The idea of fasting being associated with holiness goes back to medieval times, when it was seen as a sign of saintliness to deny the flesh. During the 19th century these girls were also considered saintly by some, as many religious people viewed normal appetites of any kind as sinful. Women in particular were encouraged to not show any kind of physical appetite, wether sexual or for food. This attitude was so pervasive that many women would eat before attending social occasions, so as to appear more modest and acceptable. Fasting girls were the extreme of this attitude.
The girl's families often benefitted financially from the popularity of this phenomenon as visitors would come to see the young ladies offering gifts and money, or they might be put on display in a show.
One of the most famous and tragic cases was Sarah Jacobs (1857-1869) "the Welsh Fasting Girl". She claimed not to have eaten anything since the age of twelve. A local vicar was initially skeptical, but then became convinced of her authenticity. Doctors questioned this though, and eventually convinced the parents to hospitalize her in 1869, where she could be observed. The nurses were told not to deny her food if she asked and to carefully observe her. After two weeks she was clearly starving. The vicar asked the parents to send the nurses away and give her food but they refused. She sadly died a couple of days later. It came out that her parents had been been giving her small amounts of food previously. They were convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to hard labour.
Another famous fasting girl was "The Brooklyn Enigma" Mollie Fancher. At 19 she claimed to have not eaten anything for 7 weeks. In 1864 and 65 she lost he ability to hear and see, and claimed this enabled her to foretell the future. In the 1870s, she claimed to go months at a time without eating. Her claims were never verified.
Another tragic fasting girl was Leonora Eaton from New Jersey. It was said she lived without eating. When she was placed under medical observation in 1881, she unfortunately died 45 days later.
Josephine Marie Bedard, a later example, said that nothing but the Eucharist had passed her lips since 1927. Two museums, the Nickelodeon and Stone and Shaw's, actually wanted to put her on display as an oddity.
Many of these fasting girls were proven to be frauds, sneaking small amounts of food during their fasting times. Sadly many died and were exploited by their families.
When researching this, I was struck by how this attitude of starvation as virtue, still affects women today. We often equate virtue with denial, especially when it comes to food. We are encouraged to diet and not to eat with enthusiasm. This attitude even leads to eating disorders, which can lead to serious health problems and even death.
Don't be a fasting girl (or boy)! Look here's a photo of the crepe I had today and go eat something!
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