In anticipation of my impending presentation at this year’s College Theology Society conference, I’d like to address something we have not yet as a Christian blog, written by women, addressed: the pernicious, unrelenting desire to be thin (and ergo happy, ostensibly), particularly among many women in the United States.

However, as a side note — just as I aver that we should stop demonizing heavier bodies, I also don’t think the antidote exactly is to say that women should stop trying to be thin, as if being thin is necessarily an insidious capitulation to the worst of society. To couch things in these terms fails to capture the complex reality that is The Elusive Struggle For The Right Body. Some women are naturally thin, so we need to avoid implying that thin bodies are inherently evil; to imply such is to find yet another way to denigrate female bodies.  I make this point in the hope that we can move beyond the fat/thin dichotomy and toward a sense of natural variegated body weights. But I’ll get to that, probably in my next post.

To get a lay of the land, one need note that something strange is happening in the United States regarding our bodies and our relationship to food. Some 60 million adults in the United States are now obese, which is at least double what it was in 1980. This is to mention nothing of children and the growing obesity rates among them. Let’s not stop here though (after all, my point is to talk about the desire to be thin, not the obesity epidemic per se). While obesity is widespread in the United States, the diet industry is also full-speed ahead, raking in nearly $70 billion from US citizens in 2010 for products ranging from diet drugs, diet foods, books, exercise videos, surgeries, etc. And while I’m not going to explore the flowering of eating disorders especially but not exclusively among young women, I think it’s enough to mention them in order to indicate further the seriousness of these issues. Anyway, I think that at some point, Sarah Coakley dubbed this phenomenon of extreme diet and exercise as America’s “sweaty Pelagianism.” So fitting, perhaps even beyond what she realized when she made that passing comment.

And yet, the overwhelming majority of people who undertake diets for specific periods of time can indeed lose the weight but gain it all back and then some. So we have pretty good evidence that DIETING DOES NOT WORK, yet we’re doing it more than ever, and as a whole we’re more enamored with unhealthy food and lifestyle choices than ever. What is going on? Somehow the growing obesity rates and the obsession with thinness are related.

In pondering this issue, I’ve been reading the work of Geneen Roth, a well-known popular American nonfiction writer who has written for a couple decades on women’s compulsive attitudes toward food and their own bodies. None of what she says necessarily excludes men and their own fraught experiences with weight and body image, but she works with and speaks with women mostly because, let’s be honest, many women seem to have particularly frustrating and laden experiences with food and their own bodies.  There at least does seem to be an asymmetry in our society in terms of the extent to which men sexually objectify women, in comparison with women sexually objectifying men [which I in no way deny as a painful reality for some men]. To what extent does this particular sexual objectification of women, along with other kinds of pressure, create particularly cruel norms meant to police women’s shapes, sizes, and colors?

Anyway, I guess you could say that Roth is one of those spiritual-but-not-religious types; while eschewing institutionalized religion, she draws on anything ranging from Sufism to Buddhism to something that I think is vaguely Christian. She also uses a good deal of psychology. Most importantly, she draws from her own life experiences; after having gained and lost over 1,000 pounds throughout her life, she decided in a moment of desperation to stop dieting rather than kill herself, and since then she has been at her natural weight for over 30 years. And yes, she was on Oprah at some point, and she’s one of those writers that inspires and provokes women to cry quickly as they “get in touch with their feelings.” And this leads me to one of my initial main points. I have a sense that we in the academy doing Christian theology are quick to dismiss somebody such as Roth as functioning under the aegis of our supposedly secular self-help culture. And we’re quick to dismiss our image of women struggling to lose weight as frivolous problems which we should slot under the “ill-conceived attempt at that wishy-washy thing called self-esteem” category so prominent in the United States today. After all, that whole issue is just a symptom of American decadence run rampant, case closed, right? Because if you’re a theologian, your mere mention of self-help or self-esteem must obviously be pejorative, a jab at contemporary society, no further reflection needed, thankyouverymuch, now back to Hegel or Augustine or Nicholas of Cusa or Pseudo-Dionysius. I for one know that I have throughout my life, in my most adolescent and asinine moments, poked fun at the images of women on talk shows weeping about how they can’t lose weight.

