This morning as I drove over to my brother and sister-in-law’s house to hang out with my niece for a few hours I had the radio on to the local Christian station. They were talking about some McDonald’s diet. “Oh, here comes another Super Size Me conversation” I thought, but it was different. They talked about some science teacher who ate McDonald’s for three meals a day for something like six months and actually lost weight. He also added a walk to his daily schedule and didn’t have the same “eat everything on the menu, always say yes to the upsize” rule as the guy of Super Size Me fame did, but still, he ate McDonald’s for three meals a day for six months and lost weight and some of his other health markers (cholesterol and such) went down.
I was briefly encouraged by this conversation. I’m not a fan of McDonald’s for a variety of reasons –but I recognize its immediate affordability and efficiency in the lives of many people and I like to avoid demonizing people who are just trying to make life work or choose other hills to battle on.
So I was somewhat encouraged by the conversation on the radio for a minute – a conversation that pointed out that everything we assume about health and food isn’t necessarily true. That “bad” food can equal weight loss and lower cholesterol.
But, without missing a beat they went immediately into, “It’s all about discipline. It’s about self-control. If you make wise decisions you’ll lose weight. We just need to have self-control.” I lost count of how many times some form of discipline or “self-control” was said. Once again emphasizing that our weight is somehow all in our hands and our choices and if we are smart enough and dedicated enough we’ll lose weight. We can even do it at McDonald’s now –if we just make the right choices. I am not advocating against self-control. I’m advocating against the equation that self-control=weight loss. That assumes that the “right’ answer to that equation is thinness. That’s a faulty equation.
And then the morning show hosts segued into the music and when I heard the opening notes I turned the music up and sang loudly along:
Bring your tired and bring your shame
Bring your guilt and bring your pain
Don’t you know that’s not your name
You will always be much more to me*
I sang the words as a prayer – that these words’ appearance in the memory-building method of song would stick around longer than the shame-inducing words that came before it. That the words of the song would ring true inside the minds of the radio DJs – that they would know our bodies are not an acceptable place to hang our shame, that our bodies are not up for spiritually-backed scrutiny. That our bodies are called Redeemed. I sang the words loudly as a prayer that the others in their cars and homes and offices listening to the same juxtaposition of “be self-controlled and make yourself right and slim” with “bring your shame. . . .when others say I’ll never be enough…there’s a voice that calls me Redeemed” would hear the beautiful life-giving truth in the song and hold on to that.
Theologian Marva J. Dawn talks about the community of believers God desires for the Church.** Dawn, who has physical handicaps of her own (debilitating disease that affects her legs and vision), acknowledges that she cannot live up to the body demands placed on her by others or by herself. She asks: “What kinds of pressures are you under because you have let yourself, society, your family, or others around you put you there? How has that pressure caused you to function even less effectively because of the guilt and frustration associated with the failure to meet the performance principle? Notice how such conformity destroys our [community] as Christians.” (pg 35) She laments her own struggle to accept her handicapped body after previously living an athletic life. Dawn says, “I want to learn to rest in the knowledge that I am doing all I can to take care of my body. There are no requirements.” (pg 34) That is the peace I want for every fat Christian. I want to encourage nutrition and activity to the best of one’s abilities because our bodies are important, and then tell these bearers of the image of God that there are no requirements, you may rest.
[image background: the nightly view out my apartment window for a couple years. Those sunsets always initiated a deep, cleansing, breath.]
* Mercy Me, “Greater”
** Marva J. Dawn, Truly the Community: Romans 12 and How to Be the Church, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992.)
Eat With Joy by Rachel Marie Stone (IVP Books, 2013)
Reviewed by Nicole Morgan
Rachel Marie Stone’s book Eat With Joy is an exploration of a journey towards “eating like a Christian.” Stone deals with this issue holistically, tackling issues such as the health and perception of our bodies, ecological concerns and sustainability, care for our neighbor, and the spiritual practices related to food and community. The book’s chapters focus on viewing food as a gift from God, the importance of giving food to others, the significance of shared meals, how to view food as a part of picture of sustainability, how to glorify God in cooking and eating, and finally how to tie it all together to “Eat With Joy.”
