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?