"Some people are tall, some people are short. Some people are shaped like sticks, some people are round, and some people are medium,” I told my daughter. “It’s okay however you are.”
“You’re medium, Mom,” she replies.
“Yes,” I sigh. “I’m medium.”
I find the lure of physical perfection both compelling and revolting. As one who has been blessed with a fairly positive self-image but who has observed friends struggle with poor self-image (at best) and eating disorders (at worst), I try to create a home environment for my children in which size is a non-issue—and I try to be okay being medium. I try to live freely in my body as it is. But it is not always easy in our cultural context, and it is even more challenging for those who are round.
Is It Really All About that Bass?
Though the average American woman is 5' 4" and weighs 140 pounds, the average fashion model is 5' 11" and weighs 110 pounds. In addition to this, we’re surrounded by easy-to-eat delicious foods and hear study-after-study that propose “The Answer” to all your eating and health questions (as well as an endless barrage of health-themed clickbait to which even I sometimes succumb).
According to CNN (citing the National Eating Disorder Association), ten million American women battle anorexia and bulimia. Thirteen million Americans (men and women) binge eat. And new disorders and food-related struggles have entered our vocabulary. Orthorexia, for example, is defined as “an ‘unhealthy obsession’ with otherwise healthy eating . . . a term which literally means ‘fixation on righteous eating.’”
So, despite a growth of body-acceptance messages in pop culture (think Melissa McCarthy in CBS’s Mike & Molly and Meghan Trainor’s “All About that Bass”), countless women still struggle with the conflict between what they see in the mirror or in photographs and what they’re told they could see, if they just worked hard enough.
So how shall we, as disciples of Christ, respond to this disparity within ourselves, in the church and outside the church? Let’s see what light Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia may shed on this conflict.
The New Law
Within the context of a discussion of Jewish law observance, the apostle Paul wrote to the church in Galatia, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1, NIV). Freedom from what? Well, originally this freedom Paul was talking about was freedom from the law (for Jewish Christians) and freedom from sin (for all). Paul then admonishes the church not to follow the law of circumcision; their salvation is not by law observance—it is through Christ.
Now, most of us may wonder how Jewish law observance (especially circumcision) is related to weight and body image. Just as the church in Galatia was hearing a message that salvation necessitated observance of the law, we hear cultural messages that declare a new law: no longer the law of sin and death, it’s a law of thin and health. This new law claims to lead us to real happiness, fulfilled dreams, and a resounding sense that you’ve finally made it. Perhaps you’ve heard it:
True freedom is looking the best you can. The best is the thinnest and most beautiful you can be. And you can do this if you only find the right diet and exercise program. See these women? [Insert image of a partially clothed, beautiful woman here.] She did it by buying/doing X, Y, and Z. You can too! Then your shame (fat) will fall off, your heart will be free, and you can rise and follow her.
And many of us willingly bite this lure of “freedom.” We want to believe that we, too, can look and be like the images that surround us. And then we spend a heck of a lot of time, energy, and emotional focus trying to achieve this goal. We are, in a sense, enslaved by an ideal, worshiping the idol of physical perfection.
Entering a Shame-Free Kingdom
This enslavement is in contrast to Paul’s invitation to freedom—not just a freedom from but a freedom to. A freedom to enter a new world order of interdependence, not independence, in the body of Christ. And we are welcomed into a kingdom free of shame. We need this because we have a lot of shame. We are shamed by the idols of perfection that surround us, and we are shamed because those of us who are fat (or who imagine we’re fat) carry our shame visibly.
In the West, being fat is often equated with being sinful and lazy. Fat is the sin you can see. “#FatAndLazy” is more than a hashtag—it’s a stereotype that’s infiltrating our culture. According to our cultural messages, being fat means having no self-control, it means being careless about oneself (and therefore careless toward others), and it means not being happy, not being healthy, and not being content. These are all lies.
Writer Sallie Tisdale tells her story about her relationship to food and weight in the memoir The Best Thing I Ever Tasted, noting:
I believed that being thin would make me happy. Such a pernicious, enduring belief. I lost weight and wasn’t happy and saw that elusive happiness disappear in a vanishing point . . . . Knowing all that I know now about the biology and anthropology of weight, knowing that people naturally come in many shapes and sizes, knowing that diets are bad for me and won’t make me thin—sometimes none of this matters. I look in the mirror and think: Who am I kidding? I’ve got to do something about myself. Only then will this vague discontent disappear. Then I’ll be loved.
