Imposed Anorexia A Model of Dietary Restriction in Four Ideological Groups

Cultic Studies Review, Volume 4, Number 1, 2005, pages 41-61

Imposed Anorexia: A Model of Dietary Restriction in Four Ideological Groups

Jessie Meikle

Department of Sociology

University of Alberta

This article develops a model of ‘imposed anorexia’ within new religious movements. In particular, I argue for a three-fold model of imposed anorexia: directly imposed, mediated, and doctrinally accepted. I develop this model of imposed anorexia by analyzing the dietary habits and restrictions in four NRMs: Church Universal and Triumphant, The Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, Breatharianism, and the Family of Anne Hamilton-Byrne (The Great White Brotherhood). Specifically, I conceptualize imposed anorexia as a form of control that ideological leaders hold over their ‘surrogate bodies,’ which are those of their followers.

Few scholarly works exist that discuss dietary restrictions in a religious context, and most of the work written on this subject concentrates on major world religions.[1] Of particular interest are studies of ‘holy anorexia’ among medieval Catholic woman whose severe self-deprivation sometimes gained them religious status (see Bell, 1985; Walker-Bynum, 1987). Even fewer works on alternative religions discuss the relationship between diet and social control. For example, Bradley Whitsel’s recent study of Church Universal and Triumphant overlooks the group’s diet and eating habits, despite the importance that the group placed on food. Likewise, an earlier controversial study (Lewis and Melton, 1993) also neglected to discuss how group leadership used food to control members (perhaps because the editors seemed to overlook aspects of the group that might cast it in a negative light).[2]

In this article, I argue that selected leaders of ideological groups and new religious movements (NRMs) use dietary restrictions to regulate members’ bodies and minds in much the same manner as anorectics use dietary restrictions to govern their lives. I call this regulation ‘imposed anorexia,’[3] and I present a three- fold model of it. First, directly imposed anorexia occurs when the group leader gives orders or commands that restrict members’ diets. Second, doctrinally accepted anorexia occurs when a person adopts the dietary rules and regulations of group leaders on their own, with few if any direct orders of their inter-mediators. This kind of adoption takes place in what Stark and Bainbridge (1985) call ‘audience cults,’ which involve members receiving doctrine through mass media outlets (Stark and Bainbridge, 1985: 26). Third, mediated anorexia occurs when the group leader gives instructions or orders through another person or down a chain of command through his or her followers. The three categories of imposed anorexia are not mutually exclusive, but form an outline for a model of member control through the use of food restrictions. I draw examples from four ideological groups: Church Universal and Triumphant, Breatharianism, Rama Behera’s Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, and The Family of Anne Hamilton-Byrne from Australia (sometimes referred to as The Great White Brotherhood).[4]

By studying an aspect of new religions that focuses on potential harm, I nevertheless do not wish to entangle myself in the academic polarization that Susan Palmer refers to as “the cult wars” (Palmer, 2001). [5] Nor do I wish to pass judgment on ideological groups, especially since the so-called mainstream American diet is also harmful, as evidenced by the plethora of diet-related illnesses such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, etc. My objective, however, in this study is to critically engage certain group doctrines and practices involving diet that might be harmful to members. The diets of some groups, in some instances, contain potentially harmful dimensions that reflect the control issues of leaders as well as the power structures embedded within the group organization and operation. Following Michel Foucault, we see that the body is, “…a target and vehicle of modern disciplinary practices” (Sawicki, 1991: 95) but in this instance, the disciplinarians are ideological leaders. Through severe food restrictions, these leaders enhance their influence over the individual and in turn, the individual develops the illusion of gaining control over his or her own body.

Traditional Notions of Food and Religion

In the traditional religious studies literature dealing with diet or food and religion, several themes are prevalent. From a religious studies perspective, Paul Fieldhouse’s study of the role of diet in religion examines the use of food to communicate with God or with otherworldly deities (Fieldhouse, 1995:120). Communication usually takes place with a food sacrifice involving a ritualistic or symbolic act, such as taking the Eucharist in Christianity. The Eucharist is a highly symbolic act in protestant Christianity, whereas in the Catholic tradition, the bread and wine become the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ through the process of transubstantiation (Fieldhouse, 1995: 103; Oxtoby, 1996: 220).

