Christian Fat Shaming and the Trouble with Gluttony

High obesity rates in America are not the result of a mass deficiency in will power.

A few years ago I was a part of a Christian small group that met to pray and talk together about our journeys in discipleship. On one occasion, we were talking about the various challenges of living in a society such as ours — one filled with consumerism, violence, and the like. After the conversation had gone on a while one member of the group proclaimed, “I think gluttony is one of our biggest problems. Look at all of the obesity we have in our society.”

Underwater view looking up at a swimmer on the surface of a lakeNow this group had several members who were, in fact, obese. It was no secret to them, of course, and they had confessed in the group many times before that they had struggled to lose weight. They had been through a variety of dieting schemes, exercise programs, and personal trainers, and yet they’d made little lasting progress.

The person who had called attention to the problem of “gluttony” and immediately linked it to obesity could not have been oblivious to the fact that there were obese people in this group. What he was doing was a subtle form of “fat shaming” or “body shaming” and it was made all the worse because it was being couched in the language of sin.

What is wrong with our society is not some epidemic of gluttony, but rather a food system that is deeply broken.

I’ve seen similar scenarios play out in Christian groups over the years — Christians shaming others for their bodies and assuming that the condition of their bodies was the result of some moral deficiency. It is a way of speaking and thinking that is deeply unhelpful, and much like the damaging language of “purity” does to sexuality, this Christian body shaming does not do justice to the gifts, joys, and troubled realities of the bodies we were all given.

I went through my own journey of weight loss, a path that led me to rediscover the place of my body in my spiritual life as I shed more than 80 pounds. Through that process I learned that obesity is a deeply complex reality, and that while there can certainly be elements of gluttony involved for some, moral language does not fully capture its reality.

I have known slender gluttons, whose genetics have kept them from ever thinking twice about a second bowl of ice cream. I have also known many people who eat very moderately and carefully, following all of the guidelines for diet that the government recommends, and yet continue struggling to lose weight.

What is curious is that in some historical views of obesity it was seen not as the result of gluttony, but as a form of undernourishment. This way of viewing obesity explains why many poor people who work manual jobs and whose diets lack sufficient calories are actually at higher rate of being obese. As Gary Taubes explains in his critical book Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It:

Referring to obesity as a ‘form of malnutrition’ comes with no moral judgments attached, no belief system, no veiled insinuations of gluttony and sloth. It merely says that something is wrong with the food supply and it might behoove us to find out what.

This last statement is critical. What is wrong with our society is not some epidemic of gluttony, but rather a food system that is deeply broken. If you want to know the cause of high obesity rates in our country, look to corn subsidies and the resulting cheap sugar that permeates our food, not a mass deficiency in will power.

There is nothing good about being obese. Though I believe the array of body types with which God has gifted the world is far more varied than magazine cover ideals would have us believe, I also know from my own experience that many of us are not living into the health of our bodies. The way to call each other into that health, however, is not to use the tactics of shame and the moralistic language of gluttony. Not only is such a way of speaking rooted in a great many untruths; it simply doesn’t work.

Let’s celebrate each other, and help those of us who struggle with our bodies find the joy God intended for us in our skin as much as our spirits.

I started to move toward health when I learned to embrace the joy of my body. I eventually became fit enough to race an Ironman triathlon, not because of some masochistic search for thinness, but because I wanted the thrill of such a challenge.

I began to enjoy the way that my body felt when I ate good, nourishing food. More importantly, I began to understand what that kind of food really was — good, whole, fresh food grown directly from the earth. I also began to love running and long bike rides and lifting weights because in those activities I felt like my body was being what it was meant to be. It was joy, not shame, that turned my life around.

So let’s stop with the shaming of fat, of bodies, of any of the good gifts of God. Instead, let’s celebrate each other, and help those of us who struggle with our bodies find the joy God intended for us in our skin as much as our spirits.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

The opinions expressed in this piece belong to the author.

Ragan Sutterfield
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