A series of recent studies by Boyatzis and colleagues have studied links between religion, eating, and body image in normal samples of nondiagnosed American females. One study of teenage girls (average age 16 years) found that while girls' overall selfesteem was the strongest predictor of how girls felt about their weight and appearance, girls' belief in God predicted significant additional variance in the girls' body image; thus, the stronger girls believed in God, the higher their body image, even above and beyond what their overall self-esteem contributed to their body image. In a series of studies on college women, those with healthier body image and eating also prayed more often, had a closer and more loving relationship with God, had an intrinsic faith orientation that integrated their religion with their life, and were more likely to view their bodies as holy and sacred. In another sample, women higher in quest orientation- who value doubt and are open to change in their religious beliefs-had lower body image scores. In college men, religiosity did not predict their body image or eating disorder scores as well as their existential well-being did (i.e., their sense of meaning and purpose in life).
Unfortunately, all of this research had correlational designs, making it impossible to know if religion actually affects body image. Fortunately, a new study by Boyatzis et al. (2005a) avoided this problem in an experimental design. College women took a pretest on their body image and then were randomly assigned, in a later testing session, to read different kinds of "body affirmations." The groups had been balanced on the basis of their pretest body image scores and their ratings of how important religion was to them. One group of women read religious messages about their bodies (e.g., "God created my body, and I am able to see the divine perfection in my body"); in another condition, women read spiritual statements that did not mention God (e.g., "I wish to see my body only as whole and perfect"). Comparing their scores before and after reading these statements, women who read the religious and spiritual affirmations improved significantly more than did women in a control group who did not read body affirmations. In conclusion, across this series of studies on normal college women, there is virtually no evidence that higher religiosity is related to feeling worse about one's body or to have unhealthy eating practices. To the contrary, this series of studies show that in young women without eating disorders, being religious and spiritual is related to more positive body image and healthier eating. Together, the work described above confirms that for many women, religious and spiritual issues are intertwined deeply with their body image and eating.
For some, religion can be a source of self-loathing; for others, religion may be their saving grace. For this latter group, religion could offer a framework of meaning that emphasizes deep and permanent qualities as more important than the superficial features of appearance, weight, and eating habits. Because women with eating disorders commonly have negative thoughts about their bodies and fears of losing control around food, religion may provide "a sense of ultimate control through the sacred when life seems out of control" (Pargament, 1997: 310). Women who are more religious may be motivated to try to have a healthier body, or they may view their bodies and eating in a more self-forgiving or accepting light, or both. In one study (Boyatzis et al., 2003b), a college woman wrote on a survey, "God doesn't care how big my butt is." An important conclusion from all of this work is that scholars and practitioners could better understand young people's body image and eating problems by considering their spiritual and religious beliefs and practices.