Another traditional notion surrounding food and religion is that food practices demonstrate one’s faith (Ayoub,1996: 382; Fieldhouse, 1995: 120). For example, Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu dietary laws express followers’ acceptance of the reputed word of God. Furthermore, religious followers deny food to reject worldliness (Amore and Ching, 1996: 219; Fieldhouse, 1995: 120). Fasting is the most common way that religious devotees reject the world to practice asceticism[6]—a point to which I will return, as it is very important for my theoretical discussion. Food practices also enhance group feelings of solidarity and identity (Fieldhouse, 1995: 120). As Fieldhouse articulates, “[I]individuals who observe codified food rules make a public demonstration of belonging to a group, and every day provide themselves with a private affirmation of identification with the group. In this way, a sense of belonging is constantly reinforced” (Fieldhouse, 1995: 122).

Food practices relate to religion because they are an expression of separateness from other religious or nonreligious groups (Fieldhouse, 1995: 120). This function of separation is clear in Jewish and Muslim dietary laws, and Hindu caste rules are very specific about who can and cannot eat certain foods (Fieldhouse, 1995: 122; Narayanan, 1996: 89; Segal, 1995: 108). Finally, religious followers use food practices in a spiritual context for ecological reasons, such as vegetarianism or veganism in the New Age spirituality movement (Fieldhouse, 1995: 120).

These traditional notions and themes surrounding the religious functions of food are valid and useful perspectives, but are incomplete. Fieldhouse’s discussion, for example, does not identify that some ideological groups use food and diet restrictions to control followers in a pervasive and comprehensive manner. In addressing this omission, I argue that some high demand ideological leaders use dietary restrictions in attempts to govern followers’ bodies as if they were surrogates for their own bodies.

Anorexia Nervosa

Some high-commitment ideological groups that exact dietary restrictions are analogous to anorexics[7] who restrict their own diets in attempts to regulate their lives (Bruch, 1978; Bruch, 1997; Brumberg 1988; Lelwica, 1999; Miles, 1995). In this context, anorexia nervosa is a disease that completely encompasses the sufferers’ lives. They make basic, everyday decisions based on their relation and desire for self-regimentation. The anorexic feels that she can manipulate all aspects of her life if she can control her body and its desires. Similarly, some ideological groups use dietary instructions and restrictions to subjugate their ‘social body’ of followers.

Several eating disorders exist, but I focus on anorexia nervosa, and particularly one social-psychological explanation of it, because it allows for the clearest comparison to religious starvation. Two other explanatory models for anorexia are the biomedical model and the socio-cultural feminist model. The biomedical model assumes that anorexia is rooted in physical and not mental problems. The biomedical model focuses on biochemical imbalances in the brain as causation for anorexia (Brumberg, 1988: 24-25; Lelwica, 1999: 23). The biomedical model looks to the signs and symptoms of anorexia such as: emaciation, amenorrhea, malnourishment, lanugo, depression, and hair loss, etc. (Buckroyd, 1996: 5). In my view, however, these biomedical problems are effects of anorexia not causes of it. The biomedical community still debates whether biochemical imbalances cause or are components of anorexia (Lelwica 1999: 24).

The socio-cultural feminist model proposes that anorexia is a ‘culture-bound’ syndrome (Lelwica, 1999:25). Women become anorexic because they are overwhelmed with the demands of womanhood (Buckroyd, 1996: 63). The expectation on women is to be selfless, caring, and nurturing, while at the same time to be independent, self-reliant, and powerful (Lelwica, 1999: 26). In this model, fear of the demands of womanhood and fear of their own bodies causes anorexia, and anorexia is the result of women attempting to ‘keep’ their bodies childlike (Lelwica, 1999: 25). Often the proponents of the socio-cultural model look to the fashion industry for causation of anorexia, as well as the over-representation of thin women in the media. Throughout the past several decades, the ‘ideal’ size of women has shrunk (Buckroyd, 1996: 53). One can see the ‘shrinking’ phenomena in the popular media: “[a] series of well- known studies point to the declining weight since the 1950s of fashion models, Miss America contestants, and Playboy centerfolds” (Brumberg, 1988: 254).