As someone who has long been interested in the often volatile relationship humans have with food and the way it impacts how we see ourselves and those around us, I have been looking forward to reading Stone’s book. I was not disappointed. Stone does a good job of talking about our bodies and health without falling into the trap of advocating a certain “perfect” body type. This book is also, thankfully, not a “devotional diet” book. I was happy to see her inclusion early in the book acknowledging that the church as a whole has done little to combat (and at times has enabled) the damaging lies the media tells us about food’s relationship to our body.Read the full review in PRISM Magazine. jnicolemorgan.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com
[image: photographing the happy couple at my younger brother’s wedding]
Netflix released Gilmore Girls on their streaming service last month and I, along with many other people, have enjoyed traveling back to that quirky little Connecticut town and following the saga of the Gilmore Girls and crew. When people talk about body-positive characters on television – Sookie St. James is a go-to example. Sookie was a well-developed character who was a normal person – she had friends and family. She got married, had kids. Her size was not the butt of jokes or self-deprecating comments. Other characters were also fat on the show – Miss Patty the dance instructor and her pal Babette – – both who got to just be interesting people on the show, not props for fat jokes.
And yet as I’ve been re-watching the show, I’ve noticed that Gilmore Girls is not a particularly fat-positive show; the fat jokes abound. When it’s time to criticize someone or suggest that someone is undesirable – fatness is a go-to example. It’s not an overarching theme that is blatantly obvious or anything, but it’s there. Had I more forethought I would have recorded all the fat jokes as I watched them, but I didn’t, and I’m not about to start over. If you would like to take on that project, that would be lovely!
Yet despite the fact that Lorelai, Rory, Luke, Emily, Richard, Logan, Paris, and others make comments that fat is somehow bad or undesirable – those comments are never made directly to or about Sookie, Patty, or Babette.
When I first started looking at size-discrimination and how it affected my life I had a few people tell me, “but you don’t act fat.” On another blog years ago I posted the picture that’s in this entry and said I loved the picture and it’s candid beauty- capturing me in a moment I was enjoying. That was a big step to see beauty there since my arms have always been the hardest part of my body for me to love. Someone commented that they too liked the picture and didn’t see me as “fat.” Which confused me because the picture clearly shows “fat.” It can be both a good picture and a picture that shows a fat person – these things are not mutually exclusive.
What we mean when we tell a person that they don’t look “fat” is that they don’t look sloppy, lazy, ugly, disgusting, stupid, undisciplined, trashy. These are the connotations we have for fat. When we say, “Oh you don’t look fat! You look lovely!” we are assuring our friends that they are still socially acceptable, that they aren’t one of those fat people.
The obvious problem here is that some people are definitely fat. It needs to be OK to use that word. That word deserves a neutral stance as an adjective. It’s why so many people in the body-positive community embrace that word and use it proudly. I am so used to calling myself “fat” in the same tone as when I report on my brown hair or blue eyes that every once in a while when I meet new people, I see the way they are caught off guard. It’s a radical act to take a word that is being used as a weapon and to assign it to yourself, to make the public see that when you use “fat” like an insult that you are talking about me, and you and I both now know that’s unacceptable.
When we acknowledge that our friends and loved ones – the people we know to be smart and ambitious, dedicated and loving, disciplined and full-of-life, can also be people who are fat then we will start to see the humanity of all fat people rather than dismissing them as caricatures of undesirable qualities. When we acknowledge that our friends and family are fat and still deserve to be treated with dignity and respect and love then we start to recognize when we make unconscious judgments about strangers based on little more than their body size. We start to not cringe when we are seated next to a fat person on an airplane. We begin to catch ourselves when we make snap judgments. We learn to better love our neighbors when we start to critique the way we use words that are deemed “negative” and who we assign them to and who we say are exempt from them. And if our own body is fat, when we start to realize that our fat friends and loved ones are people worthy of love and respect – then we start to realize that maybe our bodies have not doomed us to a life of shame and rejection.
Language matters. Understanding our language and how we use it for each other and ourselves matters.
[image: a satisfying dinner at the end of a long stretch of exhausting days]
Last night I came home from work and went immediately to the kitchen to start cooking dinner. It was the end of a seven day stretch of work days, three of them starting at 4 a.m. My sleep schedule was off, I was fighting off a scratchy throat that usually signals that I’m about to be knocked out for 24 hours, and my feet were killing me. I was craving some comfort food, and for me, that meant setting a pan of quinoa to boil and finally figuring out a way to use that grapefruit I’d had sitting on the counter. I scrounged around the cupboards and fridge and found some dried cranberries, walnuts, kale, a little bit of feta, and some broccoli and made myself a delicious salad with a grapefruit vinaigrette. It was a delicious meal full of layered flavor and just what I needed to feel calm and at rest after a crazy, exhausting week.
