The recent news has been permeated with two contradictory “epidemics” characterizing Americans: anorexia and obesity. However, maybe the larger paradox is the way in which the Church has embraced the same standards of beauty that the larger culture has. In many cases, the Church has adopted cultural standards of beauty and views physical bodies as representations of spirituality. This appears to be a modern version of the “health and wealth” gospel in that “Christ is reflected in one’s physical appearance.”
Americans excel at taking things to the extremes. This is particularly evident in the way that we eat. According to the National Institutes of Health, obesity and excess weight together are the second leading cause of preventable death in the United States, close behind tobacco use. An estimated 300,000 deaths per year are due to the obesity epidemic (West Virginia Health Statistic Center). On the opposite extreme, bulimia and anorexia are at an all-time high throughout the world, and experts are blaming American culture for their prevalence (Walters, Ellen, and Kenneth Kendler: Anorexia nervosa and anorexic-like syndromes in a population based female twin sample. The American Journal of Psychiatry 2005, 64-75). Just weeks ago, Ana Carolina Reston, 21, a model from Brazil, died from heart failure related to anorexia, and Uruguayan model, Luisel Ramos died of the same cause during an August fashion show in Montevideo (CNN.com, November 17, 2006).
Further illustrating our complicated relationship with body image is the strong presence of discrimination against the obese. Despite the prevalence of obesity in America, it is one of the last legal forms of prejudice in our country (Rebecca Puhl and Kelly D. Brownell, “Bias, Dicrimination, and Obesity,” 2001, The North American Association for the Study of Obesity) A literature review by psychology professors from Yale University (Rebecca Puhl and Kelly D. Brownell, “Bias, Dicrimination, and Obesity.” 2001, The North American Association for the Study of Obesity) reviews information from multiple studies on discriminatory attitudes and behaviors against obese individuals. They found clear and consistent stigmatization, and in some cases discrimination, documented in three important areas of living: employment, education, and health care. Among the findings are that 28% of teachers in one study said that becoming obese is the worst thing that can happen to a person; that 24% of nurses said that they are "repulsed" by obese persons; and, controlling for income and grades, that parents provide less college support for their overweight children than for their thin children.
As mainstream culture continues to obsess about weight and body issues, one would hope the Church would be free of these dominating thoughts and that it might offer a more biblical and healthy message. If anyone would have an enlightened perspective on body issues, we would hope that it would be the people who are privileged to have their self-worth and identity in Jesus Christ. Sadly, this is not the case. As I heard many times from several sociology professors in college, “the Church almost always follows the mainstream culture.” R. Marie Griffith, a professor at Princeton expands that, among Christians, like the larger American culture, “body type has come to seem a virtually infallible touchstone of the worth of persons about whom one knows nothing else, as well as the value—indeed the deepest truths—of one’s own self: a vital component of subjectivity” (R. Marie Griffith, Born Again Bodies: Flesh and spirit in American Christianity, Berkeley, Ca: University of California Press, 2004, 7).
For the past six years I have lived and worked with college students as a Resident Director at a Christian university. These are a few of the many stories that my students have shared with me on how the Church has perpetuated misguided images of their bodies:
A high school student is told by her youth pastor that she should lose weight in order to be more attractive to the males in the youth group. In the process of trying to lose weight, the student develops an extreme case of bulimia and is hospitalized. Individuals within her church refer to her disease as a sign of her vanity and use her as an example as someone who has “fallen into sin.”
A college student volunteers with a local youth group so that she can mentor high school females. Amongst the things she teaches them is how to purge after they have overeaten. She does not question the impact of this lesson until after one of her students is hospitalized for bulimia. She had been taught the same lesson by her own youth leader.
A sophomore in college stops playing on the basketball team, and he gains some weight as a result of his decreased physical activity. He is confronted by the head of the worship team and told that he cannot continue to be a part of leadership within the Church until he loses the weight that he has gained. He is told that he is a bad example to the community, and that he is not reflecting that Christ is the “head of his temple”.
An overweight, female is meeting with her Christian therapist and expressing the pain she is experiencing as a result of her mother’s long-term affair. The therapist tells her, “Your mom has stopped the affair, but you are continuing to live in your own gluttony. You are the bigger sinner; why can’t you just forgive your mom? It might help you start eating less.”
A pastor’s daughter overhears her parents talking about how they have failed as parents because both of their daughters are overweight. Shortly after, her parents tell her that they do not feel comfortable having her eat meals in their home when she is visiting from college, because they don’t want to contribute any more weight to her body. They tell her that instead they would be happy to meet with her between meals or at the local gym.
