Salud Mental

Asceticism and spirituality in anorexia nervosa: A historical psychosocial analysis


Rosa Behar
Marcelo Arancibia


Background. Asceticism is deeply related to spirituality and fasting practices that have been observed in anorexia nervosa (AN) through the history.

Objective. A psychosocial analysis of spirituality and asceticism within the historical context of the AN is made, from Middle Ages to XXI century, comparing the holy anorexia and the contemporary AN. Ad hoc illustrative cases are described.

Method. Medline/Pubmed, data bases and specialized textbooks were used to look for evidence on asceticism and spirituality in AN and its historical development.

Results. From a historical point of view, asceticism of medieval saints (holy anorexia) and that of modern anorectics, display common features; nevertheless, it is oriented to different goals: spirituality versus worldly appearance, respectively. Contemporary Puritanism and AN share distinctive characteristics of protestant ethics, mainly self-discipline, self-control, self-sacrifice, rationality, efficiency and goals achievement. Asceticism is significantly related to angry feelings, inmaturity features and purging.

Discussion and conclusion. Many medieval mystical women showed similar characteristics with present AN, nevertheless, while asceticism in saints were oriented to achieve the divine encounter, drive for thinness in contemporary young anorectics is rather related to sociocultural aesthetic ideals. The atemporal occurrence of the pathogenic essence of the anorectic syndrome suggests that factors like age, personality and/or psychosocial environment pathoplastically model it.

Eating disorders, anorexia nervosa, holy anorexia, asceticism, spirituality, history