[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.
My last year of seminary I was part of a small group of friends and neighbors that formed an almost instant deep sense of community. The kind of community that you imagine when you hear that buzz word these days. It is a time that was clearly deemed “for such a time as this.” It helped that we were all students, single, new in that town. Our needs for friendship, our free time, the way we spent hours together with books or laptops in front of us made us all fit well together.
But one of the first things we did together was eat.
On Sunday nights we crowded chairs around a table, pulled out mismatched dishes, and took turns cooking a meal to be shared with everyone. I don’t recall anyone ever “apologizing” for their food choices – making a comment about how they would get fat if they had the desert, that they would need to run to work off the delectable homemade bread, or any other number of all-too-common conversations that normally surround tables of fellowship.
Our meals together were free from the demons of self-doubt and anxiety that so often accompany our food. When we actually had a french toast feast when the snow trapped us inside for a day, some people added the chocolate chips and powdered sugar, some didn’t, no one said a word. Our meals were typically healthy – full of greens and veggies and whole grains crafted from scratch. It wasn’t a food rule we were following though – most of us loved to cook and to share. Sometimes the week was busy and stressful and we all sat down to a greasy pizza and gave thanks and laughed and shared our night of togetherness just like every other week.
No apologies. No mea culpas for the calories or the cholesterol. Just food and together and life lived right now.
When we talk about faith and bodies – embodiment explores the idea that our very bodies are sacred given that they hold the divine image of God, imago Dei, and that Jesus was incarnated in human flesh. The concept of embodiment finds its scriptural origin in the first chapters of Genesis in which God creates humans in God’s own image. Pope John Paul II wrote at length on the body and points out that Genesis shows that human “became the ‘image and likeness’ of God not only through [our] own humanity, but also through the communion of person which man and woman form right from the beginning.” In other words, embodiment is not just about one’s own body, but it is about community, particularly as it relates to our interactions with and about our bodies, the bodies of others, and God. Because we worship a triune God, a God of Father-Son-Holy Spirit communion – the image of God is community and that should be reflected in our own selves and relationships.
Christ is alive in our bodies and has not deemed a single one uninhabitable. Yet, we live with thoughts – both secular and theological – that seek to “make” a holy body rather than to live into our embodiment.
We are bombarded with instructions on how to “look right” from every possible news source. Learning to accept or “live in” our bodies is a common quest because despite the fact that we are always a body from our very first moment, we are constantly questioning and wondering what our specific bodies mean or do not mean. More often than not, it seems that we find our bodies lacking or in need of transformation.
This obsession with appearance finds a home within churches and Christian conversations as well. Countless faith-based diet books and groups exist and offer a theological endorsement of this attempt to have a slim or acceptable body.
I firmly believe that our desire to (or not to) conform our bodies is a result of our understanding of the imago Dei in our own bodies and the bodies of others. And our understanding of that impacts how we live with each other, what kind of community we have. One of the overarching themes of scripture is a picture of God calling us into life together in the name of loving God and our neighbors.
When our attempts to “make” our body disrupt that ability to draw together in community, we are disrupting the Kingdom of God.
When we draw together in community and disrupt the fellowship of eating together with negative body talk and the constant anxiety and comments about how the food will affect our waistline, we are disrupting community, we are disrupting the image of God, we are causing harm to individual bodies and to the communal body of Christ that is the church.
Your fifth grade classmate pointed out that you were the first to look like a woman. It was not a compliment. You turned your face down in shame. But chin up, dear one. You have always been heavy and full, defying fashion’s cute little insistence that a halter top is not actually a neck-breaking torture device. Bursting the seams of life with your wideness and waves that defy the stringent rules of straight lines.
Body, this I promise you: I will not squeeze you, strain you, or compress you to meet an unattainable ideal. I will not wish for another body simply because the world has not yet learned how to embrace your greatness sufficiently.
You have been knit together. Strong and Sturdy. Delicate and Fragile. You will break and heal. You have scars and beauty marks.
I will remind you of what exactly the design of the Creator God has made you heavy and full of. You are full of promise, passion, forgiveness intelligence, and stubbornness. You are heavy with possibility, strength, humanity, courage, love, and, yes, even (especially) beauty.
Embrace the momentum of the passionate Creator and find your heaviness to be a force.
P.S. And there is nothing, not even a little part, of you that is empty because you have not grown life inside of you and given it birth and nourishment.
This post was originally published as part of a “link up” at my old blog: Mashena