But when did we, theologians included, decide that women’s relationships with food and with their own bodies constituted some cream-puff issue not worth our time? When did we get so unkind? Or so myopic? Do Christian theologians even have anything to say about this? What does it mean for those in despair about their own body shape and size that God became incarnate to redeem humanity?

Roth herself admits that, even after years of thinking about this issue, she was tempted to trivialize its significance but realized the depth of that error. In reference to her own suggestions for how to eat in a healthy and aware manner (TBA), she admits:

I didn’t always find the [Eating] Guidelines so compelling. When I first taught them, I regarded them as a boring but necessary set of instructions about breaking free from compulsive eating. I’d bought into the prevailing cultural perspective on the obsession with food as a banal woman’s problem that needed to be removed like a tick so we could focus on more pressing spiritual, intellectual, and political concerns. But after working with so much suffering in so many women, I believe that the fact that more than half the women in this country are slogging in the quicksand of food obsession is a spiritual, intellectual and political concern — which means the Guidelines are a spiritual practice. If those women could unpack their pain (beginning with allowing themselves to use food as a way of supporting rather than punishing themselves) and tell the truth about their lives — to paraphrase poet Muriel Rukeyser — the world would split open. And a little world-splitting might go a long way since our objectification of matter — including women’s bodies — is a partial cause of the apocalyptic disaster in which we now find ourselves. Rather than treating our bodies (and the body of the earth) with reverence, we trash them, try to bend them to our wills. Given the precipice we are now hanging from — whether we refer to the melting glaciers or the childhood obesity rate — we can safely assume that the way we are doing it is not working.

Women, Food and God, p. 165

Before getting into Roth and what she has to offer Christian theological anthropology in a future post more fully, I’d welcome feedback from those thinking theologically about this issue of weight and distorted body image in the United States, particularly among women. Do we have anything to say?

31 thoughts

  1. I’m excited to hear you take on this topic, Liz, and I like the way you’re framing it so far. I think that, yes, a struggle that pretty much every woman in our country (and I think most men as well), has to face at some point in her life–that should be deemed an important struggle. (I have not actually talked to every woman in America, but I don’t know that I’ve ever talked to a woman with a non-problematic relationship with her body.)

    I think that for me there are two major issues that play into the body image thing. The first is the idea that the body is opposed to or separate from the mind, as opposed to two sections in an integrated whole. Maybe I’m just aware of this because I make my living by positioning myself as an “intellect,” but I find it very easy to trash my body in one way or another in what I see as service to the mind. The willingness to reduce my whole personal worth to the appearance of my body, then, is just the other side of the same coin (in a way I’m too tired to articulate).

    The second issue that comes up for me has to do with the injunction to “love your neighbor as yourself,” which for me comes to be a struggle, not to love my neighbor, but to treat myself with love. I set myself the goal to treat my body as though it were separate from me–as though it were the body of a friend whom I loved. But then, does this contradict the first issue–do I, by treating my body as though it’s outside myself, just further distance myself from it?

    Anyway. The point is, I think that a discussion of how the body relates to/is/might be the self would be an important part of a project like this.

    1. Hey Mary,

      Thanks for your comment. I completely empathize with you on the whole dynamic of let-me-ignore-my-body-BECAUSE-I-HAVE-CLASS-OR-A-PAPER-OR-MANY-MORE- IMPORTANT-THINGS-TO-DO-WITH-TEXTS!!

      It’s interesting, because when I first came to the academy (errr…when I first got into grad school), I was relieved to be in a place that seemed to allow a little flexibility in terms of preferences for appearance and style and such. It made me feel that I could be valued for my mind and for my personality and for however I chose to represent myself uniquely in my clothing, etc. And yet, I think you’re right to point out that living the life of the mind poses its own challenges to remembering that we are embodied; sometimes if I’m working really intensely, I’ll realize that I haven’t stood up in 6 hours. That can’t be healthy, right? So I’ve been trying to be really intentional about listening to my body as I work. It’s hard but I think the right way to go. I’ll say more about this in the following post.

      I actually think your two points do fit together in an important, non-contradictory, way, though. I think that developing a more integrated sense of self requires intentional reflection precisely on who we are *as* embodied. So, in a sense, there is an objectification of the body that has to occur in our mind, but it’s an objectification that has to be loving, gentle, and welcoming. If this is confusing, I’ll see if I can talk about this more soon.

