A Sin to Eat: The Untold Story of Anorexia as Religion

It started with medieval “fasting girls.” Now, divine devotion and the occult mingle in eating disorder communities online.

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A Sin to Eat: The Untold Story of Anorexia as Religion

Every day, Amelia sets an alarm for 11:11 a.m. “Prayer Time” her phone beeps, alongside an angel emoji. Every day, the prayer is the same: “Please let me make it through the day without binging.” Amelia (not her real name; she wishes to remain anonymous), explains that 11, which resonates at a superlatively high vibration, is said to represent transformation. It is her favorite angel number.

Amelia first learned about angel numbers—a branch of numerology in which repetitive number sets convey a divine message from the universe—on a Twitter thread, from an account that gives instructions on how to “look like a Victoria’s Secret model from 2010” using dietary as well as spiritual practices. Under each thread, numerous users with variations of angel numbers in their usernames express their gratitude. “I also watch a lot of subliminals,” Amelia says. With titles like “*・῾ ✧.* + subliminal,” these pseudoscientific YouTube videos tend to follow a generic formula: montages of skinny white women alongside affirmations between the muted beats of a Lana Del Rey song. They purportedly rewire the subconsciousness, like an external agent whispering “eat less, exercise more” straight to the brain cells. Many reliably amass over a million views.

On TikTok, Amelia’s algorithm is dominated by “what I eat in a day” food diaries, and potions and angel number spells for weight loss: One witch, who addresses her viewers as “spiritual baddies,” advises they wait for a full moon before combining turmeric, cayenne pepper, and ginger, and repeating, “I will release myself of what no longer serves me.” The weight loss spell, this witch says, is her second most requested spell (the first is a spell for love).

Amelia is living out her early twenties at a time when pro-skinny social media content is cause for censorship, and eating disorder-related hospitalizations are reportedly on the rise among adolescents. At the same time, New York podcasters canvas the virtues of skinniness in ketamine drawls, while the Y2K fashion revival inspires commentators to affirm that “thin is in again.” She’s in a double-bind. As a young woman, she’s taught that her alignment with today’s beauty ideals grants her attention, affection, and envy. Yet she’s also reprimanded for taking that lesson in earnest, as journalists, parents, and online commentators tend to place the blame on individuals like her for reinforcing “painfully skinny” waif girl ideals, without offering any empathy for why she might need to pursue skinniness as her life’s ultimate meaning in the first place.

“It’s not about some skinny waif TikTok aesthetic,” Amelia says, refuting anyone who might misunderstand her goals. “I want to be skinny so I can feel like an ethereal angel. If I can make it through the day without binging, then I can be pure and good. It’s almost like my own religion.” So into the world of subliminals, pro-anorexia hashtags, and angel numbers Amelia escaped to worship among those who do understand her.

You’ll encounter plenty of people like Amelia across TikTok, Instagram, and Twitter, who use thinspirational saints like Alana Champion in their display photos and angel numbers in their handles. They are largely anti-recovery, and speak self-deprecatingly about their illness (though they don’t refer to it as such). This devotion to skinniness isn’t unique to their generation; there exists a near-ancient relationship between spirituality, religion, and disordered eating. Amelia’s world fits into a remarkably linear history—from Eve’s biting of the apple to the very first online forums—through which the spiritual and religious have commingled with the desire to be eminently thin.

The fall of mankind began with a woman eating. The first recorded anorexics came later, in the 13th century, at a time when starvation was held in high and holy regard, and abstinence from appetite was considered atonement for the fall of man.

Holy anorexia, a term coined by historian Rudolph Bell, of this kind was both a pursuit of autonomy as well as a way to embody the suffering and religious mortification of Christ. While men tended to express their religiosity through poverty, in this medieval mindset, women saints—who Bell also referred to as the “fasting girls” in his 1985 book on the subject—could only hope to achieve holiness by rejecting their bodily, biological needs. Eventually, this would lead to a premature death that, as Bell argued, allowed women to avoid a life of marriage, child rearing, and domesticity. It was also a transcendent reward for their suffering.

“Personally, at my most psychotic and eating disordered, I fasted and restricted for some Divine showing of devotion, exactly like fasting girls did,” someone wrote on an eating disorder support forum earlier this year.

It’s not about some skinny waif TikTok aesthetic. I want to be skinny so I can feel like an ethereal angel.

