Born Again Bodies and Christian Weigh-Loss
In recent decades, many Christians have tried to make sense of the tension between our bodies and spirits by swinging to the opposite pole. Instead of saying, “The body doesn’t matter,” they have said, “The body matters—in fact—what happens in your body corresponds exactly to what’s going on in your spirit.” Take evangelical fitness and diet culture, which anthropologist R. Marie Griffith documents in Born Again Bodies. Beginning in the 1950s, books like I Prayed Myself Slim and Pray Your Weight Away inaugurated a wave of Christian self-help literature on weight loss.
One author admonished readers, “Stand on the scale. How much more do you weigh than you should weigh? . . . We fatties are the only people on earth who can weigh our sin.” He promised weight loss through prayer, devotional Bible readings, and unshakable faith. In the following decades, other authors and Christian diet and fitness programs, like the Weigh Down Workshop, continued to connect spiritual discipline and godliness to thin and conventionally attractive bodies.
In one sense these programs were helpful—they addressed the disconnect between body and spirit and taught Christians to take care of their bodies, which are “a temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). These messages were compelling and motivating—devotional diet books frequently sold hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of copies while faith-based exercise programs spread in churches around the world.
Many people did lose pounds and become fitter. But instead of wrestling with the mystery and wildness of our bodies—the fact that the processes happening within them are often out of our control—Christian diet and fitness programs usually flattened that tension. They conflated bodily health with spiritual health. If you are healthy and thin, it means God is at work in you, renewing your spirit and your body. Likewise, if you are ill or fat, it means you’ve succumbed to sin. You’re not letting God into your life.
As Griffith notes, “the search for external somatic indicators of internal states of being is age-old.” That is, we’ve always had trouble with spiritual uncertainty and tried to ascertain whether we have God’s favor or not by looking at our bodies or material circumstances for “proof” that we are blessed, that we are God’s elect.
The messages from Christian diet and fitness gurus were a subtle manifestation of the prosperity gospel, which, as we’ll see later, assumes a neat correspondence between God’s blessings and material prosperity. When it comes to illness, prosperity gospel believers respond, If Jesus is here to heal us, then you’ll be physically healed, and if you aren’t, then there’s some blockage of God’s power in your life.
Taken from Hurting Yet Whole: Reconciling Body and Spirit in Chronic Pain and Illness by Liuan Huska. Copyright (c) 2020 by Liuan Huska. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
Disney Princesses & Body Image
A study led by Brigham Young University found that 96 percent of girls and 87 percent of boys had interacted with Disney princesses by age four. Girls who engaged the most with princess culture (via movies, shows, dolls, costumes, etc.) had the lowest body esteem. For boys, engagement with princesses actually enhanced their body image.
Lead researcher Sarah Coyne concludes, “Disney Princesses represent some of the first examples of exposure to the thin ideal. . . . As women, we get it our whole lives and it really does start at the Disney Princess level, at age three and four.”
Maria Goff and Insecurity
Insecurity is a funny thing. It makes us into someone we’re not as a way to cope with someone we used to be. For me, it started at home. Growing up, my dad had been critical of my mother’s weight, and he evidently didn’t want my sister and me to look like her. One day my dad called us into the bathroom.
He was standing by a scale he had placed on the floor with his arm extended, inviting us to step up. I can’t remember the number that appeared, but I remember being so humiliated. This was another moment for me. I began to believe the lie that the love and acceptance and approval I longed for was conditional and depended on my outer appearance. This happened in high school, but when I left for college this untruth found a corner of my suitcase to hide in. When I unpacked my clothes in my dorm room, I unpacked the lie too.
Nakedness is a Funny Thing
In his excellent book, Strong & Weak, Andy Crouch discusses the unique phenomenon of nakedness, something, as he will argue, no other species really experiences. “Nakedness” has, for good reason, been used as a shorthand for experiences of vulnerability. Therefore, one might argue, a part of what it means to be human is to be naked is to be vulnerable:
Of all the creatures in the world, only human beings can be naked. By adulthood, every other creature naturally possesses whatever fur, scales or hide are necessary to protect it from its environment. No other creature—even naked mole rats or Mr. Bigglesworth, the hairless feline sidekick of Mike Myers’s movie villain Dr. Evil—shows any sign, in its natural state, of feeling incomplete in the way that human beings consistently do. Only human beings live our whole lives able to return to a state that renders us uniquely vulnerable, not just to nature but to one another.