Sadly, rather than being a haven from the images that the world asks us to accept, some of our churches embrace those same standards as a way of reflecting Christ. As a result, many of the individual bodies within our larger Body are plagued with identity issues much deeper than the physical ones that the rest of the world experiences; they face spiritual shame as well. In the words of one person in reference to her weight, “My biggest sin is out there, glaring, for everyone to see.” As a result, I fear that some churches have more damaging ideals of personal appearance than many in Hollywood.
Spirituality and faith have been associated with body image and beauty since before the Puritans (R. Marie Griffith, Born Again Bodies: Flesh and spirit in American Christianity). The body has long been thought to represent the true self within. Christians today often refer to 1 Corinthians, where Paul refers to the body as a temple of the Holy Spirit. Hence, in this line of thinking, a body that “looks good” is a way of saying, “I have Jesus.” and it is a testimony to Christ’s transforming power. “Slim is how God meant us to be," reasons Judy Halliday, founder of Thin Within, a "grace-oriented" approach to weight loss. Her program explains "how to reconnect with God and achieve the weight that God meant for them to be." (Judy and Arthur Holliday, Thin Within, p. 9).
Today, books categorized as Christian life and spirituality make up about 40% of all self-help books, and a sizeable portion of this genre is devoted to weight loss (R. Marie Griffith, Born Again Bodies: Flesh and spirit in American Christianity, p 2). Ranging from one of the first diet devotionals, by Deborah Pierce in 1960, I Prayed Myself Slim: the secrets of a happily married fashion model who was known to her schoolmates as fatty, fatty, two-by-four, to the Weigh Down Diet that permeated evangelical churches and universities throughout the 1990’s, to today’s Holy Land Diet, some Christians are used to viewing diets as a part of their faith. I recently talked to an individual who was on the “Jesus Diet” because she desires for her life to reflect the way that Christ lived his. She was eating only foods that the Bible specifically mentions Jesus eating: bread, water, wine, and fish. She has her adolescent children on the same diet, and their family has been eating like this for six months.
While founders of Christian dieting groups say that they are more focused on glorifying God and being obedient as opposed to looking good, they still conform to the larger cultural standards of beauty (R. Marie Griffith, Born Again Bodies: Flesh and spirit in American Christianity). For many, it has replaced or brought confusion to the biblical discipline of fasting. I have listened to more Christian college students than I can count tell me they are going to celebrate lent by fasting so that they can lose weight.
Many religious groups emphasize dietary restrictions in everyday life, such as kosher laws, or during special occasions, such as fasting during Ramadan. These practices hold a variety of meanings, and religious leaders talk about them in different ways. Thus, spiritual “dieting” is common, but the form that it is taking in contemporary evangelical life is specific to our subculture (R. Marie Griffith, Born Again Bodies: Flesh and spirit in American Christianity). As opposed to a being a way of honoring and relating to God, fasting is viewed by some Christians as a way of “spiritually supporting” their own weight loss efforts. Although healthy weight-loss can be excellent for one’s health, this is not the intended purpose of fasting.
Christ came to transform our hearts and our minds through being in deeper relationship with him. “For in him we live, and move, and having our being” (Acts 17:28). One of the significant things that we can learn from the life of Christ is that he never focused on physical attributes of individuals (John 6:33). From the befriending a Samaritan woman who had five husbands and was living with a man to whom she was not married (John 4:7-26), to healing a disabled man whose community thought he was living in sin (John 5:8), to performing a job that was meant only for servants (John 13:2-17), Jesus transcended harmful cultural ideas and offered a model for the Church and the larger community to adopt. Together, as the Body, we are called to do the same.
Physical health is important. Christ did care for the physical aspects of individuals. However, he cared for the emotional and spiritual aspects as well, and he never viewed the appearance of an individual as a reflection of his or her heart (Mark 5:24-34). Some of the examples in this article are extreme, and they reflect only some Christians. However, I believe they do help to depict the prevalence of mixing personal spirituality with physical appearance in our American, Christian culture. Amongst us, there are individuals who are hurting and victims of physical prejudice and pain. It would be exciting if the Church could indeed be testimony of Christ’s transforming power, not through our physical appearances, but through the ways in which we care for the marginalized in our midst. The Bible, instead of being a recipe book of what we should and shouldn’t eat or drink should be, “a book that calls us together and helps create a community, a community that is a catalyst for God’s work in our world” (Brian D. McLaren, A New Kind of Christian: a tale of two friends on a spiritual journey, p. 53).