And this pervasive belief, just like the Galatians’ ideas about salvation and circumcision being intrinsically linked, is not true. Our identities as daughters of Christ are identities of freedom. Do not let yourself be burdened by the invisible corset! Do not let yourself be burdened by the yoke of slavery to an ideal and unattainable body image!
If we are constantly evaluating and grading ourselves against a visual or numerical “ideal,” we are constantly focused on self-identity rather than God-identity. This is slavery to self. Albert Haase, a Franciscan spiritual director asks, “What drives us to obsess over perfection? The desire to fill the hole in the heart with success, acceptance, love, and fulfillment. Society, upbringing, and friends have taught us that self-esteem comes from the trim body . . . the approval of others.” But this is not true. The hole in our heart will never be filled by the achievement of the “perfect body.”
Besides, for most of us, that achievement is impossible.
Being "Fat" and Healthy Is Possible
Recent research has indicated that our weight is a lot more like our height than we like to imagine. In neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt’s 2013 TED talk, “Why Dieting Doesn’t Usually Work,” she compares a person’s brain to a home thermostat:
Your brain also has its own sense of what you should weigh, no matter what you consciously believe. This is called your set point, but that’s a misleading term because it’s actually a range of about 10 or 15 pounds. You can use lifestyle choices to move your weight up and down within that range, but it’s much, much harder to stay outside of it. . . . The system works like a thermostat, responding to signals from the body by adjusting hunger, activity, and metabolism, to keep your weight stable as conditions change.
Rather than dieting (which is somewhere between a $60- and $20-billion-a-year industry), Aamodt recommends adopting “intuitive eating,” the practice of observing your hunger, eating because you are hungry, and stopping when you are full. She also notes that, for people who eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, exercise three times a week, don’t smoke, and drink only in moderation, the health difference between “normal weight,” “overweight,” and “obese” individuals is negligible. (“Obese” is currently defined as having a BMI of 30 or more, and when the new definitions of these terms were lowered in 1998, 25 million American automatically joined the category of “obese.”)
Yes, you read Aamodt’s claim right. One can be considered “obese” and still be healthy, providing that one eats well, exercises, doesn’t smoke, and doesn’t drink too much.
But this is a hard message to hear. Some readers may say, “She’s giving us a license to be fat! She’s giving us permission to sit on the couch and eat potato chips.” No. I’m giving you a license to stop spending so much emotional energy worrying about your weight. Take care of yourself so that you may do the good work God has called you to do.
Joining the Corporate Body
Often, in the Christian conversation about our responsibility to care for our bodies, people pull out 1 Corinthians 6:19 and wave it around like a flag. “Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit?” they declare. What they don’t know is that the Greek word for “your” in this case is plural. It’s all of us, not just you alone and not just me alone. Though this passage has individual application, it does not mean the communal aspect is not significant. Together we are one body, the body of Christ. We live this life of discipleship to Jesus together, not independently.
Smash the idol of the scale. Find freedom in Christ. Practice healthy habits. Connect with the corporate body of Christ, and stop obsessing about your own individual body. Not easy, right? Well, here are a few tips to help you dethrone the idol of physical perfection:
1. Stop talking badly about your body. Don’t do it in private and never ever speak this way in front of a younger woman or girl. As much as belief leads to talk, talk leads to belief. When you talk badly about your body, you run right back into the prison from which Christ has freed you.
2. Do an act of resistance. Maybe you can smash a scale or donate (burn?) your diet books. Maybe you can clean out your closet, getting rid of your “skinny clothes” you haven’t been able to wear in five years. Release these expectations and disappointments to Jesus.
3. Find ways to enjoy moving. Find exercise you enjoy (or at least people to exercise with whom you enjoy). Stop thinking of exercise as a way to “stay fit” but, instead, as a way of enjoying the embodied creation God has made you to be.
4. Encourage others to tell their stories. Our communities are full of women who want freedom from the lure of physical perfection. One way healing can occur is through sharing our stories.
5. Seek help if needed. Remember that eating disorders (including binge eating, anorexia, and bulimia) are physical and psychological illnesses that require professional treatment. If you are struggling, take courage and seek help.
Finally, remember the comfort of God’s presence and providence in Psalm 16:9–11, an invitation to rest our bodies in the presence of God. “No wonder my heart is glad, and I rejoice. My body rests in safety. . . . You will show me the way of life, granting me the joy of your presence and the pleasures of living with you forever” (emphasis added). And these pleasures may include a plate of pasta, an evening walk with a friend, or comfort that recognizing that your shape—medium, stick, or round—is okay with God.
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