Much like religious-based eating disorders, the secular eating disorders that followed—now diagnosed as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa—were largely imbued with countercultural intentions. Fasting was “another form of control, taking power back for the individual; and, as such, it was similar to one of the underlying factors in anorexia today,” Dr. Alexandra Pittock, a psychiatrist who’s studied eating disorders, told the Church Times. Though the first case of non-religious anorexia in medical literature dates back to 1686 (with a 20-year-old woman who refused to eat or receive treatment), the medicalization of disordered eating occurred sometime in the 1870s, as women from largely wealthy households fasted in order to avoid unwanted marriages and anorexia was first officially classified as a disorder. In the U.S., an aesthetic veneration for slimness developed in the early 1900s, when, as historian Hillel Schwartz wrote, the slender body became a sign of white, middle-class, Protestant virtuosity and privilege, while fatness increasingly came to be associated with working-class immigrants.

This relationship to eating—where dieting and abstinence is the cultural norm and skinniness is considered the ideal—has remained, despite the good faith attempts of the body positive movement. So too has the thin line that separates religious and aesthetic bodily pursuits. A 1981 study, for instance, noted that anorexic patients were “significantly” more likely to be practicing Christians. For professional nutritionist and recovered anorexic Paola Petri Ortiz, a practicing Christian herself, the relationship between her faith and her former fasting was a point of extreme conflict. “I was convinced I was doing God’s will by restricting food. I considered my anorexia nervosa as my vocation of mortification and sacrifice,” she told Jezebel.

An early user of the internet, Ortiz found that the online forums devoted to disordered eating took on a specific valence. “I followed a lot of pro-ana [pro-anorexia] blogs, and many of them used quasi-religious vocabulary and imagery,” she says, referencing the repurposing of religious mantras and creeds into thinspirational texts, moonlight rituals, and pro-ana psalms and prayers.

Online information about disordered eating began to appear in the 1980s, when home access to the internet was first rolled out. Then, with the rise of Usenet—one of the very first wide-scale online discussion forums—pro-ana communities began to form, attaching a social, competitive, folkloric quality to disordered eating. These forums functioned like a religious sanctuary, offering people who had been isolated in their illness a communal space away from what they saw as the profane world of eating. “And then, of course, there were the Thin Commandments,” says Ortiz.

The Thin Commandments—a satirical repurposing of the Ten Commandments—were originally penned by eating disorder therapist Carolyn Costin in the mid-nineties, as a way to illuminate the anorexic mindset to unfamiliar parties. “If you aren’t thin you aren’t attractive,” went the first creed. The second read, “Being thin is more important than being healthy.” But the rules were embraced in earnest by the early online pro-ana communities, who spread them far and wide as more semi-restricted pro-ana websites began to emerge on the Geocities internet of the late nineties; the Thin Commandments acted as a glue and coherent philosophy.

Speaking today, Costin tells Jezebel that the religious framing came from her own experiences with anorexia. “The pursuit of thinness does in some way mirror the pursuit of religious fervor or dogma, because you do come up with rules in your head,” she says. “I wrote that I felt like it was a sin to eat certain things. Why that word came to my mind, I don’t know.”

The religiosity of Costin’s text was deeply influential on the early pro-ana community’s mode of discourse, as members soon began referring to their online community as “the Ana Religion.” Costin tells Jezebel she had her attorney send a cease and desist when she first discovered her commandments were being co-opted by pro-ana sites. “But then they kept appearing on more and more websites. It was impossible to stop it,” she says. Censorship, she found, was futile.

Online pro-ana communities first came to public prominence soon after with a landmark episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show, which aired in 2001. The first major broadcasting of the topic—intended to warn parents about the dangers of online disordered eating forums—incited a panic in the U.S., as hundreds of sensationalist stories followed. The coverage, which was many people’s first exposure to online pro-ana communities, only seemed to broaden and politicize the online forums, further emphasizing their countercultural roots. “I heard about pro ana on a talk show, and then dashed to my pc,” one user wrote on a closed forum.

So pro-ana groups went underground, moving away from large, corporation-run sites to small, safeguarded domains. It was around this time that the pro-ana community’s figurehead emerged: Narcissa. A satanist and keen student of freemason-adjacent occultism, the pseudonymous Narcissa introduced the forums to a deity she described as the “Guardian Servitor of the Anorectic Praxis,” who existed to help her adherents in achieving bodily and spiritual transformation through the rejection of food.

I was convinced I was doing God’s will by restricting food. I considered my anorexia nervosa as my vocation of mortification and sacrifice.