The social-psychological explanation for anorexia is based on the assumption that its cause is a desire to have complete control over one’s body (Bruch, 1978; Brumberg 1988; Lelwica, 1999; Miles, 1995; Orbach, 1986). As Joan Jacob Brumberg discusses, “the anorectic makes her body a stand-in for a life she cannot control” (Brumberg, 1988: 28). Psychologist Hilde Bruch was one of the main pioneers of this theory, and she stresses that the anorexic’s desire for control is in opposition with her desire to be complacent and obedient (Lelwica, 1999: 22).

The idea that regulation over food and diet creates a sense of total management over the anorexic’s life is well documented. Bruch discusses a seventeen-year-old anorexic who talked about her own disease in the context of self-regimentation, stating, “This was something I could control. I still don’t know what I look like or what size I am, but I know my body can take anything” (Bruch, 1997: 218). Anorexics use their diet as the one part of their lives over which they have complete and utter control, and then by extension are able to feel a sense of power over other aspects of their lives. As one anorexic describes this feeling of command, “‘I felt powerful as an anorexic. Controlling my body yielded an illusion of control over my life.… I had reduced my world to a plate of steamed carrots, and over this tiny kingdom I proudly crowned myself queen’” (quoted in Lelwica, 1999: 110).

The feelings of total self-rule that an anorexic feels while dieting are powerful and insidious. The simple act of denying the body physical needs creates a feeling of domination over the body and the self (Lelwica, 1999: 89). This domination and self-regulation that the anorexic holds over herself is akin to the regulation that some ideological leaders impose upon their members through diet and food restrictions.

Directly Imposed

A striking example of directly imposed anorexia appears in the dietary restrictions of Church Universal and Triumphant. Its leader (until 1996), Elizabeth Clare Prophet, claimed to channel messages from the great ascended masters (such as Jesus and the Buddha). Through these messages, Prophet gave her followers direct orders about what they should eat, how they should eat, and even where they should sit while eating. She stressed that she knew what was best for them and that “disobedience” (her word) would have been detrimental to their health and well-being. While members’ participation in dietary restrictions might suggest that I should view the group as one that doctrinally accepted the control of food, I include Prophet in the direct imposition category because of her face-to-face contact with those of her followers who lived with her or who saw her at events or retreats.

Prophet’s dietary restrictions on her members have obvious analogies to the restraint that the anorexic has over her own body. She wrote, for example, in an internal publication entitled Pearls of Wisdom that when one eats:

…you must hold them [food] in your right hand, placing once again your left hand to your heart and calling forth the infinite blessing of Almighty God and the charging of that substance with a concentrated light that is specific for your healing (Prophet and Prophet, 1978: 169-170).

Anorexics also often have elaborate ritualized behaviours that accompany eating, such as breaking their food into little pieces or eating in a specified time (Johnston, 1993: 78). These behaviours give anorexics a sense of familiarity and routine over their eating habits. Likewise, Prophet was so intent upon her quest for dominance that she even prescribed eating-related actions.

In addition to ritualizing the consumption of food, Prophet determined seating arrangements. These instructions were a direct attempt to dictate the dietary environment of her followers. For example, Prophet wrote: “Father and mother should sit opposite one another at the table anchoring the ray of Alpha and Omega, and the children on either side. Perfect God-control should be held by father and mother in the wholeness” (Prophet and Prophet, 1978: 71). In less controlled environments, the family meal serves to maintain and develop familial bonds of solidarity, and family members interact with each one another in an informal and relaxed atmosphere (Levenstein, 1988:162). Prophet’s infiltration of the family meal, therefore, had direct implications for the weakening of group member familial social bonds. She, however, explained her dietary restraints as necessary so that one neither strained nor stressed one’s body temple (Prophet and Prophet 1978: 75). It appears, however, that the excuse of strain was just a way to exact persistent obedience from followers.

Prophet outlined what her followers took into their bodies, as well as when and how they ate. Like the anorexic who uses diet to control herself, Prophet used diet and eating rituals to repress her followers. In fact, she threatened her followers that if they did not follow her ‘suggestions’ about what to eat, then they may have been contributing to their own demise:

Watch then, the substance that you take into your body; for the appetites of the physical body and the appetites of death, and when you take in impure substance you violate the code of the Holy Spirit and you shorten the days of your service. And therefore, let food that is alive and let the juices of food that is alive be a part of your daily ritual in the Holy Spirit (Prophet, 1978: 245).