  2. In the 100s of posts that emerge in my reader, I stopped to read this one. 60,000! And all those kids eating too much. In a culture that is hurting deeply especially in the depressed middle class after the meltdown of the real estate market. I think about these things but I don’t usually connect them to all the Scripture I read and translate. Someone said that life is more than food and the body more than clothing. But I do worry about these problems. I am reminded of psalm 16. I explored the referents in the psalm briefly here – I am not a theologian, I just read one word at a time and think about them in the faith that I have learned.

    Our study group tonight read through Ruth – definitely a book where the concern about famine, eating, survival and rest is on the mind of the women in the story. Without a faith that works, I would expect there is no solution. But how to stimulate such confidence and hope? By the way – I don’t think a faith that works has to be of any particular persuasion – just maybe that simple call to the Invisible for help. (Thanks and sorry are good words too.)

    Aside – nice to hear of Sarah Coakley who spoke here a few years ago (Victoria John Albert Hall lectures.) I think she is still living at Ely where she has met my daughter Sarah (Director of Music at Selwyn and of the Ely girls choir). In fact, I think she pointed her house out to me when I was last there.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Bob. It’s nice to see that this issue is catching the attention of men.

  3. There is so much to say about women’s bodies and theology really. Three rapid thoughts:

    1. If little girls were told by their families that they are in Godde’s image and as such, sacred, much would be changed. Sex objectification would suddenly be seen as what it is… Not nice.
    2. One of my diets was Weigh Down, a faith-based weight loss 🙂
    3. An interesting comment was left on my blog by a friend: After an ecumenical service following 9/11 at which Protestant and Catholic priests officiated (one of them being a pregnant Protestant priest), the Catholic priests went on about how awful it was that a pregnant woman was at the altar…
    which leads me to an unexpected fourth point: the Roman Catholic Church has been trying to control, put down, restrain, bridle in (all this often by putting women on a pedestal so as to get us stuck up there) our bodies…
    Basically your topic could not be more political. Fabulous.
    Good luck!

    1. “the Catholic priests went on about how awful it was that a pregnant woman was at the altar…”

      Wow, man, that says so much. How upsetting…and revealing. Thanks for sharing it.

    2. Thanks for your comments, Claire. That’s truly horrifying about the Catholic priest and the pregnant woman. If you happen to see this, would you mind telling me more about your Weigh Down diet? I’m intrigued.

  4. Damn, this is a good post. I don’t think I’ve ever thought seriously, let alone theologically, about the issue of women, food, and weight gain/loss. And I am definitely one of those people who’s heaped scorn on the talk shows with women crying about dieting not working. Part of it, I think, is that I’ve never felt able to empathize with people trying to lose weight. I have the opposite problem: I am, and always have been, super thin–I mean, thin to a point that makes it impossible to find clothes that fit well without taking them to the tailor. And this isn’t because I don’t eat; I eat everything and anything I please, have never gone to a gym, and despite my best efforts to eat more (eat more carbs, eat more protein and exercise more, eat fatty things, eat more often), I just don’t gain weight, and my doctors have never said I was anything but perfectly healthy. In fact, my mom (who is not skinny like me anymore) still has a custom dress she had made for her at age 23; it fits me *perfectly.* It wasn’t until she gave birth to me that she finally gained some pounds.

    Anyway, I say this because I think you are really onto something with your point about “thinness” dominating the conversation about bodies, food, and God. I think the centrality of thinness–and the fact that I have never had to lift a finger to stay thin yet also detest being so thin–in this discourse is one of the reasons I can’t empathize with it, and one of the reasons that I secretly am not ashamed at my lack of empathy. There’s a real meanness and dismissiveness that I find sets in (for me at least) when I start thinking about this topic.

    1. “I think the centrality of thinness–and the fact that I have never had to lift a finger to stay thin yet also detest being so thin–in this discourse is one of the reasons I can’t empathize with it”

      Wouldn’t this indicate that the problem is much deeper than a cultural obsession over “thinness”? No matter how near or far a person is to the ideal on the natural weight continuum, it is nearly impossible to grow up in our society without a deeply rooted ambivalence toward self and body (at best) or downright self-loathing and self-harm.