Nothing to Hide
The relationship between wartime leaders Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt has been well chronicled by historians of the period. On one visit to the United States, Roosevelt wheeled himself right into the British Prime Minister’s bedroom, opened the door to find Churchill completely naked and yet unashamed. Churchill’s response was classic: “You see, Mr. President, we British have nothing to hide.”
Stuart Strachan Jr.
Object in Mirror May Appear Bigger…
A sign on a department store dressing room mirror: “Objects in mirror may appear bigger than they actually are.”
Hope Health Letter (12/95). Leadership, Vol. 17, no. 2
The Perfect (Mythical) Woman
I now consider that January day as one of the most important of my life…My husband and I had been married fifteen years. With our three sons, we had just moved to a beautiful new neighborhood. Several friends from church lived around the block from us, and they kindly invited me to ride with them to a community Bible study at a church across town. Grateful to be included, I hopped into my friend’s van. That evening I told my husband about the Bible study and about that ride across town. Sprinkled through my description of the study of Genesis were comments like these:
“Belinda is so kind and friendly. I wish I had her sense of humor.” “I wish I could be more like Ann. She’s incredibly organized.” “Boy, it would be nice to be like Shanna—she’s so poised and beautiful! I wish I had her posture and carriage. Finally, my husband interrupted me. “Richella, you compare yourself with everyone you meet. You pick out the best attributes of each person and measure how you stack up against them. His words rankled, even as I realized that he might be right…but what my husband said next really stung. “You’ve created for yourself a mythical composite woman, and you think she is the standard you should meet. But that woman doesn’t exist.”
… “Well, of course, I notice their outstanding attributes. I have a great appreciation for people,” I defended myself. “But then you pick out each one’s greatest traits and assume that you should share those. You want this person’s kindness, that person’s poise, this one’s intelligence, that one’s sensitivity. And you do it with body parts too: you admire this woman’s face, that woman’s waistline, that woman’s legs. You determine each person’s strength and measure yourself against that strength, so you always come up short.
Taken from Mythical Me: Finding Freedom from Constant Comparison by Richella J. Parham Copyright (c) 2019, pp.3-4 by Richella J. Parham. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
Transformed by the Elevator
A family from a remote area was making their first visit to a big city. They checked in to a grand hotel and stood in amazement at the impressive sight. Leaving the reception desk, they came to the elevator entrance. They’d never seen an elevator before, and just stared at it, unable to figure out what it was for.
An old lady hobbled towards the elevator and went inside. The door closed. About a minute later, the door opened and out came a stunningly good-looking young woman.
Dad couldn’t stop staring. Without turning his head he patted his son’s arm and said, “Go get your mother, son.”
Owen Bourgaize, Castel, Guernsey, United Kingdom
Have you ever noticed that we often see ourselves, specifically our bodies, our facial features differently? In 2013 the soap company Dove decided to explore this phenomenon by hiring an FBI-trained forensic artist to draw sketches of women. The artist was tasked with doing two sketches: one based on how the woman described herself, and the second based on how complete strangers described the women.
The results were shocking. The sketches done based on the description of the strangers were always more beautiful than the ones described by the women themselves. The point of the ad was rather obvious: most woman do not appreciate their own beauty, nor can they accurately describe how they look. The goal of the ad was to help woman see their own beauty and to foster a greater appreciation for their own beauty.
Stuart Strachan Jr.
Whose the Fairest of Them All?
In Disney’s Snow White, when the wicked witch stares in the mirror, she asks a basic question: “Who’s the fairest of them all?” It is a natural, human tendency to measure ourselves against others. But what if that mirror provides a cracked perspective? How do we resist the temptation to define ourselves externally, via comparison with others, and instead develop an integrated self, content within our own parameters? Are there feelings of frustration and inadequacy burrowed into our psyche that we may not even be aware of?