Elizabeth Clare Prophet’s personal diet varied considerably from the low calorie, bland food of the members of Church Universal and Triumphant. Prophet had her own walk-in refrigerator stocked with expensive delicacies such as exotic fruit, ice cream, and seafood (Paolini and Paolini, 2000: 73). The average member of the group subsisted on rice and vegetables while expending a significant amount of energy working at church-run businesses or on communal projects. Ironically, Prophet could afford her own delicacies, but she forbade the same luxuries for her followers.

Prophet epitomizes the over-bearing ideological group leader likened to the anorexic. She desired her followers’ complete obedience so fervently that she used dietary restrictions in an attempt to control her followers pervasively. In this case, as in other ideological groups, Prophet’s followers were her body and she was the anorectic who used dietary restrictions to control it.

Rama Behera appears to be a striking example of another ideological leader who directly imposes dietary measures and restrictions upon his followers. Behera leads a small Bible-based congregation called the Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ in the town of Shawano, Minnesota (Blum, 1982). In recent years, several members have left the group, and they have reported very intense food restrictions as well as mass enforced binges.[8] According to former member Eugene Baugh, most group members fasted for the majority of the working week. Baugh recounts the difficulty that he experienced during one particularly severe fast:

This [instruction from Behera] meant no food whatsoever during the term of the fast. Initially fruit juices were allowed. Some of the brethren then took to drinking large amounts of fruit juices. When Rama learned of this he proscribed juices too. Being that we had no money to buy juice in the first place we went without nourishment of any kind for three days. I would often keel over and black out. This was ascribed to a demonic attack (Baugh, 2000: 41, emphasis added).

It is interesting to note that Baugh’s physiological reaction, most likely brought on by fasting and lack of adequate nutrition, was misattributed to a spiritual cause.

On weekends Behera held large feasts where he required every member to consume large quantities of East Indian cuisine. Behera allegedly insisted that members consume every morsel of food that he provided to them. After fasting all week, however, some members were physically unable to eat the mass quantity of food that Behera forced upon them on the weekends (Elina Lane, 2001: 3; Elliot Lane, 2001: 5). Former member Elina Lane recounted her diet during her childhood in Behera’s group:

Another deprivation I went through was food. Or rather lack of control of [food]. Rama would make us fast all weekend, and then stuff us with more than we could handle in one meal. We would work all day, then go to another meeting, and then work some more. Finally Rama would feed us breakfast, lunch, and supper all at one meal. He would give us these quart size bowls of soup to shove down our throats. At first, it was great. But soon we became stuffed. Yet, we still had to keep eating whatever was left in our bowls. Not only that, but we also had to finish off a loaf of bread along with that (Elina Lane, 2001: 3).

Reportedly, many group members vomited in reaction to consuming large quantities of food in a short time, after which Behera reputedly forced them to eat their own vomit (Giese, 2001: 1). At first one may think that these ‘binge eating’ events on weekends are analogous to the activities of bulimics. Typically, however, bulimics purge themselves (Buckroyd, 1996: 20), while Behera’s followers purged involuntarily. If, however, one were to conceive of Behera’s adherents as his ‘body’ of followers, then the analogy with bulimia becomes stronger.

On some occasions, Behera supposedly enforced a diet of bread and chili hot sauce, where he required members to consume only bread and extremely hot chili sauce or chili sauce and raw eggs (Giese, 2001: 2-3; Thorpe, 2001: 4). On others, Behera apparently obligated members to eat huge quantities of food in one seating, sometimes feeding them large quantities of rotten food (Giese, 2001: 3). Typically, Behera cooked up large Indian meals on the weekends for everyone, but if the followers did not finish the food, he apparently left it un-refrigerated until the following weekend (Giese, 2001: 3). According to some accounts, Behera subsequently heated the rotten food and forced members to consume it. Often mass diarrhea episodes followed the weekend meals, most likely due to the fact that the food had spoiled during the week (Giese, 2001: 3).

