The Health Hierarchy

The Fat Nutritionist, one of my favourite bloggers, posted today sharing her brilliant insights in the ways that we use health as a marker of success and how that affects people who are inherently “unhealthy.” Check out her post at When health is not on your side..

Health is the newest hierarchy that our culture has developed. We human beings seem to have an inherent need to find ways to rank ourselves. Wealth has long been a primary status hierarchy. Race has tragically been used too often to create a hierarchy of differences. Gender, of course, is still used to prove that one type of human being is better than another. But health is the current hierarchy fad, and we are being led to believe that it is something we can earn for ourselves. As The Fat Nutritionist writes,

By this definition, if you have good cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar, a BMI between 18.5 and 24.9, and no notable illnesses or conditions, then you’ve achieved health.

There is, according to this definition, no reason that we can’t raise ourselves up on the health hierarchy. All you have to do is take care of yourself, right? Exercise and eat right and you will be Healthy. But, as she rightfully points out, that isn’t always possible.

I can’t help but look at the issue through my theological glasses, of course. Sometimes, Christians seem preoccupied with the importance of Health. The whole “Less of me and more of Jesus” approach to weight loss is a great* example. I think we might claim not to be worried about outward appearances (i.e. the ugliness of fat) but about the inward importance of physical health. I’ve heard the argument that we need to be physically healthy because then we will be prepared to do whatever work the Lord might ask of us (such as going on a foreign mission). I’ve heard the argument that being healthy is a way of honouring God in our bodies (we’ll ignore the context of 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, which is sexual morality not physical Health). Of course, there could be an argument that striving for health is a way of loving ourselves well.

I’ve often wondered how people with disabilities and illnesses feel about these arguments. The person with Multiple Sclerosis doesn’t know from day to day if he will be able to “do whatever work the Lord might ask.” He needs to trust that the Lord knows him and his weaknesses and won’t ask him to do something that his illness prevents. And the Lord is trustworthy, so he can rest assured that will be the case. The person with bad asthma may not be able to exercise to “honour God in her body” because she risks triggering a severe attack that will leave her weaker than ever and risk her life. She honours God in her body by serving Him faithfully in whatever way she can, knowing that will be enough for our good God of mercy. Striving for health might not be possible for the working poor. They spend all their time working just to make ends meet and then are often only able to afford “junk food.” I am confident that God recognizes their situation and is pleased that they are doing their best with what they have.

“Well,” you might be thinking, “but that all makes sense. The person with Multiple Sclerosis, the person with asthma, the working poor all have problems that are not their fault. What about the person who gave themselves Type II Diabetes or high cholesterol or overweight or whatever? They did it to themselves. They should feel bad. They did something sinful.”

First of all: did they? How do you know? Are you sure that you aren’t judging someone by their appearance without knowing the whole story?

Second: are you sure that unhealthy habits are actually sins? I’m not.

Third: so what? Do you think that God loves the fat person less? What about the person whose sweet tooth led to diabetes? What about the person who loves rich, greasy food and gave themselves a heart attack? Do you really think that these people are less important to God than healthy people?

 

Health is just another hierarchy. Christians are called not to consider ourselves better than others based on race, class, or gender (“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28). Paul hadn’t seen a world where we treated one another differently based on perceptions of Health, but I think if he had, he would’ve added “healthy nor unhealthy” to his list. Actually, I take it back. Paul did see such a world. He saw a world where lepers and people with “imperfections” (anything from birthmarks to physical and intellectual disabilities) were cast out of society and had to live in squalor on the outside of the cities. He also knew a Saviour who walked amongst those people, who healed some of them of their diseases, and who promises that all are welcome in the Kingdom of God.

Our bodies are broken by the Fall. Some are broken more than others. Some are broken because they haven’t been loved well by themselves or by other bodies. But our broken bodies are a part of our humanity and our humanity is a gift from the God who made us in His image. As Christians we are called to love one another and to value others above ourselves. There is no room for judgment based on Health in that call.

One more quote from the excellent post linked above:

The reality is that health is not an achievement. It’s something you already have, and it looks a bit different for every person. Health is a dynamic resource that each person carries with them, in some form, through their entire life. …By coping well and caring for yourself, in whatever way works best for your unique habitus and challenges, and by living a life that matters to you, you are cultivating the health that is already yours.

