Michelle Lelwica

Dr. Lelwica is Professor of Religion at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, where she teaches courses on the intersection of religion, gender, culture, and the body. She did her graduate work at Harvard Divinity School, where she received a Masters of Theological Studies in Christianity and Culture (1989) and a Doctorate of Theology in Religion Gender and Culture (1996). She is the author of Shameful Bodies: Religion and the Culture of Physical Improvement (Bloomsbury, 2017), The Religion of Thinness: Satisfying the Spiritual Hungers behind Women’s Obsession with Food and Weight (Gürze Press, 2009), and Starving for Salvation: The Spiritual Dimensions of Eating Problems among American Girls and Women (Oxford University Press, 1999), as well as scholarly articles, popular blogs, and podcast interviews that explore women’s conflicted relationships with their bodies. She has also published articles and taught courses that focus on mindfulness practice and social justice. 

How did you get started in your career?

I started studying the religious and spiritual dimensions of eating disorders and related problems as a graduate student of religion at Harvard Divinity School. I was deeply disturbed to discover the negative attitudes towards female bodies that are prevalent in traditional Christian theology, and I began to recognize the parallels between the patriarchal aspects of this tradition and the images, myths, rituals, beliefs, and morality surrounding contemporary women’s pursuit of thinness. This recognition led to the writing of my dissertation on the religious dimensions of eating and body image problems, which became my first book (Starving for Salvation). My second book, (The Religion of Thinness) challenges American culture’s devotion to female thinness and is written for a broader (i.e., non-academic) audience. My most recent book, Shameful Bodies: Religion and the Culture of Physical Improvement, builds on my previous work on eating and body images problems to analyze a wider range of issues that often produce body shame, including (dis)ability, chronic pain and illness, and aging, as well as weight.

What advice do you have for someone new to the field? 

Stay open to a complex and integrative perspective on body image and eating problems—one that explores their spiritual dimensions and that thinks critically about the cultural underpinnings of these problems. This openness will foster an understanding of eating disorders as responses to human suffering that tragically create more suffering. Such an understanding fosters the compassion that is necessary for the process of healing. I urge new professionals in the field of eating disorders to investigate the spiritual needs that obsessions with food and weight thinly veil, and I would encourage them to define “spiritual needs” very broadly (i.e., in non-sectarian terms), including the need for a sense of purpose, love, inspiration, courage, community, agency, and peace.