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Exploring Religion and the Culture of Physical Improvement

For Michelle Lelwica '86, attending Saint Ben's provided not only a transformative education, but also a stepping stone in her life journey.

Along with being a professor and chair of the Religion Department at Concordia College (Moorhead), Michelle is also an author of three books, Starving for Salvation: The Spiritual Dimensions of Eating Problems Among American Girls and Women (1999), The Religion of Thinness: Satisfying the Spiritual Hungers behind Women's Obsession with Weight and Food (2003), and Shameful Bodies: Religion and the Culture of Physical Improvement, the latter of which will be released mid-January 2017.

Her first book (Starving for Salvation, 1999) was a revision of her dissertation published by Oxford University Press as a result of a senior editor who thought Michelle's focus on the religious and cultural dimensions of eating and body image problems was unusual and interesting.

Michelle explains Starving for Salvation (1999) as being more of an academically oriented book, so she followed up with The Religion of Thinness (2003), which is more practical for those struggling with body image and eating problems.

Michelle's second book led to a number of speaking engagements, and both books continue to impact the classes she teaches and the interactions she has with students today.

In a June 30 Minnesota Public Radio segment called "Girls and Body Image," Michelle spoke about her personal interest in the topic of body image and eating disorders among women.

"This interest began in graduate school at Harvard. I was studying some prominent ideas about women's bodies in the history of Christianity, specifically the idea that female bodies were shamefully inferior, sin-prone, and thus needing to be supervised and controlled. I realized how familiar these ideas felt to me, as someone who spent three years as a teenager battling an eating disorder," she says. "During that time, I had a very negative view of my body - it never felt good enough, and I sincerely believed I needed to monitor and control my appetite to lose weight so I would be acceptable and admired in the eyes of others."

Michelle states that it's impossible to talk about her journey toward a healthier relationship with her body without mentioning Saint Ben's. In this direct quote from her new book, Shameful Bodies: Religion and the Culture of Physical Improvement, she describes how her experience at CSB played a role in her healing process:

I attended a college run by Benedictine nuns, who introduced me to feminism. This perspective enabled me to see that the real problem wasn't the size of my thighs but the dominant culture's tendency (which I had internalized) to value women based on their appearance. A mature group of friends, similarly empowered by the critical thinking learned in their classes, supported my recovery by affirming my struggle to change harmful thought patterns. During that period of my life, the academy was not just a place for intellectual expansion, but also a context for personal growth and healing. By the time I graduated from college, thinness was no longer my ultimate purpose. I'd found more interesting things to think about than fat grams and calories. An endless array of philosophical conundrums and social problems needed my attention. I wanted to make the world a better place, to improve something larger than my body. (pp. 9-10)

Shameful Bodies: Religion and the Culture of Physical Improvement expands on her previous books by exploring a wider variety of body issues, including disability, chronic pain and illness, and aging (in addition to a chapter on weight).

She states, "I invite readers to explore a series of questions: What happens when your body doesn't look how it's supposed to look, or feel how it's supposed to feel, or do what it's supposed to do? Who or what defines the ideals behind these expectations? How can we challenge them and live more peacefully in our bodies?"

Michelle's latest book is set to be released in January, and when asked about events or book signings she says, "With the busyness of the end of the semester, I haven't had time yet to plan any public events, but I'm guessing they will happen soon enough."