Theology and fat Christians in the contemporary American church
by Nicole Morgan
“I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”
Psalm 139: 14-16
A number of years ago, at a time when I was dealing with a variety of difficult challenges, I found myself one morning kneeling before the altar at my church during prayer time. I was crying quietly and praying when I felt a hand on my shoulder and heard someone kneel next to me. A woman’s voice began to pray for me, “Dear God,” she said, “please help Nicole to fight the battle she faces with her weight. Help her to trust you to have a healthy body. Help her to rely on you for strength.”
As far as I could recall I had never talked to this woman about my size. At that moment before the altar, I was struggling with the weight of many things in my life, but the size of my body was not one of them.
In November 2000 a tabloid headline screamed from the newsstands and confirmed the fears and judgments of countless American Christians. The headline read: “FAT PEOPLE DON’T GO TO HEAVEN.”(1) The image showed the tall, slender Gwen Shamblin, author of the devotional-diet book Weigh Down Diet. Shamblin is not the first Christian to use the Bible as a basis for weight loss: Countless writers, speakers, clergy, and parishioners have cited the Bible as a basis for advocating the conformation of bodies to an ideal.
Driven by popular culture and good intentions, many in recent Christian church history have given spiritual and theological weight to the idea of a thin body being a godly body, participating in a damaging and idolatrous conflation of beauty, size, and worth. The way these influential voices have spoken of fatness in the past 60 years has had a profound effect on the emotional, spiritual, and physical health of congregants. Since the discourse is predominantly anti-fat, the church has conformed to a world that marginalizes fat bodies and perpetuates the belief that fat people are lazy, unintelligent, and lacking willpower.
While Charlie W. Shedd’s 1957 Pray Your Weight Away was arguably the beginning of the modern Christian diet industry, the church has a long history of talking about the body. Gluttony appears as number two on the list of the seven deadly sins. The early church did not limit the sin of gluttony to those who appear visibly larger than the cultural standard, instead believing that gluttony covered a broad range of disordered eating, including “eating too soon, too expensively, too much, too eagerly, too daintily, or too wildly.”(2) Today, eating “too eagerly” would be an easy label to give to many Americans, regardless of size, and eating “too expensively” is damning to Americans, whose food choices have profound impacts on the environment and global hunger. Gluttony plagues America for sure, but its eradication will not come from church-supported anti-fat messages or from eliminating fat bodies. Gluttony is not equal to fatness.
Gluttony and the warnings against it are a minor theme in Scripture. In Deuteronomy 21:18-21 a son is brought to the city gates by his parents and described as “stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.” Gluttony is only a part of this son’s problems, and nowhere does it mention his size.
In an allusion to the stubborn son of Deuteronomy 21, Jesus is also accused of being a glutton.(3) Jesus’ first recorded miracle is that of turning water into wine at a wedding feast. Drunkenness and gluttony may seem to be reasonable accusations at that point, but the feasting and drinks were never the problem. Feasting and celebration are ordained by God. In the story of the Prodigal Son,(4) the wayward son squanders his life on excessive living; he is a glutton. When he returns he is not met with strict rules of deprivation and a focus on what not to do; instead he is met with a feast. The father reminds him of the reasons to celebrate and rejoices with extravagant and abundant food.
Gluttony is about motivations, desire, and allegiance; it is not about body size.
A feast does not a glutton make. One becomes a glutton when one loses sight of the reason for feasting. Can sin exist in the consumption of food? Yes. Does joyful or abundant consumption of food automatically equal sin? No. Two people can each participate in the same type of gluttonous and disordered eating and arrive at different sizes. A fat person can be free from the sin of “making a God of the belly”(5) just as a thin person can be enslaved to it. But to direct the fault of that sin in the sole direction of fat people is to make a mockery of the imago dei present in each human. Gluttony is about motivations, desire, and allegiance; it is not about body size.
The strongest argument for a theology that advocates for thinness is the same argument used by most secular sources against fatness—the perceived health of thinness. The theological rationale for health is that if our bodies are temples of God,(6) then we must care for them in the best way we know how, namely by being healthy and “fit.” Claims equating fatness with poor health are fraught with problematic, industry-funded science and enough surprising statistics to safely question the assumed health superiority of a thin body. Despite common misconceptions, some studies show overweight or obese patients having a lower risk of cardiac death than normal weight patients.(7) A study published in a 2010 issue of a Mayo Clinic publication demonstrated that fatness is correlated with survival in dialysis patients; in addition, it remarked that this “obesity paradox” can also be found in patients with heart failure and coronary artery disease.(8) Since the common pattern of up-and-down dieting decreases the body’s immunity, frequent dieters have increased health risks, and those who simply maintain a consistent weight (even a high one) have stronger immune systems.(9)
Calling people fat is profitable, especially for those who make money by treating fatness, such as the drug companies that put out weight-loss medication for this “disease.”(10) In reality, it is healthy habits, not size, that most impact mortality.(11) Just as a thin person can be unhealthy, a fat person can be healthy. Health cannot be measured on a scale or by a mirror. Health and size are not the same.
