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A woman dressed in a white habit holds a small Jesus in her hands. Both her and his hands have crucifixion wounds. She is crying, while staring at him. He is bleeding, arms stretched down.

Image: St. Catherine of Siena by Rutilio Manetti (c.1630).

Editor’s note: This piece discusses disordered eating.

‘An emaciated body will more readily pass through the narrow gates of Paradise.’

—Tertullian, De Anima, c. 200 CE

It’s 1353, and a young girl named Catherine is taking a walk through her quiet neighbourhood in Siena, Tuscany. Upon passing the local church, she is overcome with the sense of something ineffable brewing in the dense winter air. All of a sudden a beam of light splits through the misty sky to rest at the feet of young Cathy, splaying open the delicate threshold between heaven and earth. Bewildered, she looks to the cross atop the church in search of clarity, above which appears the image of Christ, adorned in vestments, blessing the child with his right hand gently raised to anoint her mystic sight. Just six years old, Catherine runs home, announcing to her parents that she must forfeit her life to pious virginity in the name of her holy vision.

They don’t approve. This doesn’t stop her.

At sixteen, Catherine’s parents declare that she must marry the widowed husband of her recently passed sister. She refuses with a strict hunger strike (learned from the sister herself, who would often fast for long periods of time in protest of her husband’s abusive behaviours). Later down the track, weighing not much more than she did at the time of that initiatory vision, Catherine has renounced food altogether. Living in strict observance of the plight for purity, she eats only the slightest rations of bread and vegetables, slowly sheathing flesh from bone as though unravelling a ball of fine string, all in proof of her devout abstention.

Living in strict observance of the plight for purity, she eats only the slightest rations.

She becomes highly revered in the surrounding region for providing large quantities of food to the ill and the poor, which, in addition to writing a book or two, grants her the status of sainthood less than a century later. On 29 April 1380, at age thirty-three, Catherine dies of starvation, a week after suffering a major stroke.

They called it:

Anorexia Mirabilis
An- Orexis (Orexia)  Mirabilis
Not, without, zero, nothingto crave, to long for,amazing, miraculous
to wish for, eager,wondrous, remarkable
desire, longing, craving,wondrous, remarkable
appetite, to reach/stretch
 Miraculous Hunger

It’s not often that we stop to think about our hunger. By that, I mean the gurgling, twisting, aching, panging, belly-churning, foggy-sighted, empty-minded, put-food-in-stomach-now-or-else! kind of hunger. This hunger is an urge, a sense that belongs solely to the limits of our physicality. It’s a thing that can be scientifically expressed by the finite phenomena of cells, hormones and neurons. The Oxford Dictionary describes it thus: ‘The uneasy or painful sensation caused by want of food.’

Essentially, a hormone called ghrelin is produced by the stomach when it’s empty, initiating a series of chemical responses throughout the body and letting us know it’s time to replenish the sources. This is all managed by an area of the brain, located within the hypothalamus, which is also responsible for regulating body temperature, thirst and sexual behaviour. And yet it doesn’t take a great degree of anatomical knowledge to understand that this hunger is a carnal drive, much like the libido—the body lives on so that the species lives on, nothing more and nothing less than that.

But when I write the word ‘hunger’, I am thinking of a different kind. The kind that cannot be described by cells, or hormones, or neurons. The kind that many would argue to be the very crux of our human condition. I’m thinking of that craving for something or someone beyond our earthly selves, which might, once attained, complete us, render us finally whole.

When Plato spoke of the soul, he split it into a three-part model. The first two of his elements, ‘logos’ and ‘thymos’, we’re not interested in here; instead Plato’s last addition to his tripartite soul is what I wish to explain. It’s what he called ‘eros’:the appetite. To paraphrase, Plato was saying: The soul is hungry.

It doesn’t take a great degree of anatomical knowledge to understand that this hunger is a carnal drive.

My experience with anorexia nervosa is something I’ve been trying to grasp hold of for years. I’ve craved to crack its truth, like a word defined in that tiny dictionary print, saying, See this group of letters here? They mean THIS, here’s the thing, now you can name it, now you can know it. Ever since I was hospitalised for the condition in 2019, I’ve plundered old journals, religious texts, novels, memoirs, even scientific essays, confused as to why I’d found myself in such a fragile, helpless place—both physically and mentally. It was when my therapist at the time shared with me the medieval story of ‘Holy Anorexia’ that something clicked.

