The New York Times recently reported that the West is exporting its ideals of beauty and body size to developing nations, including our stigma against overweight people. We are, it is said, globalizing the "fat stigma." It appears that our prejudices have so proliferated that they're even infecting those societies that traditionally preferred larger bodies, such as Puerto Rico and Samoa. And our notions aren't just affecting women; increasingly more and more men are suffering from a negative body image or what some have called "body image distress." The term manorexia has arrived in our vocabulary.
These reports turn my thoughts toward Sandra,* one of our family's dearest friends. Together, she and her husband Matthew* were hospitality incarnate. Their home was open to myriads of people. From kids in our youth group to church folk, from grad student jazz musicians who endlessly wailed on the piano and other instruments through ungodly hours of the night, to their peers, to neighborhood kids and folk—anyone looking for a heart-warming, welcoming place to call home found it with them. Shawn and I were, like others, invited to walk in anytime, whether day or night, without knocking or needing to unlock the door.
Hesitant to take them up on the too-good-to-be-true offer, at first Shawn and I balked, but Sandra insisted. She meant it. And since she and Matthew, like Jesus, were so magnetic because of their love, we happily spent much of our time with them. Christmas Day was the only day reserved for their immediate family members. It's no exaggeration to say that from her home, Sandra directly influenced thousands of people in the name of Jesus—and plenty more indirectly.
Sandra was morbidly obese.
She spoke freely to us about the dirty looks and the under-the-breath mutters of "disgusting" that she heard while out and about. She knew first-hand the biases against fat people. Yet we found her to be one of the most gorgeous persons alive and an engaging disciple. Six months after our job relocation, she died in her sleep. It has been nearly four years, and we still miss her like crazy.
We are made to believe, through advertising and entertainment, that a youthful, well-endowed size 0 is the ideal for women, and that a chiseled David Beckham-like body is the archetypal man. (Never mind that the glossy magazines we consume are air-brushed, or that many of our celebrities are nipped and tucked or enhanced so that even our ideals are illusions.) Accordingly, the further away on the spectrum of the ideal we find ourselves—the more we look like a Sandra or her male counterpart—the less worth we are implicitly thought to have. As Father Greg Boyle notes in his book, Tattoos on the Heart, "The wrong idea has taken root in the world. And the idea is this: there just might be lives out there that matter less than other lives." Hopefully our churches are welcoming communities where our looks and body mass index don't rule the day, a refuge for those who struggle with their weight or body image. In my experience, it has been. Then again, I have never been in Sandra's shoes.
Of course, we cannot divorce our bodies from discipleship (see Dallas Willard's Renovation of the Heart). God has made us stewards of our bodies. We dare not resort to Gnosticism. But I wonder if there is a way for us to dismantle the "fat stigma" along with other corrupted notions of beauty and body image—notions that communicate that some people matter less than others. Is there a way to be "culture makers" in the arenas of beauty and body image? I think so.
We do well by listening to artist-theologians like Bruce Herman. In a brilliant essay entitled "Wounded Beauty" (in The Beauty of God: Theology and the Arts, edited by Daniel Treier, Mark Husbands, and Roger Lundin), Herman posits that
Beauty is inextricably intertwined with eros, and … the best expression of both (beauty and eros) is seen in the face of the earthly beloved—not an idealized and unattainable one …. Redeemed marriage … is the best image of human beauty we have. The face of an earthly beloved transfigured by lifelong committed fidelity is likely someday to be full of wrinkles and loss of muscle tone. But trust me, as a seasoned artist and one who has been married for over thirty years to the same woman, that aging face will be a beautiful face …. Only eyes trained by gazing continually toward the cross—only eyes cleansed by that second innocence, childlike habitual charity—can see true beauty, true goodness.
Singles need not feel excluded. Herman explains that true beauty and love are found in other forms of covenantal relationships where there are mutuality and reciprocity. And that is what the church is when we are at our best. That is what the church was for Sandra. Instead of spreading the fat stigma, in our words and attitudes, may we overcome evil with good in the name of Jesus by incarnating the best expression of beauty in our Christian communities.
*Names changed to protect the family's identity.