A hunger artist

How can self-destruction be explained? What rationalisation can we put on something as brutal and seemingly-voluntary as starving yourself? Bishop Martin Shaw attempts to constrain the extreme asceticism of radical and mystic Simone Weil within religious terms:

Some would say that Simone had an obsessive/compulsive personality that led to the eating disorder: anorexia nervosa. Whether neurotic or anorexic, such labels come nowhere near a true understanding of this refined soul who dared to face the darkest of human circumstances and there find the Light of Christ.

Simone WeilIt’s not an eating disorder if you do it for God, apparently. Shaw’s distinction feels unfair, as though he has to wrangle Weil free from the anorexics, with their reputed vanity and girlish lack of substance. But saying that Weil couldn’t have been an anorexic because she was too serious simply feeds the romance of anorexia and the valourising of self-harm.

In fact, the language used by Shaw’s interviewee to explain Weil’s transcendent not-eating was easily reconcilable with the self-justification of anorexics: Sara Maitland (not included in the transcript) described Weil as being concerned with bodily purity. Well, quite. Out of all the complicated physiological and social causes of anorexia, I’d argue that this sort of celebration of the frail heroine is probably more dangerous than any number of size zeroes on the catwalk. Even a mystic can be sick, but for supposed-critics to echo that sickness and turn a horror of consumption and flesh into a devout experience – that’s just stupid.

Related: Paperhouse reads: Wetlands

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009

Some would say that Simone had an obsessive/compulsive personality that led to the eating disorder: anorexia nervosa. Whether neurotic or anorexic, such labels come nowhere near a true understanding of this refined soul who dared to face the darkest of human circumstances and there find the Light of Christ.

Sara Maitland is a writer who has a special interest in Simone Weil – and I asked her whether the eating disorder was significant in Simone Weil’s spirituality.

3 thoughts on “A hunger artist

  1. Well put. I have a Christian blog (have written a book coming out in a few months, as well) dedicated to eating disorder recovery, and when doing research I was shocked to discover how prevalent anorexic and bulimic tendencies were among the contemplative nuns of the Middle Ages. Catherine of Sienna (who ultimately starved herself to death) is the “patron saint” of bulimics, apparently; Theresa of Avila and many others also practiced purging and starving. (There is even a name for this “holy anorexia” – anorexia mirabilis. It is appalling that such a self-destructive and unbiblical behavior (as well as preoccupation) could be glorified as somehow “heroic” or spiritual.

  2. Thanks for your comment. I’ve approved it, but with reservations about the link to your blog – it worries me that you have pictures of malnourished women that could be triggering for sufferers.

  3. Thanks for your comment. I’ve approved it, but with reservations about the link to your blog – it worries me that you have pictures of malnourished women that could be triggering for sufferers.

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