It’s not that I’m in any way traditionally religious, nor could I possibly resonate with the concrete experiences of women like Catherine who lived centuries before me. But there was something about the stories of these girls, deified as saints, who took to hunger in the name of something greater (and much more terrifying) than themselves, that spoke to a quiet depth in me—how they were entirely removed from this I dieted to look like Kate Moss but it all got out of hand archetype of our current times, which I felt to be so painfully distant from my own experience of the illness. Maybe it spoke to me because I needed so desperately to maintain the delusion that my anorexia was in some way special; in some way sacred, mysterious. Though at the very least, these girls’ strange history provided me with a new perspective, one that would play a major role in my recovery to health.

It’s a common idea within the broad scope of human spirituality that the body is a vessel. Perhaps the most widely accepted ontology is this separation of body from soul as two separate entities. But it is only through the body that matters of the soul may be tangibly expressed: we pray, we dance, we sing, we write, we perform our yearning through the body. Simultaneously, it is this precise severance of flesh from ether that causes us so much anguish, and I am yet to come across anyone to describe this paradox better than Aristophanes, in his theory on the genesis of human desire. In his Symposium speech, he supposes that the body of a human being was once completely round, a perfect circle. Attached to this spherical body were four arms, four legs, two sets of genitalia and two faces between which there were four ears on a ‘perfectly rounded neck’. They were powerful movers, one day setting out on a journey to the heavens in an attempt to overthrow the gods.

Zeus decided, in response to the calamity, that he mustn’t wipe out the human race altogether, for then the gods would have nobody to worship them. Instead, Zeus punished these primordial beings by splitting their bodies in two, so that they may now understand their vast desire by an irreparable wound. However, these humans with their new four-limbed, one-faced bodies were much weaker. They longed to return to their natural, mighty form. So, they spent their whole lives chasing that which might make them whole again, merging body and soul in romantic partnership with hopes that one day two may become as one.

I’m thinking of that craving for something or someone beyond our earthly selves, which might, once attained, complete us.

Here, according to Aristophanes, bodily desire is nothing but an attempt to reach back to our primordial, once-fulfilled selves. In this strangely beautiful model, the human craving for heavenly respite was transfused into somatic want instead; longing became a problem of the physical realm; lack was made a matter of the body—a body which was now small, and frail, and fundamentally incomplete…

I’ve come to understand my hunger through these rather abstract and unconventional terms. You could say it’s a means of self-preservation. That instead of accepting my condition as a complex physiological disorder (characterised by a set of finite symptoms whose origins aren’t yet entirely understood by science), I choose to designate it as a matter of some higher power. It’s not that this perspective provides more clarity than the alternative but rather that it allows a little more breathing space; a paradigm within which the values of surrender, forgiveness and redemption are up for grabs as powerful forces to the process of healing, in any regard.

In reality, I wanted to know how it felt to be in control. I made a god inside my body and listened to its own versions of chastity, humility, faith, ritual, prayer, sin and shame. I found a new means of devotion when I felt that there was nothing in the real world to which I could truly dedicate myself. I was depressed and deluded, self-medicating with even more poison.

This is how the illness contradicts itself. In claiming control over our body, we are slowly but surely falling deeper under its command. The rules and regulations we impose upon ourselves begin to quietly dominate us instead. In this sense, it is an illness of paradoxes. It is a double-edged sword, a desire that wants only to desire.

It does not care for the attainment of whatever chosen goal one may have pursued, whether it be a record-low weight or another step closer to feeling loved. There is no true fulfilment that may finally call endgame—the hunger will continue to replace that object of affection with something much greater than ever before, something far more splendid than the last, and (in homage to good old Sisyphus) we will climb the evermore treacherous terrain to attain it, for we simply cannot help ourselves.

This is the crux of the anorexic condition. That no single weight, no depth of cavity between collarbone and neck, no degree of faintness, no amount of restraint will ever be enough. For the person caught in the grip of hunger’s strange addiction, there is no final satisfaction, they will continue living in a state of self-immolation, patiently awaiting a coup de grâce that never comes.

Recent studies in science have exposed the neurological reasoning as to why hunger can become so addictive to the already starving body. A correlation between hunger and reward was found in an area of the brain where dopamine is released. It’s been long known that drugs such as ecstasy and cocaine suppress the appetite, suggesting that a dysfunction in appetite may be related to dysfunction within the home of pleasure, the nucleus accumbens. A study in which researchers injected ecstasy into rodents in this area of the brain found that their will to eat was intercepted by its activation of a certain serotonin receptor, which led to the production of a neurotransmitter heavily associated with addiction.

For the person caught in the grip of hunger’s strange addiction, there is no final satisfaction.

