I have seen a common pattern among young women I know. They seem to have everything going for them: nearly perfect grades, athletic prowess, a supportive group of friends, a vibrant life of faith, an adoring family. They challenge school athletic records, impress professors, and inspire others with their resilience and work ethic. Then subtle markers of an underlying problem emerge: dramatic changes in diet, hours of training, layers of sweaters, personality and energy flagging, an absent menstrual cycle. Such things typically go unnoticed.
This continues for the young woman until the day when she collapses. Her body simply ceases to hold itself up. She may blame hormonal imbalance and a lack of sleep, vowing to improve her habits. If she is lucky, her doctors see through this, recognizing that all of these behaviors are signals of the presence of a slavish master: body dysmorphia and disordered eating.
While direct mortality from eating disorders (ED) is uncommon—just over one in every 500 women below age forty dies from them—morbidity, or sustained illness, is endemic. It is estimated that one out of every five women will develop an ED, although many believe this to be an undercount. EDs most commonly emerge during adolescence or early adulthood, which are the most crucial years for the maturation of the reproductive system. The COVID-19 era has been particularly cruel, with social isolation and digital learning boosting hospitalizations and clinic waiting lists.
In my circles, the standard explanations seldom apply. Few of my friends and acquaintances who suffer in this way were chasing the perfect bikini body, seeking attention from men, or Instagramming sculpted pictures. These are faithful, intelligent, and kind young women. But somehow they too became deeply convinced that their bodies were taking up too much space and needed to decrease.
The culture of death has infiltrated us in a way we seldom recognize. In the guise of devotion to “health and wellness,” body dysmorphia and disordered eating convince women that their body should be manipulated, mistreated, and be made as small as possible. In an attempt to sustain itself, the body often halts its reproductive processes. Consciously or not, loathing of the body is tied to misgivings about fertility. The same forces are at work.
This is also true on a wider scale in our society. Hostility toward life-giving is the undercurrent of attempts to liberate women from their asymmetric reproductive difference. To erase oppression and inequality, many have identified the problem as a physical one, which will disappear when fertility is subject to strict controls. Decades into our near-global contraceptive regime, it’s fair to say the plan has not worked. We are becoming more unhappy, not less.
A reclamation of the body’s unqualified goodness and a full affirmation of women’s biological uniqueness is the only path to a true feminism.
The Gift of Our Bodies
Whether a woman ever gives birth or not, her fertility is a daily reality that shapes how she views the world in a real, raw way. Social roles for men and women are flexible, but orientation toward motherhood or fatherhood flows from one’s bodily reality. We should not let contingencies obscure this fact.
The ancients, Aristotle and Plato in particular, recognized reproduction as an imitation of divinity, even in the simplest nutritive beings, such as plants. Each being, in approximation of the unmoved mover, attempts to achieve an eternal, unchanging existence through making another like itself. God is being itself, whose essence is existence. Simply to be is to participate in divine being, and to be generative is to act as a co-creator with God in the existence of future beings, an idea brought to fullness in the Christian metaphysical tradition. Thus, generativity is the most awe-inspiring quality of living things. Perhaps this is why we generally perceive species extinction, infertility, and death as tragedies. And yet we can be frequently tricked into believing otherwise.
This hostility toward fertility began all the way back in the garden of Eden, where the serpent’s anti-life mission is clear. He corners the woman intentionally. He can only obscure the created order and foster chaos and entropy. Eve’s generative ability mirrors God’s creativity, a power that the man holds more remotely, making her the greater threat. Although the devil’s hellish diet lacked divine authorization, the offer to be more compelling, more attractive, and more in control was tantalizing. However, in a wonderful paradox of mercy, God ordains that the life-giving power of woman will ultimately spell the defeat of the life-destroyer.
Human beings have often failed to embrace this mystery. Manichaeism and Gnosticism—both of which seek to associate matter with evil and spirit with good—have threatened the classical, Christian view of the body from the early centuries of the Church. They rear their heads no less today. Simply put, we blame the body for whatever we can. When it hurts, tires, desires, or decays, we seek to detach ourselves from the real problem. “My head aches.” “My body is just so tired.” We attempt to disassociate ourselves from its flaws, as if the body were the tether tying us to our mortality and brokenness. And when they speak of death, many Christians anticipate—even celebrate—being freed from our bodies, as if the resurrection of the body is a footnote rather than a central narrative.
