I could not count the number of times in my life I prayed against the fat on my body, hoping for some divine intervention that would somehow make my efforts work and the flesh melt away. I was earnestly seeking to be slim for God. And while I know prayers for “health” and prayers for a husband found their way into these times – the main motivation of my “prayers against fat” were that I did not want to shame God. I did not want to walk out into the world, proclaiming the liberty and freedom of God when I looked “bound” in fat – what seemed to be evidence of lack of discipline or trust or some other fatal flaw in my faith and character.
There are two particular moments that stand out in my memory. In the first, I am 18. In just a few short weeks I’d be travelling a few hundred miles north of my home and settling into a small town in West Virginia for the summer where I’d be working with a local church: working day camps for kids in the area, organizing clothing and food pantries, assisting the pastor’s family, and generally helping out with the church. It is a good way to spend the summer of your 18th year. I have fond memories of that time. But a couple weeks before then I was distraught over the weight on my body. I walked forward to the altar of my church one Sunday night and knelt down and cried. I didn’t know why I couldn’t get rid of the extra weight. I thanked God for allowing me the opportunity to serve despite my weight and evidence that I was failing as a Christian.
I was ashamed that I would be going to a place to “work” for God but that no matter what, it would never be good enough because people would see my fat and question the freedom-giving power of God.
It was truly God’s name I feared defaming, not mine. This is what brought me great grief. I was one of the “lucky” fat kids who can only recall a few times of being picked on for my size. In my heart, this was not about me.
The next time I am kneeling at the altar and crying – I was 24. It was 5 a.m. on a Monday morning. I had stopped at the church on my way to work to pray. Life was hard and heavy that weekend. In the years between 18 and 24 I had begun to learn to accept my body and focus on health instead of size- that was not what I was crying about that morning. That morning there were bigger questions about a faithful and true God and whether or not I believed any of it.
But as I knelt at that altar early in the dark morning another woman came to join me. She laid her hand on my shoulder and prayed out loud – affirming that she knew how difficult it was to walk around with the evidence of sin visible on her body. She prayed and asked God to help me overcome my weight.
It was a seed, one I barely noticed because my focus was elsewhere at that time, but that well-intentioned prayer that completely missed my humanity and pain in the face of what she perceived to be my greatest struggle was the seed that grew into my passion for critiquing the way the church talks about bodies and weight and encouraging us to do better.
When I started really researching this theme in Christian thought, there were many moments where I felt both justification and horror. Justified that I was not the only one that felt this way, that I was not somehow flawed in placing too much emphasis on my body. Horror that so many of the published words of people who claimed to help Christians with their bodies were such damaging words. It’s a common theme in Christian weight-loss literature – this ardent belief that we must be thin in order to be good Christians. It is not about looking like the magazines or some sense of vanity. While that may be a part of it, the base emotion for many fat Christians is feeling like a failure as a Christian because they are fat.
Charlie Shedd, the author of the diet devotional that started it all said:
“When you are fat, you wear a badge which announces to all the world that you are weak.” and “Being fat means we wear a big sign on our neck that says “insecurity!” – we cannot be confident people if we are fat.” (Pray Your Weight Away, 1957)
While that was over half-a-century ago, more contemporary diet-devotionals have failed to critique this damaging lie. The clear problem here is the perception of what fatness says about a person’s character and personality – yet, there is no effort to change the perception.
Carole Lewis, a national director for First Place, says that “although God looks on the heart, man looks on the outward appearance. [. . .] I think we have a responsibility in our world to share Christ. If I’m 100 pounds overweight and trying to tell them about God’s power in their life, they will look at me and wonder why there’s no power to help me in this area.”
This is a damaging lie that keeps Christians, especially women, busy county calories and measuring waistlines to see if they have yet achieved the necessary bodily form in order to do Christian work “effectively.” Romans 12 tells us to NOT conform our bodies to the world – and yet, we have somehow frequently twisted the “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice” part of that same passage to convince ourselves that we must conform our bodies to the patterns of this world – so that the world may see us and find our offering pleasing and acceptable to their mass-media consumption of beauty and appeal.
We are justified. We are sanctified. That is enough to present our physical bodies – our hands and feet, our strained eyes and our jiggly thighs onto the altar as holy and acceptable offerings to God.