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opinion | Jennifer Graham

Lent an excuse, challenge for anorexics

The Rev. Gordon Reid, with Saint Clement's Episcopal Church, waited to place ash on worshipers' foreheads to mark the start of Lent.

Associated Press/file

The Rev. Gordon Reid, with Saint Clement's Episcopal Church, waited to place ash on worshipers' foreheads to mark the start of Lent.

For the six weeks of Lent, I joined a friend in fasting once a week, and a Pooh-like growling tummy sent me to the Internet for tips. There, I fell into a rabbit hole, one occupied by anorexic teens. It turns out that while for Christians, Lent is a solemn season of penitence and abstention, something to be endured — has it only been four weeks? — for those with eating disorders, it’s a welcome cover that can’t last long enough.

“Who’s excited for Lent?” asked one girl posting on a “pro-ana” website, part of an online community for girls who believe self-starvation is a lifestyle choice, not a disease. Others there, answering the question “What are you giving up for Lent?”, answered “solid food” with disturbing frequency.

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I’d stumbled upon a “pro-ana” community, comprised of thin girls who want to be emaciated. These “friends of Ana” — anorexia nervosa — are a minority in a nation in which two-thirds of us are overweight or obese. Hounded by parents and doctors, they have found solace and camaraderie online, where they can buy “Lent: A great way to diet” T-shirts and red, beaded pro-ana bracelets that slyly broadcast their secret.

Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental disorder, but that does not matter in the pro-ana world. Ana’s maxim is “It’s more important to be thin than healthy,” and no matter how many fashion models die of the disease, there arise a hundred more in their slight shadows. (Last year, there were reports that talent scouts stood outside a Swedish clinic for eating disorders, handing out business cards to 14-year-olds.)

It’s sadly predictable that the media glitterati encourage adolescents dieting themselves to death, but a curious twist if religion, that old-time healer of souls, might also be spurring them there. “Lent, Ramadan, Yom Kippur, any kind of ritualistic fasting, gives people with an eating disorder an ostensibly religious excuse,” Lori Ciotti, director of the Renfrew Center in Boston, which provides intensive outpatient treatment for people with eating disorders, told me.

“It gives reinforcement to the idea that the needs of our bodies are not pure, and some higher spiritual place is going to be achieved by starving oneself,” she said.

And that’s exactly the purpose of fasting in spiritual practice. “Do not pamper yourself, but love fasting,” was the advice of St. Benedict. “Feed your soul, strengthen you spirit and renew your body” is the promise of Susan Gregory’s “The Daniel Fast,” which advocates eating only plants, seeds, and water for three weeks or more. “Sometimes you are so hungry that the only way you can be fed is to fast,” Gregory writes.

Any time fasting moves from bottom shelf of the culture to eye level, those who treat eating disorders pay attention.

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While that may inspire people who truly need to lose weight, it also fits nicely into the “thinspiration” that anorexics seek online. While Yahoo, Tumblr, Pinterest, and others have worked to shut down blatantly harmful sites (and France has made them illegal), pro-ana sites still proliferate, sometimes masquerading as sources of help even while encouraging potentially deadly behavior. Call it thin-porn, the posting of photographs of emaciated women, along with diet tips like these: Never eat anything white. Don’t eat before 3 p.m. and after 6 p.m. Look at pictures of fat people if you’re tempted to eat. Hit your stomach to stop it from growling. Spin in circles to curb your appetite. Wear a rubber band around your wrist and snap it when you want to eat. Food = pain.

In his book “Holy Anorexia,” Rutgers professor Rudolph Bell asserts that one-third of Italian female Catholic saints since the year 1200 showed signs of anorexia. Fasting, of course, is not unique to Catholicism, nor are its Lenten practices unusually restrictive; the month-long observance of Ramadan demands much more of Muslims.

But any time fasting moves from bottom shelf of the culture to eye level, if only temporarily, those who treat eating disorders pay attention — as should parents of alarmingly thin teens, if they are wearing pretty red bracelets and suddenly express a renewed religious devotion. For anyone struggling with an eating disorder, there are other paths to piety.

“Don’t give up anything. Or give up lipstick. Don’t make it food related,” says Lynn Grefe, president and CEO of the National Eating Disorder Association, which offers a hotline (800-931-2237) for the eating-disordered and those worried about them.

Most extreme of all, give up self-mortification. There’s a T-shirt for that, too. It says, “I gave up dieting for Lent.”

Jennifer Graham writes regularly for the Globe.
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