As Christians, I would encourage you to take the health you have as a gift from God. Recognize that your body is broken but that the effects of the Fall are temporary. That doesn’t make our brokenness any easier to handle, but it will give us hope, leading us to care for ourselves and live our lives well based on our unique health resources. Recognize also that, even if you are temporarily Healthy, you have not achieved something that makes you better than anyone else. Beware of pride. There is nothing wrong, of course, with doing things like exercising or eating well, because those things make us feel good and could give us strength and energy. But they aren’t a form of righteousness and they never will be, just as eating some cake is not a sin (I will concede that eating ALL THE CAKES could be considered a sin, but gluttony is not the topic of this post). Most of all, loving your body is good, but loving other bodies is better. By that I mean that we should take care of our brothers and sisters and love them as they are, not as what we think they should be.

If you haven’t already, go read The Fat Nutritionist’s post. It was awesome and much better thought out than mine.

 

*and utterly humiliating. Christians can be so painfully cheesy sometimes.

 

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Occupy Beauty

How many people are actually as beautiful as the media ideal?  Not too many, I dare say.  A very small percentage, I expect.  I actually don’t know what that percentage might be, but I’m betting if we looked at the worldwide population (and especially if we do something daft like limit the “media ideal” to the North American/European ideal), it might be around 1%.

This of course makes me think about the Occupy movement and the idea of the 1% vs. the 99%.  (I know this is an imperfect analogy, but bear with me.)  The way I see it, the 99% of human beings who are not considered beautiful by the media aren’t therefore automatically ugly, even if that is what the beauty/dieting industries would like us to believe.

So I think the 99% of non-media-beauties need to Occupy Beauty.

Own your own beauty.  Recognize it.  Embrace it.  Celebrate it.

Better yet, learn to own the beauty in others as well.  Recognize the beauty in other human beings.  Embrace it.  Celebrate it.

Because all human beings have beauty in them—and I’m not just talking about “inner beauty,” either, whatever that’s supposed to be. I’m talking about physical beauty.  I truly believe that if we open up our eyes and really look at one another, we will see the beauty in every human being.

People of every age, every race, every ability, every size, every health level are beautiful.  People with scars, people with skin conditions, people who are tall, people who are short, those who are fat, those who are thin, those who have four limbs, those who have less: we are all beautiful.

I’m not talking about some kind of philosophical aesthetics here.  There are people who have spilled a lot of ink on the nature of Beauty.  Psychologists will tell you about how babies prefer pictures of faces that are more symmetrical than others.  I’m not trying to deny that there are people who are aesthetically more pleasing to look at than others.

What I’m trying to say is that human beings aren’t art objects.  We shouldn’t be judged by the philosophies of aesthetics.  A sculpture that lacks aesthetic qualities can be called ugly or deemed to be “not art.”  But a human being should never have their worth demeaned simply because they didn’t have the genetic good fortune to be symmetrical and have, I don’t know, “great bone structure” or something.

As a follower of Jesus, I find human value in the fact that we are all made in the image of God.  When you think about that, it’s pretty neat.  Despite the absolutely mind-boggling amount of diversity in human appearances, each one of us is made in the image of God (which probably says something amazing about the nature of God).  In my mind, that automatically makes us all beautiful.

Here’s the really neat part: in the Occupy Beauty movement, there is no “us” and “them.”  In many cases, being a part of the 1% isn’t the great privilege that it’s supposed to be.  Those who look like media beauties are often subject to more criticism about their appearances, and they especially suffer from the fear that that privilege of Being Beautiful might at any time be taken away from them (cue the Keats poetry).

But the 1% have the same right to Occupy Beauty as the 99%.  They, too, are—of course—made in the image of God and therefore are beautiful according to that standard.  When we recognize and celebrate the beauty in one another, we brush away the differences that are meant to keep us apart.

For I believe that it is not actually the 1% who are trying to maintain their position of privilege over and above the 99%.  I believe it is the beauty/dieting industry that is trying to keep the 99% in a place where we are always striving after that illusive 1% ideal, for the simple reason that they want to profit by our pain.

So, I implore you to fight any message that tells you, “You aren’t beautiful.”  Fight it with every fibre of your being.  Because you are beautiful, just as you are.  You don’t need anything—clothes, cosmetics, diets, anti-aging creams, muscle-building powders, hair dyes, whatever—to make you beautiful.

Today and every day, then, find a way to Occupy Beauty.

the HAES® files: What If??

I wanted to draw my readers’ attention to this excellent post on the Health at Every Size blog. This is why I am passionate about seeing healing in our relationships with our own bodies and the bodies of others, and why I think HAES is the paradigm that will open that path for us.