I’ve always loved cooking and food – but there were many years where I was ashamed to admit my love those things -thinking it would surely lead into a fat joke of the “of course she does!” variety.
If I am hungry and tired and want something that is going to give me energy and make me feel satiated – I will most likely crave something like my kale, quinoa, and grapefruit creation. But there are times when the sweet warmth of an apple crisp is what is desired. And sometimes the celebration of cake and ice cream with the smell of blown-out-candles wafting through the air is just what the occasion ordered.
Eating, and at times feasting, is part of our life. (For those of us privileged enough to have the food and resources and time to devote to feasting.) One of my favorite stories of feasting in the Bible is one that is completely counter-intuitive to our contemporary wisdom about food or “justice.”
In an article I wrote, I pointed out that “in the story of the Prodigal Son, 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.”
So much of the “devotional diet” advice is to restrict and limit and count. The overarching theme seems to be that we can’t be trusted with food. We talk of moderation, as if that’s the goal and the end and the way we know we are doing it right. There are of course ways to abuse food, to be wasteful, to eat in ways that show disregard for our fellow humans and the rest of creation. Moderation has it’s place – but sometimes, we feast.
And the Prodigal Son is not the only one who got to feast.
The ancient Israelite feasted regular – ordained holidays set aside to bring the best to the table for a time of celebration. We are continually told throughout scripture of a wedding feast. Jesus performed his first miracle at a feast – adding better wine to the celebration already going on.
There’s much to say about how our contemporary society has a problem with over-consumption, how we are on a downward spiral of always wanting more and better and new and bigger. There’s much to say about the differences in biblical feasts and the way we feast today. There’s a lot to say about that that is valid and true and important – but today, three weeks away from Thanksgiving in the United States and just a few more until Christmas – I want to remind you that feasting is good.
Feasting is God-ordained. Feasting has beauty and power and meaning and importance. Feasting is part of family and community and learning to love the people that share this planet with us.
You are allowed to feast without shame. You are allowed to enjoy the familiar smells and tastes and company without feeling guilty about what it will do to your waistline. You are allowed to change the conversation as directly or subtly as you wish if a fellow diner insists on spoiling the festivities by mentioning scales or the gym in some judgmental, shame-inducing way. You are allowed to proclaim your love of the food and the togetherness no matter what size your waistband is.
Last Sunday a friend texted me after her church service, the pastor said from the pulpit: “if you’re feeling depressed, sometimes you just need a good meal and a nap!” (he also voiced a qualifier that clinical depression is another matter)
I firmly believe that God designed food for both energy, fuel, and health and for pleasure and enjoyment and a way to connect to our own bodies and each other. Food can be mentally healing and cathartic. That’s not a bad thing, that’s a gift.
2. This article by a hospice chaplain is important:
She talks about how the dying talk to her about their bodies. And the author asks a questions that sums up beautifully the connection I see between how we treat our own bodies and how we treat the bodies of others – how our body hatred destroys the ability of the church to be the church:
“How do these voices telling us that we are supposed to hate our bodies affect our notions of how we care for the sick, disabled, elderly, children, mothers, soldiers, workers, immigrants, men and women? What we believe about our bodies affects how we treat other bodies, and how we treat each other’s bodies is how we treat each other.”
read more: What the Dying Really Regret
Part of my research for my master’s thesis on embodiment theology and diet devotionals involved reading a lot of diet devotionals. One that I picked up at a thrift store is Gwen Shamblin’s Rise Above, the follow-up to her best-selling Weigh Down Diet.
I consider Rise Above spiritually abusive. It was emotionally draining to read. So, in the midst of spending much time thinking about and reading her words, I decided to redeem it a little bit. I opened to a random page, made sure I had any notes I needed from it for my paper, and then got to work trying to use her own words to offer an opposite message. A message that critiques the fat-shaming that is found all throughout the book and celebrates the way that God made us diverse bodies. Part of the beauty of the way our bodies work is that multiple times a day, if we are so blessed, we get to eat, and we get to do it with friends and family. Throwing on shame and judgment about food and weight ruins that chance we have to experience communion with the incarnated triune God through this daily practice.