The breakthrough of this finding lies in the fact that these addiction-related amino acids (known as CART peptides) are also known to act as food intake inhibitors. If this link between the brain’s reward system and the regulation of appetite is true, it may be construed that dysfunction in this area could lead the sensations of hunger and reward to become synonymous with each other within an anorexic’s brain, and thus an addiction sets in.

But the specifics of this neurological speculation are not the only thing to blame for hunger’s addictive power. As a person falls victim to the ache of sadness, longing and metaphysical despair, hunger prescribes a morbid relief. A starving body conserves its energy to only the most vital functions, essentially flipping the somatic switch into survival mode. In this phenomenon, the secondary roles of complex emotion, memory and motivation perish in a dark corner of the mind. A starving body lives in foggy indifference to the world; when the wants of the flesh are under intense scrutiny, all other forms of want are suppressed too, including those of the soul. When the body diminishes, the self wanes along with it.

And yet this concept of spiritual purification through the act of denying oneself nourishment is not specific to young, ill girls. Fasting forms an integral role in the spiritual practices of almost all religions in human history. We see the notion of restricting caloric intake in the traditions of Lent, Ramadan, Yom Kippur and Maha Shivratri, as well as many forms of Buddhist asceticism. Each exists with the intention of moral purification, deepening of prayer or proof of devotion through the act of defying hunger’s pang. (It is said that the Buddha attained enlightenment through an extensive fast as he sat beneath a fig tree, denying the fact of his physical existence in the search for clarity, peace and, essentially, escape from the sufferings of life.) How fascinating it is, to say the least, that fasting has been enmeshed in the very fabric of human spirituality since its first known manifestations.

But anorexia is not a religion. It is not spiritually beautiful, nor is it powerful, nor peaceful, nor pure, nor do its efforts resolve in any mere form of enlightenment. It is an aberration to its core.

In the Netflix-produced 2022 film The Wonder, we watch as Florence Pugh, playing an English nurse, records the miracle of a fasting girl (based on the true story of Sarah Jacob who in 1869 proclaimed that she hadn’t eaten since awakening from a coma two years prior). The girl tells Pugh’s character that she survives off ‘manna from heaven’. Pugh questions how it makes her feel. The girl responds, ‘Full.’

Her condition gradually deteriorates, edging ever closer to death in an attempt to prove Pugh’s character wrong. To prove that she is in fact autonomous, and perhaps divine, and so that her community may continue to regard her as something special. This may be how Saint Catherine had been feeling, too. That in her severe abstention of life, she leaned ever closer to what she felt to be its very source.

Anorexia is not a religion. It is not spiritually beautiful, nor is it powerful, nor peaceful, nor pure.

Both Catherine and Sarah’s stories, though once considered courageous and deemed holy, are now nothing but a sad history. Sad, because we know that their hunger was all but an attempt to silence the shame forced upon them while they were still vulnerable young girls. Sad, because the paradigm of their short lives may very well be the hidden truth of the illness.

I believe that it is shame that sets the anorexic condition aflame, that shame is what digs the untimely grave. But I also believe that the remedy lies in the discovery of some kind of spirituality where rejection of the self has no domain. Where death and rebirth, heavy and light, are known to be the wonders of this life. Where the body and its earthly cycles may be understood as a manifestation of the divine. Where the flesh’s ridges and curves, its summits and bases, its knowns and unknowns, its desire, its satiety, its hunger, can be truly felt as the apex of our human existence, and something to revere, not nullify.

I won’t pretend that I know exactly how I should end this essay. I can’t tell you that it’s brought me any closer to a real understanding of what it is to be hungry, of what it is to want, because that wouldn’t be true. What I can say with credence is that an emaciated body will not ‘more readily pass through the narrow gates of paradise’, because, in all honesty, it probably won’t even have the strength to make it to the gates in the first place. It is a dangerous delusion of the illness that physical weakness may culminate in some kind of otherworldly grandeur, in some kind of ‘miraculous’ feat. I’ve found that there exists some respite for the body in other religions, in other spiritual practices. Practices that see its purpose as being beyond the dictations of this one self, that celebrate its desires in full glory. My recovery found itself bound to them.

In Haitian Vodou, it’s believed that gods possess people during ceremony, singing and dancing, riding their bodies like horses. So, I’ll leave you with a wise proverb they have, one which entirely transformed my way of thinking when it was shared with me—one which I think comes closest to an answer for all these questions concerning flesh and soul:

Big gods cannot ride little horses.

I want to dance with the biggest gods. I want to know that ecstasy.

This essay was a runner-up in the 2023 KYD Non-Fiction Essay Prize.