Health At Every Size® Blog

by Deah Schwartz, Ed.D, CTRS, CCC

What if I told you an obscene number of girls between the ages of three and sixteen are being abused against their will and that:

  • The victims are unwilling and passive?
  • The targets of the abuse are the bodies of the victims?

What if I told you the collateral damage of the abuse includes:

  • Increased feelings of self-hatred and damaged self-esteem?
  • Development of guilt feelings and self-blame?
  • Development of maladaptive behaviors in order to cope with the abuse (e.g., restrictive or binge eating)?
  • Disassociation from the body?

What if I told you that frequently, adults stand by and do not intervene?

Most of you would be fairly certain that I was talking about sexual abuse.  And you wouldn’t be completely incorrect. When a girl is sexually abused, she is an unwilling victim who paradoxically feels guilty and blames herself.

Because the abuse is focused on…

View original post 1,028 more words

Why I Get Excited about the Incarnation

What’s so exciting about the Incarnation of Jesus?

It comes across at first as a dry theological topic.  It has a Latin-y name with more than two syllables.  It sounds kind of vague and abstract and ivory-tower.

In fact, the exciting thing about the Incarnation of Jesus is that it is none of these things.

When we find Jesus in His human body, we find something not vague, but specific.  Not abstract, but concrete.  Not ivory-tower, but down-in-the-dirt with the least of us.

Jesus has a human body.  A specific human body.  With specific features.  Unfortunately for us, none of the disciples cared to describe Jesus’ appearance in writing for us, which might be because he doesn’t look like anything special. (In fact, in Isaiah 53:2b, Isaiah foretells that there would be nothing about him that would cause us to take a second look.)  But he has features: he has a nose of a certain shape, eyes of a specific colour, a mouth that curves upward in just a certain way when He sees His friends.  I don’t want to speculate on what He looks like because we simply don’t know…yet.  But someday we will.

Jesus has a human body.  A concrete human body.  It isn’t a ghost’s “body,” somehow looking physical but actually made of energy or something.  He has a solid, touchable, human body.  Granted, His human body is now transformed, so it has…properties…that our bodies don’t yet have, but it is still a concrete body.  It is a concrete body that no doubt tore at the flesh of His virgin mother when she gave birth to Him.  It is a concrete body that felt the warmth and wetness of the tears of the woman who came to wash His feet.  It is a concrete body that cried tears when He felt–with His real, human, poignant feelings–the grief of His friends over the death of their brother, Lazarus, when He felt His own grief.  It is a concrete body that still bears the concrete scars of His crucifixion: holes in His hands (wrists?) and His feet, a gap in His side where the spear pierced His concrete flesh, His forehead torn by the thorns of the crown they gave Him.

Jesus has a human body.  A comes-from-the-dirt human body.  This isn’t an ivory-tower, academic, castle-in-the-clouds concept.  This is a truth that is as real as the ground beneath our feet, the sweat on our skin, the blood pounding in our ears.  Jesus is alive in this body right now in the presence of God, in the dimension we call Heaven.  Jesus, the Son of God, the Word that was in the beginning, the One in whom all things hold together, has a real human body that we will someday see with our real human eyes.  Jesus knows what it means to be hungry, to feel physical pain, to experience temptation, to hug a friend or family member, to touch a person suffering from disease, to craft something with his hands, to mix spit with dirt to create mud.  Academics (and I am one of them, most of the time) can make almost anything so difficult to understand that it seems like they’re just making things up as they go along, or so aloof from reality that we can’t ever figure out why certain concepts matter.

But the body of Jesus matters.  The body of Jesus is matter.

I get excited about the Incarnation of Jesus because it’s the part of the story where everything changes.  God, who crafted human beings out of the primordial stuff, the basics that make up even the dirt that we walk on, that God chose to become one of us.  He chose to cast His lot in with us, to take the death that we deserved, and then to pave the way for us to become like Him.  Because His real human body is present with God, our real human bodies can be present with God…someday.  Because His flesh was transformed, our flesh will be transformed…someday.  Because the dirt from which His body was formed, that basic stuff…tissues, cells, DNA, atoms, electrons, the Higgs boson…all of that basic stuff will be transformed…someday.

So, how can I not get excited about the Incarnation of Jesus?  Because Jesus is matter, matter matters.  Because Jesus has a body, we can trust that our individual bodies, and the whole of the universe, will someday be transformed in a collision between the eternal heaven and the currently-finite universe.