The final art project isn’t perfect, but as I flipped through the book over the next few weeks as I finished up the paper, it was a nice reminder of what God really thinks about my body.
Over at The Gospel Coalition, Lindsey Carlson wrote about her faith and her weight in her article, The Weight That So Easily Entangles.
Compared to most of what I hear about faith and fatness, I think this is a step in the right direction. Carlson says, “To shed these burdensome weights [of fear, shame, helplessness] I must fight to see myself as God sees me: loved, adopted, forgiven, and accepted. I have to exercise self-control in my thought life, refraining from words of self-deprecating body-shaming. I have learned it is more important for me to watch my heart intake than my calorie intake because what my soul feeds on will ultimately guide the choices I make for my body. I am the most encouraged and edified to persevere when I choose to value sanctification over skinniness and spiritual fitness over thigh gaps or great abs.”
That is just simply beautiful!
However, elsewhere in her article there still seems to be the general conclusion that if one is fat, then weight is a “struggle” or an “affliction” or body size is alluded to being a burden we were never intended to carry. I’d love to see us place the blame for the “fear, shame, and helplessness” on the shoulders of a society that teaches us that fat bodies are to be feared or shamed. I’d love to place the burdensome weight on a diet-industry that churns us through yo-yo dieting patterns that make us feel helpless while they line their pockets with money.
I refuse to accept that burden or shame, they are not mine, that is a burden I was never intended to carry.
One thing that I notice constantly is the way “fat jokes” (or, fatphobia) is so a part of our life and casual conversation that most of us don’t realize it happens or that we participate. I’m going to try to keep up with where I hear that kind of stuff in specifically Christian contexts and point them out here as an awareness exercise.
On the Radio:
On Sunday morning my drive to church takes approximately 7 minutes. When I turned on the car this week the radio was in the middle of somebody’s sermon. The pastor was talking about something that I can’t even recall right now – he made a remark about how things don’t make sense sometimes, and then said, “Like, How do we eat three square meals and wind up round?” (Sunday, 10/5/14, 93.3, Dr. Benny Tate)
This morning when I turned on the car, the radio station was discussing recipes or something. One of the hosts said, “This is why I don’t like taking pictures – heavenly chicken pies.” Implying somehow that eating food makes our bodies unphotogenic. (10/10/14, 93.3)
I See You at A Deeper Story moved me to tears. (in a good way!) Andrea Levendusky tells us about her daughter, who really sees people in all their beauty and wonder and glory.
Personal note from this fat woman: I never mind when kids ask me about my body. They notice things; it’s what they do. It’s my pleasure to answer with a smile.
*For this inaugural issue of “Faith and Fatness” – – I’ve included a few things I’ve seen the past few weeks. 🙂
[image: the fruits of my early-morning labor one winter, a clear path to walk through a snowy world]
I have never been the sporty type. I tried pee-wee tennis once. I enjoyed it to a degree, but my hand-eye coordination is minimal. In elementary school I nodded solemnly and told my P.E. teacher that I was “recovering from surgery” for WEEKS after my tonsil surgery and managed to earn myself the right to walk around the track instead of run. I once, on the first try, shot a 3 point basketball goal and that remains the highlight of my athletic abilities. In 9th grade when we were all required to take physical education and the final exam was to run a mile non-stop, I used my hard-earned right-to-exempt an exam on that one and willing pondered the great lessons of science and math and literature that year instead.
I am not a fan of exercise. The only thing I enjoy doing that could be considered exercise is swimming laps back and forth, back and forth. I imagine that if running didn’t make me want to die, I’d enjoy it too for much the same reason I enjoy swimming – the solitary rhythmic nature of it all.
I had a gym membership and a personal trainer for a while, and I enjoyed the feeling of accomplishment from that for a bit, but I quickly tired of the treadmills and weight machines. What I most loved about those trips to the gym were the walks to the gym. I walked out my front door and 30 minutes later I was somewhere else. What a productive use of movement!
Sometime in my life I discovered that while I am not a fan of standard exercise, I love things that allow me to be physically involved. More than once I’ve woken up before dawn on snowy mornings and grabbed a shovel so that I could clear the path on the sidewalk and drive-way in the crisp, quiet morning.
There is something beautiful in seeing the result of your body’s muscles and bones working together to accomplish a job.
