Body Size Discrimination and the Church

From a Christian perspective, discrimination on the basis of body size/shape is especially heinous.  We are called to love all people, sinners and redeemed-sinners (otherwise known as the saints) alike.  We are called to love them because they are made in the image of God.  I think, however, that healthism is creeping into the Church, preventing us from loving some of our neighbours—or our brothers and sisters in Christ—as well as we are called to do.

Now, you might argue, loving overweight people means helping them to become healthy.  Yes, yes it does.  But consider this quote from Dr. Jon Robison:

“Health can be redefined as the manner in which we live well despite our inescapable illnesses, disabilities, and trauma.”

Robison makes a very Christian point here, whether he intended it or not.  One of the things we know as Christians is that there was a Fall.  Human beings, though made in the image of God, are now dying beings, experiencing the on-going effects of the first sin.  Our brokenness means that we will suffer disease and illness, that some of us will be born with physical or mental challenges, that we can be injured and maimed, and that we can make mistakes when it comes to taking good care of ourselves, others, and the world in which we live.

We also know, however, that we are being redeemed.  Our world, our selves, and our relationships with God and others are all part of that ongoing redemption.  When we interact with someone, we are interacting with them both as children created in the image of God and as people who can be or are being redeemed.

Health is a part of that redemption.  But it behooves us to note that, in some cases, ideal health (whatever that might look like) will never be possible.  No matter how virtuously a cancer patient lives her life, she may still die young.  No matter how hard a blind person prays, he might not receive healing.  Someone with a chronic disease like Multiple Sclerosis lives as well as he can despite the pain and difficulty associated with the brokenness of his body.  Regardless of how often a fat person tries to lose weight, statistics tell us that in 95% of cases, the weight will be regained (sometimes with interest) within 2-5 years.

So, encouraging someone to live a healthy life sometimes means accepting that their body will not be made perfect on this side of the general resurrection, and that, frankly, we don’t know what perfect will look like on the other side.  Helping someone live a healthy life means helping them to love themselves well.  It means helping them to see that their bodies are giving them cues about what to eat and when and how much.  It means helping them to find healthy and pleasurable ways to move their bodies so that they are experiencing fullness of life.

It means not judging someone because they go to the gym and then have an ice cream afterwards.  Instead, why not complement them for going to the gym?  It means that you welcome people of all abilities and sizes into a physical event—whether sports or dancing or gardening or otherwise—and make sure that everyone is having fun and no one gets hurt.  It means affirming someone as made in the image of God and helping them to find abundant life in the body which God gave to them, even as that body is marked by the brokenness of the Fall.

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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?

A Necessary GPOY*

It’s been more than a year since my first post, and there is an embarrassing gap in my posting record after June 26, 2012, but I hope to do better.  Because of the small number of posts I have up, I still want to do some introduction to who I am.

Having covered the nebulous, idea-based introduction in my first post, I’d like to get down to brass tacks.  Who am I beyond what I think?  I mentioned in that first post that I am a Christian.  I mention it again because there is nothing more important to my identity than my love of Jesus Christ.  It even goes on my census form, I think—or it used to back when Canada had a long-form census (did I mention that I had a political streak?).

Other important census details: I am a cisgender, heterosexual woman in my early thirties, married to a man I love deeply and who is unequivocally my best friend.  I have made a career mostly of being a student with some years of administration thrown in for sense and good measure.  In 2012, I graduated from Regent College in Vancouver, BC with a Master of Christian Studies (soon to be an MA in Theology).  My undergraduate degree was completed at the University of Alberta over ten years ago and gives me the privilege of declaring that I know A Good Deal about English literature.

I still read a lot and I still analyze the things I read, even the things I read for fun…or perhaps especially those things.  I analyze almost everything, in fact, from movies to television shows to the way the groceries are stocked at my local supermarket.  Don’t get me started on advertising.  I’ll save that for a future post or, more likely, posts.

I also have learned to identify myself as fat.  I am learning through the Health at Every Size movement and the fat activism community to own that name—not as a source of shame but as a part of my identity.  I believe that our bodies are our selves (to borrow a feminist term), and so, if I am sharing my true self, it makes a difference what my body looks like to other people.  I also recognize—painfully, a lot of the time—that we are a culture obsessed with bodies, personal image, and food, and that being fat in the midst of that culture can be a difficult experience.  My thesis, in fact, deals with women’s body image concerns (especially as caused by objectification), so there will be a lot of discussion on this blog about bodies.

In terms of body identity, it also bears mentioning that I am temporarily able-bodied (is that still the correct term?), with the exception of some rather bad myopia and astigmatism.

Before I take it for granted again, I also want to mention that I’m white.  It means that I forget sometimes that not everyone experiences the world the way that I have, from a position of privilege.  It often feels like there’s no not-awkward way to talk about race, though, so I try to do the best thing I can: shut up and listen when others are talking about their experiences.

Let’s see: I’ve covered gender, race, age, religion, body size and ability, education, and marital status.  Oh, just for spice I’ll throw in that I am an INFP on the Meyers-Briggs Personality Inventory, and that I’m actually very shy.  That should cover it, but if you have any other not-creepy questions, please feel free to add them in the comments!

*GPOY: A Gratuitous Picture of Yourself