Your mileage may vary, but to me this is Very Good News.

That’s why I get excited about the Incarnation of Jesus.

What’s a body to do?

For the past four years I have been engaged in the research and writing of a thesis that was the final requirement for my Master of Christian Studies degree from Regent College in Vancouver, BC.  The title of my thesis rather sums up the topic and main concern: “This is My Body: Responding to the Sexual Objectification of Women through a Theology of the Body.”  It should come as no surprise to learn, then, that I’m very passionate about two issues: women’s rights and human embodiment.  Embodiment might not seem to be an issue, as such, but in my experience, human beings—especially 21st Century North American human beings—have very conflicted relationships with our bodies.

Women feel it more acutely: images of the female body are everywhere and used to sell a mind-boggling number of products.  Men, however, are increasingly being targeted by beauty advertising as well, as the recent Hugh Laurie L’Oreal campaign rather painfully demonstrates.  At the same time, North America is (apparently) suffering from an “obesity epidemic” in which bodies are being targeted as the loci of a frantic and pervasive nervousness about health—private and public—and longevity.  North Americans aren’t really sure what to do about death.  We try to put it off by “doing the right things” whether that means “eating right” or “exercising enough.”  If we are not embracing this asceticism aimed at avoiding the unnameable inevitability of death, then we are instead ignoring our bodies, using them as tools of hedonistic self-indulgence: eating, drinking, smoking, or f…well, you get the picture.

Death isn’t going anywhere, of course, so we are forced to deal with it eventually.  How North Americans imagine death is also fascinating.  Both religious and non-religious people attempt to envision so-called spiritual life-after-death.  Popular television deals all the time with questions of what happens after we die, with entire programs dedicated to exploring that undiscovered country, or at least the passenger lounge before one truly departs for it.  Can a troubled “soul” “cross-over” or will s/he need help?  Is there a place—possibly called heaven—where we go when we die or do we just cease to exist?  Do we all go to the same place, or are some of us punished for our misdeeds, and what misdeed is bad enough to warrant such a punishment?  Can we achieve “higher levels” of consciousness and “evolve” to a point where we won’t need physical bodies anymore?

North American culture is deeply, richly steeped in a philosophical tradition called dualism.  Very basically, it is the belief that human beings are made up of a body and a soul/spirit/mind which animates the body.  In most cases, the belief also tends to be that the soul/spirit/mind is the “true person” and that the body is simply a vehicle that the “true person” roams about in.  This leaves the body in a precarious position.  Do we love it or hate it?  Should we rebuild it if it doesn’t look the way we would like?  Should we ensure that we maintain it as carefully as possible so that it doesn’t break down on us?  Does it really matter what I do with my body since it isn’t really me at all?

Christians often buy into this dualism as well, accepting a tradition that first began to creep into Christianity in the days of the Greeks.  Read the epistles of Paul the wrong way and you end up with something close to dualism (i.e. my soul is the best part of me so I can’t wait to die and go to heaven and have no icky, sinful body to contend with).  In my experience, this is a very common error.  I’ve made it myself in the past, considering the soul to be the only part of me that was made in the image of God.  As I’ve journeyed through my theological degree and been led by the Holy Spirit, however, I’ve come to a different understanding, and that understanding is expressed in my thesis.

Human bodies are made in the image of God.  I don’t know exactly what this means except to make sure that you know I don’t believe that God look anything like us (except Jesus, of course, who has a human body!).  My logic goes like this: without bodies, we would make pretty crappy servants of God.  God created a real, physical world filled with an inexpressible diversity of life, and we are a part of that real, physical world.  In fact, God charges us with a task: the care of that world.  We can’t care for God’s world without real, physical bodies.  Nothing I’ve read in the Bible suggests that God created human souls and then decided they needed flesh-suits.  Whether you take Genesis literally or not, it seems pretty clear that God created/caused-the-evolution-of flesh-beings and then made them come alive mentally in a way not shared by the other animals.  In other words, our bodies make us who we are in at least as fundamental a way as our souls—whatever they might be, exactly.

So if we are Christians, I think we need to take our bodies seriously, not treating them with cruelty or disdain nor abusing them with pleasure-seeking.  When we learn to accept our own bodies as gifts of God, then I think we need to learn to accept the bodies of others as such as well.  If all bodies are good gifts, then it is deeply disrespectful to treat any body as nothing but a manipulatable, sellable object.

Expect more words about bodies on this blog, then, since it is a topic which I am passionate about, and one about which I have spent a lot of time in thought.