April 27, 2020 - 11:14am

Catherine of Siena, a fourteenth-century mystic, was dead of self-starvation at 33

The conventional understanding of eating disorders is as a by-product of the modern world’s unrealistic beauty standards, as promoted by photoshopped magazine shots and rail-thin catwalk models. But what if the true cause is wired into us at the level of our very moral foundations? This is the premise of Unholy Anorexia, a piece that explores parallels between mortification of the flesh in medieval saints, and the suffering of modern-day anorexics.

The author, neuropsychologist and writer Paul Broks, relates how a chance encounter with an anorexic woman attending one of his lectures prompted him to re-evaluate anorexia. Where formerly he’d seen anorexics as merely ‘precious young women just refusing to eat’, now anorexia seemed to encapsulate ‘questions that had always interested me, questions that, inevitably, loop back to Descartes: the relation of mind and body; selfhood; mortality; divinity.’

Broks recounts how this line of enquiry developed via reading a book on medieval mystics whose asceticism demonstrated clear parallels with anorexia. For example Catherine of Siena, a fourteenth-century mystic, ‘was dead of self-starvation at 33’. While such ‘holy anorexics’ as Catherine of Siena framed their self-mortification in terms of religious faith rather than ideal body image, Broks suggests that the disgust expressed by both medieval and modern anorexics for their bodies offers some clues as to how we could rethink the treatment of anorexia today:

With eating behaviour at its evolutionary root, physical disgust elaborates biologically and culturally to shape mental attitudes towards the body of a kind that, in vulnerable individuals, sets body and mind in conflict. The holy anorexics’ quest was spiritual purity, whereas their present-day counterparts are driven by a warped notion of physical perfection. But in both its medieval and modern forms, anorexia is a self-destructive expression of ‘mind over matter’, a way of asserting mental over physical selfhood. Self-loathing and shame, derivatives of disgust, are the main drivers.
- Paul Broks, Aeon

The author sketches a brief history of the psychology of disgust, from its most primal function as guardian of the body against noxious or poisonous substances to moralisation through metaphors of cleanliness and sanctity. From there he shows how disgust can to turn against the very bodies it evolved to protect, in a doomed effort to deny the inevitability of death:

[T]he elevation of disgust from the bodily to the moral and spiritual realms is a sort of Jacob’s Ladder, resting in bestial filth and rising up to the celestial clouds of divinity. In secular terms, we might substitute ‘elevation’, ‘awe’ or ‘the sublime’ for ‘divinity’. Either way, the function of this polar opposite of core disgust is to provide existential solace in the face of that most unsettling aspect of our animal nature, the fact of death.
- Paul Broks, Aeon

The author traces the tension between divine and the disgusting in lives of history’s holy anorexics: Catherine of Siena is reported to have cured herself of disgust at one woman’s sickness by drinking the pus from her sores. Disgust, he suggests, is under-researched as a factor in modern anorexia nervosa but indicative results suggest heightened disgust-sensitivity in sufferers.

Having survived a bout of anorexia as a young adult, this rings true to my experience: though thankfully those days are long behind me, I can still recall the overwhelming feeling of disgust triggered by the prospect of even the most frugal meal.

Broks suggests that for some individuals, the yearning for a bodiless state of sanctity is inseparable from an intense experience of our animal nature — both shaped by acute sensitivity to disgust. Self-starvation, then, emerges as a means of resolving an impossible tension: the competing pull of mind and body via disgust. In a culture that seems to offer us all limitless scope for self-transcendence via the disembodied online world, maybe we could all benefit from further exploration of this most primal, animalistic and mystical emotion.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.