Research Stream


Ursula Potter (2012–2013)
The University of Sydney

Interpreting Adolescent Fears in Early Modern Daughters

This interdisciplinary project set out to investigate possible causes behind the rise in religious melancholy cases in young girls in early modern England, and to apply the findings to a survey of current international literature on eating disorders in young women.

'A girl reads to a convalescent while a nurse brings in the patient's medicine. Watercolour by R.H. Giles.' by R.H. Giles. Wellcome Collection

Image: A girl reads to a convalescent while a nurse brings in the patient's medicine.
Watercolour by R.H. Giles. Wellcome Collection.

By drawing on early modern writings by and about women (autobiographies, diaries and memoirs, poetry, spiritual legacies), and on seventeenth-century Puritan devotional guides and printed sermons, it was possible to identify aspects of Protestant doctrine and religious practices which actively encouraged fear of menstruation and the onset of sexuality in young women, and which manifested frequently as a form of religious anorexia.

A comparison of these findings with clinical literature on anorexia nervosa revealed significant levels of similarities: in the onset of menarche as a trigger for eating disorders; feelings of fear or disgust towards the body; a desire for purity; obsessional traits. This suggested that one of the underlying causes of anorexia nervosa today may have less to do with body image and more to do with spiritual insecurity. International clinical studies were beginning to address this issue, but there had been no studies in Australia on the role of religion or spirituality in eating disorders.


  • Daniel Akrawi, School of Medicine, Western Sydney University
  • Roger Bartrop, Discipline of Psychiatry, Sydney Medical School - Northern, St Leonards (now deceased)
  • Ursula Potter, Department of English, The University of Sydney, Honorary Associate Investigator, ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions
  • Lois Surgenor, Department of Psychological Medicine, University of Otago, Christchurch, New Zealand
  • Shantiban Shanmugam, Department of Mental Health, School of Medicine, Western Sydney University
  • Stephen Touyz, Clinical Psychology Unit, School of Psychology, The University of Sydney


This project led to several conference papers and to three publications:

Akrawi, D., R. Bartrop, U. Potter and S. Touyz. ‘Religiosity, Spirituality in Relation to Disordered Eating and Body Image Concerns: A Systematic Review’. Journal of Eating Disorders 3.29 (2015).

Akrawi, D., R. Bartrop, L. Surgenor, S. Shanmugam, U. Potter and S. Touyz. ‘The Relationship between Spiritual, Religious and Personal Beliefs and Disordered Eating Psychopathology’. Translational Developmental Psychiatry 5.1 (2017).

Potter, U. ‘Menstruation and Coming of Age’. In Gender: Time, edited by K. Sellberg, pp. 185–200. Farmington Hills, MI: Macmillan Reference USA, 2018.

The publications can be downloaded and read on Ursula Potter's Academia page.