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Case Reports
. 1997 Apr;84(2):227-36.

The Imaginative Use of Religious Symbols in Subjective Experiences of Anorexia Nervosa

  • PMID: 9211586
Case Reports

The Imaginative Use of Religious Symbols in Subjective Experiences of Anorexia Nervosa

C G Banks. Psychoanal Rev. .


Clinicians working with contemporary women with anorexia nervosa have commented on the ascetic component in anorexia, meaning their self-denial, heightened morality, opposition between body and spirit, asexuality, and denial of bodily death (Mogul, 1980; Palazzoli, 1978; Rampling, 1985; Sabom, 1985; Turner, 1984). While these clinicians have commented on the asceticism in contemporary anorexia nervosa, they have little to say about the role of culture in subjective experiences of this asceticism. As we have seen, Jane and Margaret used notions of asceticism about food and the body that are a part of their religious beliefs to create a personal meaning system through which they expressed their self-starvation. These cases, while supporting clinical studies that point to an ascetic component in modern anorexia, go further to suggest that in some cases, this asceticism may be encoded in religion. Religious anorectics like Jane and Margaret challenge models of anorexia nervosa that understand the condition exclusively in terms of cultural foci on "dieting" and secular ideals of beauty and bodily thinness for women (Bemporad, Hoffman, & Herzog, 1989; Chernin, 1985; Garner et al., 1980; Orbach, 1986; Rost, Newhaus, & Florian, 1982). They also suggest a continuing persistence into the twentieth century of an association between religiosity and self-starvation noted by historians during the early Christian, medieval, and late-Victorian periods in the West (Bell, 1985; Brown, 1988; Brumberg, 1985, 1988; Bynum, 1987). The above discussion points to the new directions in psychological anthropology which challenge a strict and opposing dichotomy between the conscious and unconscious, between culture (seen as "public") and the individual mind (seen as "private" and idiosyncratic). Obeyesekere's concept of "the work of culture," (Obeyesekere, 1990) and Stephen's concept of the "autonomous imagination" are especially useful in understanding how persons like Jane and Margaret use in imaginative ways cultural symbols, such as notions of asceticism about food and the body that are a part of religion, to give meaning to their personal concerns with growth, separation, and sexuality. We saw how Jane and Margaret transform cultural symbols and language to express their starvation and deep anxieties. These cases lend support to views that culture and religion, as symbolic systems, have underpinnings in deep motivation (Obeyesekere, 1981, 1990; Spiro, 1965, 1987). They also suggest that the relations between culture and the individual mind (and between culture and "illness," between "normal" and "abnormal") must be viewed as a moving continuum, with culture constantly worked and reworked by the individual imagination in innovative and creative ways.

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