Former member Eugene Baugh writes that he shed critical amounts of weight while a member in the Disciples of Jesus Christ group:

I was gradually literally starving. In a year I shed 60 pounds. At 6’5” tall I weighed 150 pounds. I had a 32” waist. My arms and legs were no more than skin stretched tight over bone. I could count my ribs. Beyond this precipitous loss of weight I also experienced the other physical effects of starvation. I was disorientated, clinically depressed and overcame lethargy only by expending large measures of psychic energy (Baugh, 2000: 39).

According to the Body Mass Index, a male who is 6’5” and weighs 150 lbs has a BMI of 17.8, which is in the second percentile for body weight.[9] Consequently, ninety-eight percent of 6’5” American males weigh more than Eugene Baugh did at the time.

Much like other ideological leaders who impose diet restrictions, Behera apparently did not practice what he preached. In fact, Behera reputedly often ate extremely expensive gourmet foods, which group members paid for. Behera demanded the best quality food at all times, cooked to meet his particular specifications (Elliott Lane, 2001: 5). Behera enforced dietary restrictions for his followers, but did not adhere to those nutritional limitations himself. When he was fasting, however, he expected followers to also fast, regardless of whether they needed to eat, or whether it was on weekends, when he usually allowed them to eat (Baugh, 2000: 62).

Mediated Anorexia

Mediated anorexia is a situation in which a subordinate, acting on behalf of the leader, restricts members’ food intake. For example, Anne Hamilton-Byrne is an ideological group leader who by-and-large used intermediaries to enforce food restrictions on group children, since she spent extended periods away from her immediate followers. Anne Hamilton-Byrne was the leader of a group in Australia called The Family or the Great White Brotherhood. Anne adopted several children and attempted to groom them as future ‘inheritors of the earth’ who would continue with her prophetic visions after the earth was consumed by a holocaust (Hamilton-Byrne, 1995: 1). Anne was almost entirely physically absent from raising her adopted children. She, however, directed adult members of the group (aunties) to care for them. Anne spent about half of the year in Australia and even then only saw ‘her’ children on weekends. For all intents and purposes the aunties were surrogate mothers to the children, because “[t]he aunties taught us, fed us, supervised our lives and enforced Anne’s rules and the punishments she outlined” (Hamilton-Byrne, 1995: 14).

For the most part, Anne did not directly impose anorexia, but rather directed others to implement her restrictive orders. In her book, Anne Hamilton-Byrne’s adopted daughter, Sarah Hamilton-Byrne,[10] recounts her childhood growing up in a very controlled environment. Sarah lived with other children from the group, who all believed that they were Anne’s flesh and blood children. They lived in a highly regulated and monitored home, especially concerning food issues. According to Sarah, Anne Hamilton-Byrne was obsessed with body image and weight. Once a week, sometimes more frequently, the aunties who looked after the children would weigh them and pass on the information to Anne (Hamilton-Byrne, 1995: 22). Sarah Hamilton-Byrne said of this experience:

Weighing was a very serious business—particularly serious for us because if it was considered that we were putting on too much weight we would have our food rations cut down and that was a dreadful proposition, food being the most important thing in our lives. We girls viewed the scales with hatred. They made our miserable lives even worse. Some of the girls would even try to induce vomiting on weighing mornings in an attempt to seem lighter (Hamilton-Byrne, 1995: 22).

(Self-induced vomiting is a characteristic of bulimia, and although my model is concerned primarily with anorexic-like behaviour, it is worth noting these instances of other disordered eating habits.) Weighing oneself obsessively, sometimes multiple times daily, is a common trait of anorexics. It is interesting that Anne was not weighing herself, but her surrogate bodies were those of her adoptive children.

The children’s caregivers, acting on behalf of Anne, gave them extremely restrictive diets to the extent that some of the younger children developed swollen and bloated stomachs due to malnutrition and protein deficiency (Hamilton-Byrne, 1995: 78). Anne, however, saw her children’s bloated stomachs as a sign of obesity and further restricted food for them. The aunties almost starved to death one little girl named Cassandra. At the time that officials intervened in the group and removed the children to state care, Cassandra was 12 years old and weighed the same amount as a 5 year old should (under 20 kilograms [Hamilton-Byrne, 1995: 182]).

