religious women that food was dangerous because it excited lust."9
In Medieval Europe, women were seen as especially susceptible to indulgence
in sensual pleasures, such as gluttony and sexual activity. The female
saints were brought up in a moral environment which "saw women
as especially afflicted with the weaknesses of the flesh."10
Therefore, they may have felt a need to avoid giving into the supposed
weaknesses of their gender through fierce abstinence from food and sex.
In both cases, fasting habits begin around puberty. The onset of anorexia
nervosa may result from a desire to curb sexual maturation, a process
over which an individual has no control.11 The same may be
argued for the practices of pious adolescent girls of the Middle Ages.
Sex itself was a daunting matter for many medieval women as they were
often married at a young age to a sexually demanding husband. Stunting
one's sexual development may have appeared as a way to circumvent such
unpleasantness.12 If one examines the causes of the fear
of sexual development or feelings of inadequacy before God, it seems
clear that religious and societal factors are at its base, and only
the end result of not eating bears a resemblance to anorexia nervosa.
It might be a meaningless coincidence that fasting behavior is common
to both starving saints and modern anorectics. However, some might argue
for the importance of these parallel behaviors as relevant to a diagnosis
of the medieval saints. Inherent in this perspective is a judgment of
outward behaviors as more significant than the sources of such behavior.
The association with manipulation of sexual development through fasting
points to a larger issue, namely that of control through food. An attempt
to exert some control over one's life through restraint of food intake
is a central characteristic of anorectics. The realm of food was the
only aspect of life that medieval females could direct for themselves,
and therefore, it was their only outlet for control. Fasting to the
point of illness or joining a religious order may have been a medieval
girl's only way to escape marriage and a future in which she was completely
dependent upon her husband.13