“Is it a sin to be fat?”
I asked my friend the question over a cup of Earl Grey and a fresh blackberry muffin. My friend is not fat in the least; she had merely expressed interest in my current writing topic. She laughed and asked how I planned to answer the question. I, having never been accused of being thin, replied: “I don’t know if it’s a sin to be fat, but let me ask another question. Is it a sin to be thin?”
I’ve been thinking about the subject since hearing an interview with author and “fat acceptance movement activist” Lindy West on Mother Jones’ food politics podcast. The conversation features West’s experience with fat-shaming, a topic she discusses frankly and humorously in her 2016 book, Shrill, and at various public events, including a June appearance in Manhattan billed “The Other F Word: The Politics of Being Fat.”
West concluded in her mid-twenties that, in spite of her best efforts, she’d always been fat and probably always would be fat. She was ready to publicly acknowledge her acceptance of herself as fat. Up to that point in her life, the size of her body was something she never talked about with her friends or family. In a 2016 interview with radio host Ira Glass, she gave this explanation for the shameful silence: “The way that we are taught to think about fatness is that fat is not a permanent state. You're just a thin person who's failing consistently for your whole life.”
While some of West’s views on the politics of the body differ from a Christian perspective, I’d argue that her voice on the subject of fat-shaming is helpful in correcting a cultural standard that for decades (centuries?) has approved only one variety of the human form. Recognizing the shifting standard of beauty, West credits her discovery of modern-day art photos of full-figured women, echoing classic paintings by Rubens, Botticelli, and Matisse, with changing the way she sees and accepts her own body. “They’re presented as objects of beauty,” she said. “It had never occurred to me that you would do anything with a fat body other than hide it.”
Hiding the body was one of the first responses to shame in human history.
That belief is not unique to West. Hiding the body was one of the first responses to shame in human history. When Adam and Eve hid, they were running away from God’s attention because they’d willfully broken his law. Where they’d hoped to gain a kind of radical autonomy, they instead saw themselves for the first time outside of God’s loving gaze and found the view unbearable. When God offered them an opportunity to respond in conviction of sin, they continued responding out of their broken view of God and themselves. In the aftermath of this break-up with the Creator, all of humankind lost the ability to accurately differentiate between conviction and shame. When it comes to our bodies, we’ve lost track of what it means for a body to be good, and we’ve been trying to crack the code ever since.
If the cultural standard for human beauty is a moving target, how can we think Christianly about the weight and shape of our bodies? Can the Scriptural truth that we are wonderfully made tell us what dress sizes are holy? Shall we count calories and measure our BMI in response to the biblical teaching that our bodies were created to bring glory to God, as actual “temples of the Holy Spirit?” How do fitness and weight loss programs fit into the unforced rhythms of grace Jesus offers (to borrow Eugene Peterson’s phrasing in The Message)?
Unfortunately, the Christian subculture has too often appropriated the dominant culture’s standard for body size, marketing a faulty theology that suggests God wants you to be thin. No matter the cultural norms, there have always been plenty of ways sin can impact the size and shape of our bodies, but fitness trends promoted outside a fully formed theology often lead us away from the rest, contentment, and provision God provides. Throughout history, the church has applied Scripture to its daily life with numerous practices that, among other benefits, help us discern the appropriate size for our individual bodies. Throughout seasons of both fasting and feasting, we are instructed to practice contentment, gratitude, moderation, and detachment. We are also to reject sins of envy, gluttony, and idolatry. In the process of living these rhythms over years, the Holy Spirit forms our imaginations and develops our muscles (physical and spiritual) in anticipation of our restored and resurrected selves.
Of all the disciplines, I’d suggest we start with gratitude. Where Lindy West advocates a movement of radical self-acceptance, I find theologian Barbara Brown Taylor’s invitation to view our bodies in a prayerful act of thanksgiving an even more revolutionary call:
This [self-loathing] can only go on so long, especially for someone who officially believes that God loves flesh and blood, no matter what kind of shape it is in. Whether you are sick or well, lovely or irregular, there comes a time when it is vitally important for your spiritual health to drop your clothes, look in the mirror, and say, “Here I am. This is the body-like-no-other that my life has shaped. I live here. This is my soul’s address.
Only the loving gaze of our Creator is sturdy enough to keep us from falling prey to our culture’s shifting ideals. In this light, we are able to come out of our hiding places and rightly respond with both grateful acceptance and humble conviction to whatever our Creator asks of our bodies. In this response we participate in the most life-altering kind of acceptance, one that reconciles us with thanksgiving for what God has made, contentment for what God is making, and hope for what God will one day fully restore.