“I wish I was as thin as the first time I thought I was fat.” The fact that the room went quiet was evidence of how deeply this simple statement resonated with us all. All of us – underweight, medically appropriate weight and overweight – had thought this exact thing, or some version of it in relation to the bit of our bodies that we most detested.
“Fat shaming” and the culture that underpins (and promotes) body-unhappiness is relatively modern but not new. In parts of our history, extra weight was a sign of one’s socio-economic status. It showed our ability to eat what and when we liked. It was the equivalent of wearing your jewelry and show off your wealth. Body shape in our western modern culture is now driven by a cultural expectation. In large part that specific and narrow definition of body-beautiful has been shaped by modern media (including advertising, film, TV and social media). This really took off with the social commentary on women in the Victorian era, that great epoch of books about how women ought to look, talk, dress, behave and think.
In 1897, Cesare Lombroso in The Female Offender made an explicit comparison between obesity and prostitution and slim morally upright women, giving weight a moral dynamic. In 1899, Ella Adelia Fletcher wrote The Woman Beautiful: A Practical Treatise on the Development and Preservation of Woman’s Health and Beauty, the Principles of Taste in Dress. This catchily titled work advised her readers that “Every additional pound of flesh beyond that required to round out the form of artistic lines and harmonic proportions is a menace to a woman’s beauty and health and usefulness, and, consequently, to her happiness.” Weight was becoming de-coupled from what people ate (or had access to) and now became entwined with a woman’s moral worth, value in society and sense of self-propriety.
In recent years, this moral worthiness was put on show in The Biggest Loser, the zenith of weight obsession which opened the flood gates of anonymous online vitriolics intent on making their opinion on everything heard. Across the TV-watching globe, all of us are concreted into our self-belief that we have got exactly what we deserved. We are lazy, fat and stupid. Hating ourselves and un-lovable to others.
Recent movements focus more on healthiness rather than weight. Health at Every Size focuses on health rather than weight and body shape. We talk more now about weight inclusivity and body positivity. These are not anti-health terms but a means of providing a foil to decades of culturally calcified body expectations.
I myself am overweight. My harmonic proportions are all over the place. And I, like many others, have struggled with my weight all my life. My weight is due to a number of factors: a familial propensity to an abundance of girth, vocational sedentariness, a distaste for active sports, a love of cheese and wine and a tendency to eat my emotions (of which I have many). Some of these issues are not things I can control (my genetics or my upbringing). Some issues are not bad and have no culturally mandated moral judgement attached to them (God gave us good things to enjoy). Some however, are my responsibility to manage.
Of course, others struggle with weight because of all manner of factors including medication side effects, hormonal changes, having an injury that inhibits normal activity and exercise, some genetic inheritances and medical disorders. I am talking here about, of the elements that I can control, what I should do and how I should approach it.
Because does God care about my weight? Yes, in that he cares for me. But no in that it bears no relation to his feelings for me or attitude to me. I am a jar of clay. I am meant to be broken and flawed. But while I’m all for body positivity and weight inclusivity, I recognize that my weight is not a healthy one and as a Christian, there are other things to consider. Let me walk you through my thought process.
I am God’s temple and in-dwelt by the Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16). This does not mean that I should be a shining sequin-clad angelic presence in soft lighting. The “you” in Paul’s directive is plural. I am part of a body of believers who collectively are God’s temple and within which the Spirit dwells. There is a corporate as well as individual element to this. Collectively we work as a body for mutual strength (1 Corinthians 12:12-27) and to glorify God (Ephesians 3:21). In order to achieve this corporate facility, individually I need to be fit and healthy enough to play my part. Being worthy of the call I have received (Eph. 4:1) means being in a state of body and mind that is ready and able to support and bless my co-workers in Christ.
This can be hard for many of us. Body-anxiety for people of any shape and weight can take up enormous mental real estate and inhibit our ability and willingness to take part in activities, events and ministries. We self-opt out for fear of lack of ability, for fear of embarrassment, for fear. There is a depressive cycle that spirals downwards. A body issue is so intricately linked to mental and emotional capacity.
To break this cycle, I needed to go back to basics. Are my actions inherently sinful? Gluttony is shown in the Old Testament particularly as a negative trait that speaks to a sinful nature. Proverbs tells us that “drunkards and gluttons become poor.” (23:21) and that “a companion of gluttons disgraces his father.” And in Titus 1:12 Paul describes the Cretans as “lazy gluttons.” Here we need to separate sinful behaviour from unwise behaviour. Gluttony is unwise. Proverbs 25:16 tells us “If you have found honey, eat only enough for you, lest you have your fill of it and vomit it.” and 30:8-9 asks God to “feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you.” The idea is to live in moderation. Living in excess tips the balance away from God.
And here’s where we get into the sinful behaviour. We can all take good things and make them god things. We can take rest and become lazy. We can take a social drink and become drunkards. We can take food and become gluttonous. Excess is a lack of self-control. I know this, even when I am reaching for the fourth Tim-Tam. Where excess really tips into sinfulness though, is when I am using food to meet a need that I should be getting from God.
When I lift up that particular mirror, that is hard for me. To do things a different way requires the re-wiring of years of self-taught negative beliefs. But:
- I am meant to be a jar of clay – I am not meant (or expected) to be perfect;
- God loved me enough, no matter what I look like, to send his only son to die for me. This has already happened and so is not some vague promise that my lack of self-esteem might fail on;
- I don’t know how to re-wire my darker excesses. But God does. So even if I start by acknowledging to God that I am meeting a deep need with food, praying that that need will be met by him and opening myself to him doing that work in me, I am further on than I was before;
- My focus is on being healthy, rather than thin, and the goal of being healthy is to be a fully ready and willing member of God’s community, participating in the goal of the church;
- This focus draws my purpose and authority from God and not culture, or the baggage I have carried all my life;
- I am a work in progress. Like any behaviour, sinful or otherwise, the trajectory will be lumpy and strewn with difficulties as well as triumphs. But as a work in progress I know that he that began a work in me will bring it to completion in this life and in eternity.
There is a lot to say on this subject. And I don’t offer up my thought process as a silver bullet or a self-help guide. I offer this up as a means of re-focusing a deeply personal issue away from culture and away from self-government and towards where all our motivation should be. Our ability to live worthy of our calling has nothing to do with weight. Participating in the goal of the church is not restricted to a particular body shape. But to think of our health in terms of participating in God’s work, places a more appropriate emphasis on this, gives me a better start point and the best focal point.
 Ella Adelia Fletcher, The Woman Beautiful: A Practical Treatise on the Development and Preservation of Woman’s Health and Beauty, the Principles of Taste in Dress, 1899, p409