One of my current jobs is in the land of retail – where it feels that I walk miles each day back and forth from the stock room – lifting heavy boxes from the floor, from high on the stock room shelves. Climbing ladders. Kneeling. Bending. Stretching. It is a very physical job. At this transition time in my life post-grad-school, I find myself grateful for such a kinesthetic job – a job that keeps me grounded and connected as I recognize that this body is strong and useful and powerful. The physicality of it is exhausting, but still fulfilling. Here is what this body can do. It can lift and climb and carry.
I am always slightly taken aback when people are shocked that I am strong.
I have carried my body upright, climbed steps and mountains, for an entire lifetime. And this body has always been big.
Surely all that has earned me muscles by anyone’s logic. I think part of my strength is the sheer determination that I can do it. Yet, I can’t always do it. I once stopped half-way up the curling stairs of lighthouse – pausing at a window before heading back down and waiting on the rest of the group who had journeyed all the way to the top. That is what this body can do too, and it deserves my respect and my attention to stop when I’ve reached my limit.
Sometimes at night, if my legs are especially achy, I’ll stretch a leg up as I lie in bed, point my toes towards the ceiling, and feel the way the soft flesh of my calves gives way to hard muscle. I remind myself of my strength in a world that tells me I am weak and lazy.
I’ll push myself, because that’s who I am, but pushing past my body screaming that it is at its limit is only a move to please the powers that tell me what my body should look like, that tell me what my body should do to be acceptable. That is not a way to live.
[image: 11th grade me on a mission trip in London, where I saw God in the smells and bells of St. Paul’s Cathedral and heard a whisper that I must learn to look in unfamiliar-to-me places]
Here are some things I remember knowing to be true as a teenager:
That’s what purity culture taught me.
Culture taught me:
When I put all this together in my head, I reached the seemingly logical conclusion that only godly men would be attracted to me because they were the only ones who would have the self-control and discipline needed to see my inner beauty. I remember, as an 11th or 12th grader, opting out of the “Someday, a Marriage Without Regrets” class offered to the teens at my church because surely, I reasoned, I did not need to worry about avoiding bad relationships because only a truly godly man would ever entertain the idea of thinking about me romantically. It would take someone very close to God to get past the fat and see my heart. Men without God were incapable of finding me desirable. I’d never be faced with having to turn down the attentions of a man who wasn’t following God. I didn’t think my “character” and “inner beauty” was perfect or anything – but I did believe I was worthy of love and that I would make a great Christian wife.
So when a man came along who was interested, it took me four seconds to assume he was the one one.
I dove in head first and came out with a battered and scarred faith and I am still discovering the rippling implications that unhealthy relationship had on how I think and act. My personality, purity culture, and the way I understood how “fatness” worked in regards to relationships were the perfect storm to set me up for this damaging relationship.
As the years went by I began to notice a trend. While I was taught that a godly man would see my beauty, it seems that the boys who were taught to “look for the inner beauty and she will be beautiful” were still just looking for beautiful. As if they all seemed to think that a godly woman would be a “righteous fox.” (Raise your hand if you heard a youth pastor/speaker or two say that about his wife from the pulpit.) I have a pretty high self-confidence. I have moments of extreme vanity, moments where I catch myself in the mirror and gasp because I just really think I am physically beautiful. (And I have the other moments too.) This is not about me thinking I’m ugly, but even with my high self-confidence I can logically deduce the general perception of my appearance, and based on my completely anecdotal, biased from-my-perspective, sample-size-of-one study – – it has been the non-Christian men, or those who are “culturally Christian,” who ever express any interest in me beyond friendship.
I’ve found it to be almost 100% true that if a guy is genuinely attracted to my personality and my character and my appearance – the entirety of me, he is not a Christian.
This has spanned my life from when I had a very conservative, women-against-feminism, I-just-want-to-be-a-housewife standpoint to who I am now – – left of center politically, feminist, who still really enjoys domestic things. I recognize that my singleness has not a single-reason cause and that “fat people” are not the only people who experience stories like this,, but from my experience, the intersection of my fatness with my Christianity seems to make dating near impossible.
The only conclusions I can draw are from my own experience – but if other girls grew up “fat” or “overweight” in a conservative Christian / “purity culture” environment – I’d love to hear what your experience was like. If there are any guys out there who grew up in purity culture and have input on what “type” of girl you were looking for as a result – I’d love to hear about that too.