Anouree Crawford, who was raised in the group, has come forward recently with allegations of cruel and inhumane practices against Anne Hamilton-Byrne. Crawford supports Sarah Hamilton-Byrne’s allegations of dietary restriction and deprivation. Crawford situates the food restriction that she experienced as a child in the context of control issues within the group, saying, “Basically food deprivation was a daily event. The reason for the deprivation was to control us, to make us weak and to feed us the most minimal amount of protein….. We were always hungry [;] we stole food everyday” (Crawford quoted in The Age, 2004). According to Australian media, Crawford’s case will most likely be tried in 2005 (The Age, 2004).

Sarah Hamilton-Byrne hypothesizes that her adoptive mother cast her own unhealthy body images onto her adoptive children (Hamilton-Byrne, 1995: 101). This hypothesis supports my imposed anorexia model, since Anne Hamilton-Byrne struggled with her own weight and her own negative self-image. Instead of limiting her own food intake and dealing with her own weight issues, she instead made her adopted children the outlet of her own self-regimentation. She made her children’s under-nourished and anorexic-looking bodies surrogates of her own body, apparently which she could not regulate. Restricted eating in ‘the Family,’ therefore, almost certainly interconnected with Anne’s own body image and psychological mindset in relation to food control issues.

Doctrinal Accepted Anorexia

A leader or intermediary does not impose doctrinally imposed anorexia, but rather group doctrine or publications demand dietary restrictions. Although usually ideological leaders write group doctrines, doctrinal imposition differs from direct or mediated imposition. In doctrinally imposed anorexia, the essence of the group’s doctrine is food restriction and diet, rather than just a subset or small part of its doctrines and or publications. Breatharianism, for example, imposes anorexia on followers doctrinally. In Breatharianism the ideological leader does not subject followers to his or her demands, but rather to the extremely high demands of a strict diet supposedly set out by spiritual gurus. To be a practicing Breatharian it is not necessary to live in a communal group or to even have contact with other Breatharians, since one can follow a Breatharian lifestyle on one’s own. Breatharians are perhaps the most striking example of group members who fast for spiritual reasons.

Breatharians hold as their basic belief that humans are capable of living without food. The basis of Breatharian doctrine is the notion that humanity has progressed through five stages. These stages are carnivorous, vegetarian, fruitarian, liquidarian, and breatharian (Brooks and Foss, 1982: 9). According to Breatharian doctrine, God divinely commanded vegetarianism and fruitarianism in Genesis 1:26. God said to love all creatures, and therefore people should have ended the first stage of ‘carnivorous’ eating and entered into the next two stages of vegetarianism and fruitarianism (Brooks and Foss, 1982: 9). Breatharians believe that God prescribed living on air in the book of Genesis 2:7: “God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living entity” (Brooks and Foss, 1982: 50).

In addition to biblical justification, Breatharians also have developed a very elaborate pseudo-scientific rational for living off air. Brooks and Foss claim that because our bodies are composed of the same elements found in air— hydrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide and water— we should be able to live on air alone because our bodies can get all the building blocks of life from it (Brooks and Foss, 1982: 27). Breatharianism questions the basis of how the body breaks down food energy to regenerate cells and sustain life. Breatharian doctrine states that if one does not eat, the body actually saves energy, because the body does not expend energy to digest and break down food (Brooks and Foss, 1982: 25). Although Breatharians claim that food is not necessary for building cells and sustaining life, they do not offer any real scientific explanation to explain how breathing air can build cells. Breatharianism does offer, however, a logic based on not eating: “ Electrons do not eat, atoms do not eat, molecules do not eat, cells do not eat, and the body is built of and sustained by the cells, and not by what man eats” (Breatharian website, 2004)

Breatharian doctrines continue to stress control over one’s body. Wiley Brooks and Nancy Foss founded Breatharianism in the late 1970s, and today the leader of the main Breatharianism movement is Ellen Graves, who goes by the name Jasmuheen. Jasmuheen believes that that she is “a messenger of the ‘Ascended Masters,’ with whom she communicates through cosmic telepathy” (Dutter, 1999). Jasmuheen claims that she is able to live without eating by tapping into a different source of pranic nourishment, or liquid light (Dutter, 1999).