Creating a sinful body
Unfortunately, the large number of “devotional diet” books on the market indicates that the church participates in the idolatry of size. The website Christianbook.com has numerous pages of books listed under the topic of “Christian Fitness.”(12) A quick glance at the titles alone illustrates the emphasis on the size and appearance of our bodies. The title Fat Chance: Losing the Weight, Gaining My Worth by Julie Hadden communicates the idea that in order to gain worth, the author first had to lose weight, suggesting that one who is fat has not yet gained or earned his or her worth. Chantel Hobbs’ Love Food & Live Well: Lose Weight, Get Fit & Taste Life at Its Very Best also reinforces the idea that life in a fat body is somehow less satisfying and valuable than life in a thin body. Books such as Lose It for Life: The Total Solution—Spiritual, Emotional, Physical—for Permanent Weight Loss (2011), Fit for My King: His Princess’ Diet Plan and Devotional (2010), and Bod 4 God: The Four Keys to Weight Loss (2009) are just a few of the numerous books whose titles suggest a connection between weight loss and spiritual acceptance and accomplishment.
Just as the diet industry has become rich by fueling the social need for weight loss, the profitable devotional-diet industry within Christian publishing needs Christians to view weight loss as a spiritual necessity. Telling Christians they need to be thin to be godly has become a “very profitable enterprise.”(13)
The Christian diet industry is not confined to the shelves of bookstores. Devotional diet groups meet at churches and homes where congregants come together and weigh their devotion to God on a scale and confess their sins of fatty foods and lazy days. In her book Seeking the Straight and Narrow, researcher and author Lynne Gerber points out that “Christian dieting groups … combine eating regimens with Christian spiritual practices with the dual aim of reducing body size and recentering members’ lives on God. . . [This] exploits individuals’ hopes that traits associated with social stigma can be transformed and the accompanying social marginalization thus vanquished.”(14)
In one group, participants recite the week’s Bible verse while standing on the scale during their weekly weigh-in, creating implicit suggestions about the connection between spiritual discipline and weight loss.(15) Weight-loss Bible studies are advertised in the church announcements, promoted from the pulpit, and talked about in the lobby. A fat congregant sitting in the pew is met with the same message he or she receives everywhere else in the world: Your body is wrong. The world tells the fat person that her body is ugly, lazy, a detriment to society, and unlovable by other humans. The church tells the fat person that his body is sinful, undisciplined, lacking the fruit of the Spirit,(16) and a hindrance to his service to God. The church’s involvement in this message to fat people works to create a population of congregants who are filled with shame and believe that they are incapable or unqualified to serve or love God. A church that allows a culture of equating fat with sin creates a culture of congregants who view themselves and each other through that lens. A fat body is viewed as sinful, or at least weak, and a thin body is viewed as holy and disciplined. Rather than challenging the cultural norms that judge bodies, the faith-based weight-loss focus encourages the “othering,” the “less than” value, and the objectification of fat bodies.
What’s more, just as diets in the secular culture do not work, there is no evidence that devotional diets hold any greater chance of permanent weight loss. Instead, “success” in a devotional diet can be measured in spiritual practices, such as memorizing scripture or regular prayer time.(17) I support the importance and value of spending time in prayer, but when weight-loss programs advertise themselves as successful when what they mean is that people prayed more (not that participants lost weight), they perpetuate the myth that people are achieving the physical and spiritual accomplishments of being “self-controlled” enough to have a marked change in their bodies. One result of linking body size to self-control is that a fat person who is not trying to lose weight is suspected of being cut off from the Holy Spirit. A fat person who explicitly rejects the idea of weight loss as a spiritual or physical need is presumed to have fallen prey to this “weakened moral sensibility.”(18)
Connecting body size with spiritual health doesn’t “just” hurt individual bodies; it also hurts the entire body of Christ.
Connecting body size with spiritual health doesn’t “just” hurt individual bodies; it also hurts the entire body of Christ. When we are conditioned to view a body type as good or bad and then assign moral and spiritual judgments upon a person because of how he or she interacts with that “bad” body, then we create divisions, judgment, and value systems within a congregation that are not based on biblical norms. This leads to feeling justified in excluding “bad bodies” from Christian service—especially public or leadership positions. This may be a subconscious thought on the part of boards and committees who choose pastors and other leaders within the church, or it could be explicitly stated in the job descriptions in the name of a healthy body and spirit.