This is a type of entry I’m hesitant to post, because one thing I loathe is a “poor pitiful me” attitude. So I hope that tone is not what you found here. I am talking about the subject because even though I am generally confident that my life has taken a course that has provided me with numerous blessings – there is still part of me that mourns the “married young with children early” life I’ll never have, and that part of me intersects with my interest about fatness in the Christian church and wants to know if it’s connected on a broader scale than just my story and perceptions.
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.
There aren’t many passages in the Bible that talk about human fatness. But there is a memorable one.
Here’s the gist:The Israelites were subject to Eglon king of Moab for eighteen years. 15 Again the Israelites cried out to the Lord, and he gave them a deliverer—Ehud, a left-handed man, the son of Gera the Benjamite. The Israelites sent him with tribute to Eglon king of Moab. 16 Now Ehud had made a double-edged sword about a cubit long, which he strapped to his right thigh under his clothing. . . 20 Ehud then approached [Eglon] while he was sitting alone in the upper room of his palace and said, “I have a message from God for you.” As the king rose from his seat, 21 Ehud reached with his left hand, drew the sword from his right thigh and plunged it into the king’s belly. 22 Even the handle sank in after the blade, and his bowels discharged. Ehud did not pull the sword out, and the fat closed in over it. (Judges 3:14-16, 20-22)
Did you catch that? There is a really fat man in the Bible. There is some myth out there that assumes that fatness is a new invention, one that came with TVs and their frozen dinners. While Eglon’s fatness is used for a couple of literary purposes (we’ll get to that later), there is nothing to indicate that this was the only fat person that the people had ever seen. Fatness existed in the ancient near east.
But let’s look at the way fatness is being used in this story. Is it a judgment on body size? Does the fact that the fat closes over the sword mean that fat is what is bad here?
One of the thematic ways that “fat” is used in the Bible is to talk about what happens when you over-indulge because you are oppressing people. In the full story of Judges 3 you see a series of contrast between the people of Israel and Eglon – the oppressive King from whom the Israelites have cried out for deliverance for 18 years. There are numerous contrasts: indoors or outside, different temperatures, fatness and barrenness. His fat is just one of the contrasts.
Eglon’s fatness is used as judgment, yes. But he is not being judged for his fatness, he is being judged for his oppression. In the context of the ancient world fatness was highly correlated to privilege and power. When those under you faced barrenness, this fatness was damning. We know that one of the reasons for Sodom’s judgment is that she had ” excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” (Ez 16:49) Likely this is similar to the judgment on Eglon – – he did not aid the poor and needy.
Such simple correlations between fatness and oppression no longer exist in the contemporary Western world. (And likely didn’t exist as simply as we assume then, but the author of Judges is using literary devices on multiple levels here.) Though there still remain problematic connections between abundance and famine and the way our consumption of goods and resources impacts others on this planet, fatness in the Western world does not solely reside on the hips of the powerful. In fact, within the context of the Western world itself, it is those with the least amount of privilege and power who are most likely to be fat. And your body size tells an observer little about the quality or quantity of food – about whether someone is hoarding or over-consuming. I’m planning another entry on the gluttony found in our desire for the “right” foods – organics and whole and raw and whatever food fad is here this week, so we’ll move on for now.
Eglon was not evil and oppressive because he was fat. Nor was he killed because he was fat. He was killed for his many oppressive ways. His fatness is part of the story – symbolic in its contrast – but also included because the graphic depiction of the murder fit well with the rest of the rowdy humor in the story.
There is much to critique in the United States’ over-consuming, materialistic, self-indulged society.However, fat people cannot be the scapegoat – the weight of these global sins is not illustrated by the weight on certain human’s waistlines.
They desire to rid the world of obese people — perhaps hoping that if they do not have to look at “excess” they will not feel its judgment in their own hearts. If fat people are why children in India don’t have food, then the average-sized people (or even the fat people who are “working on it”) do not have to examine their own complicity in these global structural sins. If fat people are to blame for the high cost of the healthcare system, then we can continue to neglect the poor and push the thin ideal while telling ourselves that this body-shame will solve problems.
It breaks down our ability to examine our own lives and see where we are complicit in the oppression of others when we can categorically excuse ourselves from certain sins as long as we are (or at least aiming for) a certain dress size.