Jasmuheen recommends a twenty-one day initial fast before embarking on a Breatharian lifestyle so that the body supposedly can adapt to living off alternative energy sources. Brooks and Foss originally laid out the twenty-one day transitional diet and they drew inspiration for it from Eastern traditions. In recent years, Jasmuheen’s twenty-one day fast has drawn media attention because at least three followers have died while attempting her transition diet. One woman, Verity Linn, passed away in September 1999, and found with Ms. Linn’s body was a diary containing references to Jasmuheen (The Times, 2000: 9). The twenty-one day fast is quite controversial because it advocates no food or drink for the first seven days and then only small sips of water for the remaining fourteen days (Dutter, 1999).

The fact that the human body cannot survive without food or water does not seem to bother Jasmuheen. All scientific knowledge points out that the body needs food. Without food the body begins to eat itself in order to gain nutrients. This leads to tissue damage and eventually death due to kidney or heart failure. Without liquid, however, death would occur in a matter of days due to dehydration (Kibby, 1999). When confronted with the deaths of those attempting her fast, Jasmuheen refused any responsibility for their fate. She said, “[i]f people are not coming from a place of integrity and the right motivation, then [the transition fast] doesn’t work” (Dutter, 1999).

In a doctrinal publication Brooks and Foss state that, “We must begin to stop eating poisons in order to stop the ageing process and to begin to take control of our own bodies instead of letting our bodies control us” (Brooks and Foss, 1982: 142, emphasis added). Furthermore, Breatharianism stresses the need for domination of our bodies in order to free ourselves from the restraints of humanity (Brooks and Foss, 1982: 18).

It is interesting to note that both Wiley Brooks and Ellen Graves (a.k.a. Jasmuheen) have used the same excuse when they have been caught eating. When followers caught Wiley Brooks eating in the 1970s he claimed that he was not able to properly gain nutrients from the air due to air pollution (Lagasse, 2002: 72). Jasmuheen used an identical excuse when she had to back out of a surveillance challenge issued by Australia’s 60 Minutes TV show. Jasmuheen claimed that pollution from a roadway nearby was polluting the air and therefore she could not garner the nutrients she needed through her breath (Lagasse, 2002: 72).

Notions of food and eating guide and regiment the whole life of a Breatharian, which is parallel to the anorexic’s manipulation of her life in the same manner. Breatharianism teaches that he or she should concentrate on not eating and not feeling hunger, just like the anorexic that might think obsessively about not eating all day. This desire to fast and not feel hunger invades all aspects of one’s life; it becomes all-encompassing. Breatharianism is a comprehensive ideology that, like anorexia, controls its members.

Breatharianism is an audience cult whereby membership primarily involves consumer activities (Stark and Bainbridge, 1985: 26). Members consume cult doctrine through mass media, in particular via the Internet. Due to the non-communal nature of Breatharianism, members most likely do not interact with Jasmuheen on an interpersonal level. Therefore, followers learn to control themselves via the guise of group doctrine. By extension, the leader (Jasmuheen in the case of Breatharianism) indirectly gains control over surrogate bodies, those of her followers.

In her “bounded choice” model of NRM involvement, Janja Lalich discusses internal mechanisms of control (Lalich, 2004). She refers specifically to Heaven’s Gate and the Democratic Workers Party, which were both total institutions:

But the harshest sanction of all was internal— the devoted member’s inner capacity to control urges, desires, actions, thoughts, and beliefs that were contrary to the group’s teaching. Self-condemnation was everyday fare. These internalized sanctions were among the most powerful mechanisms of control. Ultimately, the individual cult member’s ability to enact freedom of action was not restricted by lurking external forces or even by the confines of the system. Rather, at this point of the fusion of personal freedom and self-renunciation, at this point of personal closure the individual may well become his own source of constraint (Lalich, 2004: 254 emphasis added).

I extend Lalich’s internal mechanism of control to apply to Breatharianism, even though Breatharianism is an audience cult and not a total institution. Within Breatharianism, the individual becomes his or her own harshest critic, despite the lack of “. . . lurking external forces” (Lalich, 2004: 254).


I adapt the social psychological control theory of anorexia to relate to what I call imposed anorexia. Imposed anorexia is a form of dietary restriction that one does not originate with oneself but with a high demand ideological leader. In some instances, that leader imposes the heavily restricted diet directly (in the case of Elizabeth Clare Prophet and Rama Behera). In other instances, mediators enforce the restriction on others (as in the case of Anne Hamilton-Byrne). In still other instances (as with Breatharians), seekers follow doctrines and essentially implement the restrictions on (or against) themselves. The evidence from these groups suggests that as researchers continue studying eating disorders we can apply some of the theories coming out of anorexia research to the study of diet within high commitment environments.

