among psychiatric disorders. Of those who survive, only 50% recover, 30% improve and 20% remain chronically ill.
So how should we respond? How does the church respond?
The Church has historically had an interesting relationship with disordered eating. Some scholars suggest that starvation is virtually unknown in Classical Greek or Egyptian cultures, though those familiar with scripture, may call this assumption into question, by referring to the fact that Moses and Elijah fasted for 40 days before receiving divine enlightenment. The Gnostic elements of Early Christianity, saw the emergence of ‘Holy Individuals’. St Jerome being one example, who wrote a student, ’let your companions be women, pale and thin with fasting’. Sadly, the student's sister took this to heart and died from malnutrition aged twenty. By the time we reach the late Middle Ages and Early Renaissance, one scholar suggests there are 261 documented cases of holy fasting, with these women often elevated to sainthood, as their refusal of food was linked to their desire to get closer to God. Whilst during the Reformation, women who were starving themselves, were initially viewed as being possessed by the devil, then viewed as being frauds seeking money and fame, and by the end of the period they were viewed as being mentally ill.
Food is a major theme running through scripture. From the beginning of the Genesis account, we see God telling Adam and Eve not to eat certain food and we can read of the food laws given by Yahweh to his people in Leviticus. There is scarcely a page of the Old Testament where food is not mentioned. Scripturally food is identified as a life force, highlighted by the fact God provided food for the children of Israel as they journeyed through the wilderness. In the person of Jesus, we see a messiah who style himself as ‘The Bread of Life.’ Nourishing not just the body, but the soul, challenging assumption of what it means to be truly fed.
Whilst writing a Master’s thesis on ‘Health Provision for People with Eating Disorders in Northern Ireland and A Theological Response’, I had the immense privilege of interviewing those who had experience of Eating Disorders alongside individuals working in healthcare settings. I asked respondents, what recommendations they would offer to the faith community as it seeks to accompany those within its midst with Eating Disorders. Perhaps their suggestions are as poignant now as they were then.
An Eating Disorder support worker commented:
I think it is important that people offering pastoral support become aware of what the services are in their local area so they can pass this information on. It is best to approach a person in an open manner, helping them to question if they have a problem rather than telling them they have one.
An Eating Disorder advocacy group felt:
It is important that they (the faith community) offer support through patience and understanding to not only the sufferer but also to their family and friends.
Whilst a person in recovery observed:
When I was battling anorexia the greatest problem, I had was the lack of care that my local congregation could provide for me. I watched as people looked me in the eye and simply didn’t know what to say …. I got to the point where I didn’t even want to take communion because I was uncertain about the amount, of calories in the bread … There was just note else to talk too.
If you are struggling, reach out. If you are worried about someone, walk alongside them gently. If you are in recovery, and feel strong enough, become an advocate for more awareness. If you are a church leader reflect on your model of pastoral care. This is real, and is causing lives to end tragically to soon.
BEAT https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk, for usual conversations around eating disorders check out the podcast Full of Beans @thefodpodcast (an evidence based podcast rating awareness through Inspiring conversations with Eating Disorder survivors, researchers, clinicians and charities). Or follow Hope Virgo @HopeVirgo Author, Multi-Award Winning mental health Campaigner, Founder of #DumpTheScales.
Piece by Jonathan Abernethy-Barkely.
Jonathan is a minister and PhD researcher interested in the relevance of faith to childhood sexual abuse.