      My experience of the church (admittedly coming from a tradition heavily influenced by gnosticism and the stoics) has included little to ameliorate these problems and so very much to magnify them, and yet I passionately believe an Incarnate Christ has more to say on the subject. I’m excited to follow along as that territory is explored here.

      1. Hey TomS,

        Yeah, I would definitely say that it comes from more than just our culture’s obsession over “thinness.” I think part of it, for me, also comes from what Mary pointed out above:

        “Maybe I’m just aware of this because I make my living by positioning myself as an “intellect,” but I find it very easy to trash my body in one way or another in what I see as service to the mind. The willingness to reduce my whole personal worth to the appearance of my body, then, is just the other side of the same coin (in a way I’m too tired to articulate).”

        I also find it very easy to trash my body in what I see as service to the mind. I don’t mean active harm, but rather doing such things as eating junk food all day because it’s faster than cooking, drinking 6 cups of coffee in one day, staying up all night to read even though I know my body needs the rest, and not making any time to exercise beyond walking to class.

        I have to say, there’s a kind of smug self-satisfaction that I think I get from that, especially when I’m watching the Oprah shows with the women weeping about not losing weight.

        It’s a real vice. I’ve just never thought of it seriously before reading Liz’s post.

      2. Thanks, Tom. That’s where I’m headed — the issue does go so far beyond (and below) the goal of being thin that we don’t even know yet how to talk about it. (Though, I think that’s what Sonja was trying to get at as well.) Stay tuned!

    2. Thanks for your perspective, Sonja. I really do appreciate your honesty on this topic, and I am very aware of the danger of setting my parameters to be such that they utterly exclude women who naturally have thin bodies and who don’t mediate self-hatred through the abuse of food. And trust me, I understand laughing at the women on the talk shows. Part of me still thinks it’s funny; there’s something so maudlin about it! But then the other part of me wonders–why does the topic of weight lead to immediate tears among what I take to be “normal” women? (And by “normal” I mean functional, having a range of emotions, having a range of relationships, and perhaps possessing the knowledge that crying immediately when the topic of weight comes up is embarrassing in our society.) What is happening there? The intersection of weight, fat, and food seems to be the locus of radical vulnerability, and I find that interesting theologically.

      But, as you’ll see, I think my posts will probably resonate most with those who choose to deal with despair through the abuse of food, or compulsive eating. Not everybody is a compulsive eater, but many are. But basically, when people use food to create the illusion of spiritual and emotional satiety, they are using food compulsively. More on this later.

  5. Great job. Liz. With no apology whatsoever–no, none–I admit to being proud of you. Uh, the “pride” is all about your clear thinking and courage and not about your carrying half my DNA. Thanks for thinking outside the box and trying to do good.

    1. Damn it, Mom, you blew my cover!
      Love you. Call you later.

  6. Excellent post! Thanks for addressing such a great topic.

    I’ve had theological musings on this topic since working in Campus Ministry, where girls would wander into my office complaining of girl things. So very often in these conversations, I would find poor body image interwoven seamlessly with poor decisions about sex, with fear of never finding someone to love them just as they were, and with a general sense of self-loathing. While a poor body image certainly didn’t cause these things, it certainly played a role in all these things. And, I quickly discovered that poor body image didn’t have much to do with how their bodies looked. I met thin girls and heavy girls with poor body image and I met thin girls and heavy girls with enough confidence to knock your socks off!

    Honestly, it made me curious as to how much we equate the love of God with the love of humans. If we haven’t been loved by a person for ourselves, as we are, thin or heavy, how can we believe that God loves us just as we are? I know this seems like a backwards assumption, but I would hear it in their stories. As Christian theologians, one would think that ANY issue the keeps people from recognizing and reveling in the love of God would be an important issue to address.

    1. Hey Jen!

      Long time! Thanks for your comments; they’re getting at the meat of the issue, in my opinion. In fact, I’m doing my dissertation on the possibility of truly embodied, Christian self-love, so I think the stuff you’re talking about with the college-age women you encountered is quite central, at least to my own concerns. In fact, I think that I always have in my mind the image of a young woman with impoverished self-regard as my starting point for theological reflection. Stay tuned! Hope you and Brian are well!