A frequent element among leaders who impose dietary restrictions is that they do not follow their own dietary advice. Usually leaders set themselves above their members in terms of nutrition requirements and the quality and quantity of the food. Anne Hamilton-Byrne ate very well despite her insistence that her young ‘children’ eat only the bare minimum. Likewise, Elizabeth Clare Prophet had her own walk-in refrigerator full of delicacies and delights while her followers were not getting enough food to maintain their weight (Paolini and Paolini, 2000: 73). Wiley Brooks and Ellen Graves (a.k.a Jasmuheen) said that their reasons for eating were due to pollution, not due to their status as leader or founder. As well, Rama Behera reputedly ate whatever and whenever he wanted, while his followers subsisted for long periods on grape juice and water, the occasional bread and chili sauce, or feasts of rotten food.

Whether leaders enforced diets directly, had mediators do it, or saw their doctrines used as models for self-restraint and reputed spiritual advancement, common tendencies remain within and among all of their followers. In each group, many members appear to have been undernourished, and their basic nutritional needs often were not met. Although leaders may have some different reasons for their food-intake restrictions, I make the argument that one of the underlying motives for their dietary restrictions is an attempt to govern members’ bodies as their own surrogate bodies. Leaders most likely have their own reasons why they would subject followers to this level of control. Underlying psychological motivations may be the cause for some ideological group leaders attempting to control members, but in all cases the consequences for members’ health can be dire if not deadly.

Future research will have to determine whether imposed anorexia increases leaders’ control over members, or merely reflects the near-total control that some of them already have over their flock. The phenomenon of subservient members and high-demand leaders is well known, but it will take careful mapping of leadership trajectories to learn precisely when and why, as power and control dynamics, some people undertake to control severely the diets of others. Moreover, we have yet to know what members themselves feel about the presumed benefits, harms, and degrees of choice that they have around dietary restrictions. These questions and others may find answers as research continues on the importance of food within new religions, as we continue to explore why some groups provide feasts while others require fasts for those who follow them.

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[1] For a discussion of Jewish dietary rules see Kemelman 1971. For Christian dietary practices see Gremillion 1978 and Sack, 1999. For a discussion of Islamic dietary rules see Denny 1994: 283-285, and 361-363. For a discussion of Jain diet and fasting behaviour see Dundas 1992 and Dundas 1985. For Hindu dietary restrictions in relation to the caste system see Dumont 1970.

[2] For a critical discussion of Melton and Lewis’s study of Church Universal and Triumphant see Balch and Langdon, 1998.

[3] I use the term, anorexia, because of its association with psychological control dynamics (which I discuss later), not its association with a thin or emaciated body.

[4] I am aware that other ideological groups and NRMs also fit into this model and I hope to include them in a larger study.

[5] For a detailed discussion of the academic polarization in the study of new religious movements see Langone, 2000 and Zablocki and Robbins, 2001.

[6] See Griffith, 1999 for an interesting discussion of the union of fasting and dieting in Christianity.

[7] Technically one who suffers from anorexia is a anorectic. The most commonly used term, however, is anorexic. For the sake of clarity, therefore, I follow common convention and use ‘anorexic.’

[8] The sources that I use are ex-member accounts from police investigation statements as well as ex-member accounts collected by a former member. Therefore, I acknowledge that this information is allegation.

[9] This information comes from an on-line body mass index calculator that computes BMI using the formula BMI=kg/m2.

[10] Published information on Anne Hamilton-Byrne’s ‘Family’ is scarce; therefore, I primarily rely on information found in Sarah Hamilton-Byrne’s personal account of her childhood in ‘the Family.’


This article is a revised version of a paper presented at the American Family Foundation conference in Edmonton (June, 2004). I thank Stephen Kent for his editorial suggestions, and for the access that he granted me to the collection on alternative religions that he oversees for the University of Alberta Library.

Jessie Meikle is a graduate student in Sociology at the University of Alberta, Edmonton. She is currently working on her Master's thesis in the area of diet, sociology of the body and new religious movements.