The deity, named Anamadim, was the indirect result of a therapeutic method developed by doctors in the 1980s, digital anthropologist Dr. Beth Singler argued in her 2011 paper “Skeletons into Goddesses.” Known as Foucauldian Narrative Therapy, this technique enforced the idea that anorexia was something that happened outside of the patient; an external force that operated more like a parasite or vengeful friend than anything that came from the patient’s own will. Narcissa repurposed these ideas into a faceless, ethereal, and highly customizable goddess; one who could be prayed to, who could be both a friend and a necessary foe, who could provide discipline to those who equated structure with starvation. In clear analogue with today’s angel numbers, Anamadim could also supposedly be summoned through numerology. The Goddess’ number was 147, and each new moon, Narcissa advised her followers to set up an altar facing east, which they could adorn with candles, incense, and “anti-offerings” of foods like cookies and chips. In doing so, Anamadim would appear to them at 1:47 a.m.

“I was once hospitalized because I believed that Ana was going to kill me for leaving the site and ‘betraying’ my friends there. I seriously thought she had the ability to reach into my body and stop my heart. Scary stuff,” a user once commented on a forum.

With Anamadim, Narcissa padded online pro-ana communities with mysticism. “Ana is a form of magical craft, the modern form of the ancient spell of changing shape. Ana is a form of mysticism—seeking a particular state of mind and body through deliberate, calculated efforts and repeated rituals to get us there,” she wrote in a post from 2001.

Though her mystical influence still survives today, academic and author Zoe Alderton, who researches pro-ana communities within the frame of religious studies, says “the trail has gone cold on Narcissa.” After finding her Twitter account sometime in the 2010s—which existed only briefly—Alderton tells Jezebel that Narcissa, whose real name and identity was never revealed, seemed to be unwell, surviving from supplemental oxygen.

“A lot of people from these early forums have disappeared,” Alderton says. “The sad thing to say is that when you consider the mortality rate from anorexia, it is possible they passed away. It’s also possible that they got better.”

Anamadim, too, has all but disappeared—she lives only in the hard-to-find archives of the WayBack Machine. Instead, members of eating disorder communities on social media seem to pray regularly to two deities known as the goddesses Ana and Mia (abbreviations for anorexia and bulimia, respectively). A member of edtwt (eating disorder Twitter) recently wrote, “Legend has it if you say edtwt three times in a row, you can summon goddess ana.”

Occultism and the desire to give over one’s agency and subconscious to an outside force have been on the rise for some time now—ethereal girls are replacing material girls. And in some online spaces, straightforward mysticism and pro-ana mysticism are mingling. Especially on TikTok, as AI tracks down and removes pro-ana content—a faulty form of censorship in itself—it cannot hide underground as it once could. Instead, it diffuses itself into the social fabric of the internet, where it becomes increasingly difficult to decipher between fitspo and thinspo, Witchtok and pro-anatok. It carries its spiritual underpinning with it, too.

In 2015, Alderton noticed the emergence of weight loss emoji spells, which came into common practice on Tumblr sometime after the website’s ban on pro-ana content. “Emoji witchcraft is most closely connected with modern, Western Paganism,” Alderton wrote in an article in 2019. Today, occult practices often take place on TikTok—or, “Witchtok”—an arena where emoji spells have been replaced with potions and gems to aid in weight loss, as well as instructional weight loss spells. “These once obscure ideas and practices have now crossed over into popular consciousness,” says Alderton.

Elsewhere, pro-ana users still post with a religious diligence, orienting their lives towards the same goal—to become skinnier—with the devotion of a disciple. On Pinterest, where visuals of angels and spiritual iconography abound, the boundaries between self-betterment and self-harm have largely collapsed; images of starvation coexist with images of dieting, and a “skinny aesthetic” is framed with gym-driven health standards, in order to keep thinspiration uncensored. On Twitter, the pro-ana community has been given a gender inclusive update, as trans, gender-nonconforming, and nonbinary users with eating disorders look to the spiritual mantra of pro-ana to help control their bodies. “If you have an eating disorder Twitter account, you’d better have your pronouns in your bio, because that’s going to be a huge way to relate to people,” says Alderton.

Those on the other side of recovery, which isn’t yet in Amelia’s purview, often acknowledge that the process of getting better can be more spiritually painful than the disease itself. Ortiz agrees. “A key mindset change for recovering is to understand that recovery is actually a much greater sacrifice than any abstinence,” she says. “God did indeed want a sacrifice from me, but it was the sacrifice of recovering from my eating disorder.”

Like Amelia said, her eating disorder isn’t merely a bodily ideal, but her own religion, albeit one that unintentionally could end in destruction rather than salvation. It is a way to distinguish herself, too—a gnosticism that allows her to feel superior to the material world of apples and appetite.

If you or someone you know needs help, contact the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) online or at (800) 931-2237. If you have an emergency, text NEDA at 741741.

Emma Madden is a writer based in Brighton, UK. They have written about music and digital culture for The New York Times, GQ, Pitchfork, and many others.

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