When we blame the body, the soul feels a false sense of freedom, almost righteousness. But the more we blame the body, the less fully ourselves we become. The essence of humanity, the unity of body and soul, is undermined when we fault the body and attempt to distance ourselves from it. To consider the body as a tool of the mind, one that ought to reflect what the mind insists upon, is an unrecognizable view of human nature and is—in practice—impossible. Our bodies will never perform in precisely the manner our minds desire.
If woman becomes convinced that her body is the source of her insecurities, and that she can master her bodily nature through careful diet and exercise, she continues the cycle of blame. In pursuit of “health,” many women subject themselves to inhumane levels of scrupulosity and discipline. Rightly understood, health serves to uphold the virtue of the body, which is manifested in well-functioning organismal unity and integration. Yet for many of us, this becomes an attempt to chip away at the body, to lessen its space and weight—literally.
The pattern is a common one among young women of varying backgrounds and convictions. We maintain an image of our bodies as the end that, once reached, will satisfy us. We drink in the voices that tell us what methods “work.” Fitness and beauty “influencers” get paid to spread recommendations to the impressionable. Once you watch videos or like posts that endorse extreme diets or exercise, social media apps’ clever algorithms feed you more. We tell ourselves that our body is too big, too wrinkled, too fat, too scarred and disfigured to be worthy. Snapshots of idealized bodies reinforce this. Nearly all of us have fallen prey to the Instagram quest for affirmation, which fosters a dopamine-seeking feedback loop. Once a dozen of your acquaintances remark that you’re pretty, you simply want to hear it again and again.
Virtue, it turns out, doesn’t generate many clicks. But perhaps the diet we lack is one of spiritual food. In the beginning, when Adam and Eve are condemned to earning their bread through the sweat of their brows and bringing forth life from the earth through pain, the body was not the culprit. The free choice of our parents to break divine law came from a disordered will.
Genesis tells us that God looks upon all he has created and calls it good. In fact, it is only after he has created man and woman, body and soul, that he names creation “very good.” Although the body is wounded as a result of the fall, nothing about created matter has become evil in itself, only exceedingly vulnerable to the effects of sin.
Disordered eating is a legitimate mental illness and a heavy cross. Its siren call is real. How do we combat this temptation? Rather than ignoring our health or cancelling our gym membership, the answer begins with rekindling a reverence for the body as “very good” and health as a key facet of preserving this goodness.
Health is a virtue of our character, through which we willfully act in a way that fulfills our nature. It consists in finding the mean in the eating, drinking, and moving that preserves well-functioning, integral unity. Uniquely, health is a value that is directly tied to being, for through health we persist in existing as the kind of thing we are. As Thomas Aquinas argues, being and goodness are convertible, for all being is held in existence by and participates in God, who is goodness in se. Thus, simply to exist is to be good, as Genesis implies. To sustain your own life and function well as an organism is therefore inextricably tied together with the good life and integration with God himself.
Recovering Our Fertility
For woman, whose body is reproductively more complex and able to sustain her own life and that of another, this mystery of being, goodness, and generativity is especially true. We need to cultivate wonder for this mystery through our words and actions. The language of the body as pure gift in the world, articulated in Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, can be particularly helpful here, but only if we think more broadly about the body than sex.
Women must work to create a culture of life in opposition to the culture of death. A culture of life must recognize that today’s “model body” is fundamentally inhospitable to life. It is stunning how much we idealize a body type that often has too little body fat to sustain a menstrual cycle. I have known at least half a dozen young women who have wildly inconsistent or absent cycles, when their bodies ought to be biologically at their fertile prime. Our contraceptive mentality results in scores of young women deliberately choosing this flat state. But a healthy, functioning reproductive system is regarded by many health professionals as the fifth vital sign in women, after temperature, pulse, breathing, and blood pressure. If the female body is robbed of its life-giving power, why do we believe she will feel more alive?
How can women recover their fecundity, their very capacity to reproduce? The way in which we speak about and treat our bodies is crucial. This is not to suggest tireless tiptoeing around trigger words, but to recognize that comments undoubtedly affect us, for good or ill. Ideally, virtuous behaviors and positive attitudes about the body begin in the home. Reverence is practiced through language and action. If we want to rekindle our awe for the creation and creators of life, we can no longer hate or blame the body. The female body is the crown of creation, holding the coveted status of last in execution yet first in intention.
The great paradox of late-stage feminism is that it attempts to establish women on equal footing with men by robbing them of their life-giving nature. It’s time to reject this damaging and dangerous lie. Fertility is not a limitation. It is a gift.