Beauty and effectiveness
In my teenage years I prayed with a genuine heart to be thinner so that I would be more socially acceptable and therefore more people would listen to me when I talked about God. There was a connection in my head between attractiveness and effectiveness, and conversations I have had with others over the years confirm that I am not the only one who felt that my weight hindered my witness because of a belief that Christians should “look good.” When we are trying to be more spiritual about our weight-loss dreams, we may say that it’s not about looking good so much as being careful to avoid the characteristics of laziness, ignorance, or unrestraint and thereby misrepresent God.
An example of explicit weight bias is found in the Southern Baptist International Mission Board (IMB), which has specific weight restrictions in place for anyone wishing to be appointed as a missionary though their agency. A page of the information packet on the Master of Divinity in Missions with an emphasis in International Church Planting from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary features the prominent red title “WEIGHT CAUTION MEMO” (yes, it’s all caps), which states: “Health is an important component of a successful missionary experience. It is our desire to honor God in this area. We want you to take a moment to assess your current health and, in particular, your weight.”(19) This is followed by a chart detailing an acceptable weight limit for men and women based on the body-mass index scale. Having spent the first 25 years of my life in an SBC church with a strong international missions focus, I had this knowledge ever-present in my mind. I knew that if I wanted to stay in that denomination there was no way that I could serve overseas. This is an example of where a church organization has fallen prey to faulty science and cultural norms about body size.
Some will point out that the Bible does use “beauty” as a descriptor of women and men.20 But we must be careful not to make physical beauty a character trait or to understand the beauty of the biblical characters to mean that they resembled the images on modern magazine covers. Just as “fat” is a descriptor of a body that carries cultural significance but not divine value, so is “beauty.” Furthermore, numerous verses tell us that “beauty is vanity,”(21) that we should not focus on outward beauty,(22) and that while humans may judge by appearance God judges based on the heart.(23)
Beauty is created by God and is something we notice aesthetically, but there are no biblical directives to meet a culturally constructed idea of beauty. In some Christian environments, it is seen as a mark of godly favor for men to marry a beautiful woman. Rather than combat the cultural norms about physical beauty and its value, the church encourages them. Women in the church are encouraged to share about their body dissatisfaction with each other as long as they are encouraging each other to “work on it” in order to be pleasing to both God and a mate (or potential mate).(24) The struggle with weight (and the quest for beauty or health) becomes the “common denominator” among Christians, as almost everyone can relate to feeling “less than” and feeling the need to “work on” some body part in the name of denouncing idols of food or laziness.
Accepting fat bodies
In the devotional diet group studied by Gerber, group members grappled with what it might mean that God created a variety of sizes. The women seemed to accept that perhaps it was possible that there was an intentional variety in human bodies, yet for their own selves they concluded that if God created fat it was in order to teach discipline and the benefit of struggle. For the women in the group, fat was neither a blessing nor a part of the body to accept. Given the lack of scriptural support for anti-fatness, it is safe to conclude that these strong formational ideals are largely the result of a culture and society that use bodies for profit.
A costly battle is being fought on the bodies of fat people, and the church must revise the way health and size are viewed and discussed within congregations. O.C. Edwards notes that “fat people are often regarded by others and come to regard themselves as non-people. Their size becomes the most important fact of their existence…they are no longer seen to be created by God the Father in [God’s] own image, redeemed by God the Son, and indwelt by the Holy Spirit for sanctification. They do not receive the reverence that all human beings are entitled to.”(25)
Changing the way the church interacts with fat people requires a critique of the cultural norms. Churches need to cross diet devotionals off their schedule. Pastors need to erase sermon illustrations that end with something like “or you’ll end up fat and lazy!” Youth groups and women’s ministries especially need to combat the cultural ideals of bodies and beauty. Governing church bodies need to erase explicit size requirements and ask themselves if they are making subconscious size judgments. Individual Christians of all sizes need to refuse to participate in body hate and shame. Congregants need to see people of every size, appearance, and ability living life, and arm flab should be free to jiggle as hands wave in praise.
Nicole Morgan is a former Side Scholar who earned her MTS at Palmer Theological Seminary, where she studied Christian Faith and Public Policy. She finds great joy in helping others let go of body shame and instead embrace a bodily frame that God so wonderfully made. She blogs about bodies and theology at jnicolemorgan.com and tweets @jnicolemorgan.
(Note: Lifestyle choices, nutrition options, socio-economic factors, genetics, and a host of other issues can cause poor health regardless of size. Bodies of a wide range of sizes can be healthy based on these same factors. Studies have shown that anti-fat bias among doctors is common. The author encourages people to make holistic healthcare a part of his or her life, seek second opinions, and advocate wisely for their health and well being.)