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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Food and Prejudice

A few days ago, I had the privilege of reading this excellent blog post from s.e. smith on the blog This Ain’t Livin’:

Eating as Performance of Moral Superiority – this ain’t livin’.

In this post, Smith explores the ways in which our culture has recently come to give moral and ethical inflection to certain foods or certain ways of eating.  I heartily encourage you to read the post since there is no reason for me to rehash an already excellently written piece here.

Essentially, Smith reminds us that our decisions about food are more complicated than the food-moralists might like to believe.  Food-moralists (I’m coining a term here) want to give certain foods (say, kale) a higher moral superiority rating than other foods (say, white pasta).  They then condemn those who eat “wrong” foods and applaud those who eat “right” foods.

But, Smith suggests, those food choices are not always easy to make.  I have certainly noticed what I call a “health tax” on some foods.  Picking on pasta again, I have noticed that whole wheat pasta is typically more expensive than white pasta.  So, if white pasta is “junk food” (something I once heard a food-moralist say), then poorer people are stuck eating “junk.”  The moralistic implications of the word “junk” are pretty strong.

Smith’s entire post is excellent, but it ends on this strong note:

Until eating can be divorced from value judgments, it’s going to be difficult to repair a broken food system. Individual dietary choices are not made in a vacuum, but a world filled with pressures, and those pressures must be acknowledged in a discussion of what people eat, how, and why. There’s nothing morally superior about eating one thing and not another, and people need to stop acting like their fridges contain proof of sanctification.

Wow.  Proof of sanctification.  I think that hits the nail squarely on the head, don’t you?

And here’s where I have to weigh in theologically, since the word “sanctification” is an explicitly religious word.

What you eat does not make you a better person.

What you eat will not save your body or your soul.

But food-moralism has found its way into churches as well as running rampant in secular society.  What can we do about that?

James has a few things to say that I think are pertinent here (James 2:2-13, bolding mine):

My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. …If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. …Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.

Okay, so here James is talking about clothing as a visible and outward sign of poverty or wealth.  I would argue that in our society, obesity or thinness are the new signs of poverty or wealth.  But regardless of what a person looks like, when we see what’s on their plate, we levy judgments.  We show favouritism.

I guess the theological message I want to add to s.e. smith’s excellent blog post is this: Christians need to live differently than everyone else, and that means letting go of the world’s (our society’s) ideas about “right foods” and “wrong foods”, “good foods” and “bad foods.”  We need to stop judging others about their food choices.  Mercy triumphs over judgement.  Loving your neighbour as yourself means honouring them as adults who are free to make their own choices about what they eat.

If you care so much about what other people are eating, feed the poor.  Donate what you consider to be wholesome foods to the food bank.  Volunteer to make healthy meals at homeless shelters.  But keep in mind that what you can live on as a person who has access to food anytime you want it might be different than what a person who might eat only one meal a day might need.  Honouring the poor means listening to their needs, their likes and dislikes, their desires, not imposing your food judgements and value systems on them.

Body Size Discrimination and You

One of the most destructive elements of body size discrimination is that it interferes powerfully with the ways in which we interact with other human beings.  For example, how many of us have jumped to conclusions or passed judgment on someone whom we deemed to be “too heavy”?

I’m guessing that almost all of us have let those thoughts pop into our minds from time to time.  Sometimes it’s self-justifying: “Well, at least I’m not as fat as that person!” we might say to ourselves.  That says more about how we feel about our own bodies than it does about the person we’re judging.

Sometimes it’s just simply hateful: “How disgusting!” we think, “Don’t they have any shame?”  Not only have we just thought of another human being as disgusting, we’ve just made a moral judgment about them as well, insofar as we have presumed that they

  1. ought to be ashamed of their body, and
  2. are not feeling that shame.

Truth be told, that person does feel ashamed of their body.  But what are they supposed to do about that?  In fact, for all we know, they might be actively involved in a healthy manner of living that includes making wise decisions about eating and getting plenty of physical activity.

So, if they are living a healthy lifestyle but not losing the weight, what do they have to be ashamed of?  Frankly, if I’ve just had the thoughts above, I should be the one feeling ashamed, because I’ve just made a million assumptions about a complete stranger that are probably wrong, and then assigned moral status to something that they cannot change: who they are.

Because that’s the gist of it, folks: a person in a fat body is a fat person.  Before you accuse me of throwing around tautologies, think for a moment.  When we condemn a person for some aspect of their physical makeup (ahem, such as race, gender, height, weight, etc.) then we are condemning the person, since our bodies are our selves.  It’s a bit of worn-out feminist phrase, I know, but being old and overused doesn’t make it less true.

Our bodies are our selves.  We have no other self but the body with which we interact with other bodies.  When I walk into a room, you don’t see my deeply held beliefs, dreams, opinions, and memories.  You see my body, and I see yours, and through those bodies we get to know one another’s deeply held beliefs, dreams, opinions, and memories.

So why do we judge other people on the basis of their body size?  Why do we presume that because a person is overweight (according to whatever sliding scale we are using at the time) therefore s/he is lazy, gluttonous, out-of-control, weak-minded, bad?  More importantly, why do we continue to do this when our own experiences ought to teach us that this is not the case?

Think about the people you know.  Are any of them overweight?  Are any of them very overweight?  When you think about these people, is their body size the first thing you think about, or do you think about how funny they are, or what good listeners they are, or how great it was that one time they helped you out of that mess?  I suspect that most of us (dare I say all of us?) know someone who falls into the infamous categories of overweight or obese, partly because, if the oft-quoted statistics are correct, then 2/3 of Americans fall into that category.  I also suspect that once we get to know those people, we find out that they are just the same as we are: they have the same kinds of dreams, hopes, fears, loves, hates, memories, and so on.  We value those people for something more than their physical shape.

So why, if we are able to like and love overweight and obese people whom we already know, are we so quick to judge overweight and obese strangers?  What gives us the right?  And are we aware of the damage we are doing to ourselves and to any potential relationship we might have with the person whom we have just judged?