  7. I think Jen is onto something – with that sentence “If we haven’t been loved …”
    But how do we learn, especially when bodies are so objectified? And when – at least in my youth – God is preached with almost anything but ‘acceptance’. As I think back – hoping I am still on topic – there is a need for a considerable discipline, tenacity, and sometimes burrowing to escape from the fearful state that I seem to remember in me and in others. Is it that only some have such survival skills? or is it that the culture is exploiting the wrong skills?

    I heard a concert recently from a youth choir – largely girls from about 10-18 in age. I wondered which of them, of all sorts of body sizes and shapes, would find themselves in the midst of beauty because of the music. They sang both show music, and Palestrina. They were good – and the discipline clearly had built and was building in them the kind of discipline that could bear fruit. My wife and daughter were made of this stuff in their youth. Perhaps the examples are too personal – but personal is what is needed if our persons are ever to be free.

    That preceding paragraph is without explicit theology – but theology is never far from beauty, goodness, and music well performed. I look forward to your next post.

    1. Thanks Bob. I think we as Christians tend to be allergic to a grammar of acceptance/self-acceptance because it reads as code for: license to do whatever the hell we want, according to our hedonistic and selfish desires, apart from God. But I’m beginning to think that, for our richest theological anthropology possible, we need to speak not only of the need for a conversion beyond what we ourselves can bring about, that can only happen in God, BUT ALSO the reality that we are always already loved into existence and redeemed into eternal life with God, hopefully. I think it’s this latter strand that could support a really robust, Christian notion of “self-acceptance,” or whatever people in our society are trying to get at when they use that phrase. We’ll see.

      1. I have left a pdf of psalm 73 here which I was working on last week. This is a psalm about the body – among many. Perhaps the phrase from psalm 84 also comes to mind – my heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God. I usually leave my writing for three months before I publish on my Poetry of Christ Blog. But this psalm seems too relevant to your questions. It is filled with the language of the body and is so germane to the issue of teaching.

  8. Liz:

    Thank you for this post. I took a course this semester entitled Theology, Spirituality and the Body, and its whole focus was on topics like this one. I remember in one of my favorite class periods, my professor asked all of the women in the classroom to describe what makes a beautiful “feminine” face. She then had the men do the same, describing the ideal “masculine” face. Everyone had similar responses. She made the point that it is extremely rare to be in a room, anywhere, and to have a large and diverse group of people agree in such comformity on one issue.

    I am looking forward to Part II. I think that there is definitely a trivializing of “body issues” in the world of academia, whether intentional or not. But we can only theologize as embodied beings, and it’s about time that we look more closely and honestly at our bodies as socioculture sites and also as Imago Dei.

    Thank you!

    1. Thanks, Kristina. Thanks especially for that anecdote about your class. Though I’m not particularly surprised, I find it disturbing: how many millions of people are excluded from those commonplace notions of “feminine beauty” and “masculine handsomeness”? More precisely, HOW MANY PEOPLE IN THAT ROOM were excluded from the ideals that they themselves were promoting? I think we need to keep resisting our complacency regarding these narrow ideals. We’ll see if I can write about something to that end in the next post.

  9. I would love to hear you write about the desire to control our bodies in regards to dualism. The need to control our bodies often stems from a rejection and/or devaluation of the physical, I think – we’re not just trying to be thin or good looking, we’re trying to make our bodies not matter.

    1. Elisa, thanks for your thoughts. I think you are totally right. Because if we can make our bodies not matter, then we’re in control, we’re immortal, we’re put together, we’re perhaps worthy, finally, of love and respect. I’m going to trace this line of thought in the next post.

  10. Hey Liz, Thanks for your post. In addition to being a symptom of a sexist society that doesn’t teach women and girls how to love their authentic selves, I also think we can’t examine our crazed and completely contradictory relationship to food (a world in which people are anorexic and obese) without also looking at our food system. While women have always been objectified and made to love themselves only to the extent that they are considered beautiful, it seems as though both epidemic rates of obesity and anorexia (perhaps they are related in some way…perhaps they are responses to one another…the social body looking for balance?) are relatively modern and western phenomena…

    but yes, love what you’re doing and can’t wait to read what you write next..

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