Thinness Is Not a Religious Duty

Kataphatic’s post about dieting as an anti-gospel really resonated with me.

And then I read this, a devotional about how taking care of your body (by which the author mostly means losing weight) is a spiritual discipline. The author starts with a statistic about how many people are “obese” and how many people will die of chronic diseases “due to being overweight.”

First off, there is not a single disease that fat people get that thin people don’t. Not heart disease, not diabetes, not anything. Weight is a risk factor, not a 100% certain cause. And for things like thyroid issues, PCOS, and other diseases, it’s neither a cause nor a risk–it’s a symptom. But we assume, automatically, that if Person X is fat and Person X died from Disease Y, fat caused disease Y.

“Your body is God’s temple. If you were walking down the street and saw some gang vandalizing a church, you’d do something about it, right? When you don’t take care of your body, you are vandalizing God’s temple.”

Wow. Just wow. The body as a temple, sure, I won’t argue with that. But we’re equating eating a donut or failing to go for a jog with throwing a rock through a stained glass window. Seriously. Not. On. The. Same. Level.

You want to talk about vandalizing God’s temple? How about skipping lunch day in and day out? How about walking a mile or three in dress shoes, wrecking your heels and ankles? How about gall stones, or ruining your metabolism?

Also, the idea of a religious duty to be healthy is all kinds of problematic, because it creates the idea that if you’re sick, it’s your fault. Oh, and not only did you fail yourself, you failed God. That attitude reminds me of nothing so much as Job’s so-called friends telling him how his troubles are his own fault, and he must have offended God in some way. This article seems to imply the same of people with diabetes or heart disease, that they’ve offended God, and ill health is some kind of divine punishment for eating “sinful” foods.

What makes conflating religion and the pressure to be thin so dangerous is that believing that God wants you to do something can thoroughly side-track your common sense. That’s not a bad thing, in and of itself. Common sense helps you interact with the here-and-now physical world, and faith goes beyond that. I mean, it wouldn’t have gone real well for Noah’s family if he’d been focused on the likelihood of that amount of rain falling, instead of getting his tail in gear on the construction and rounding up critters.

But when the message isn’t actually from God, that same derailing of logic can have awful consequences. Even without religious reasons, people do really dumb things to try to be thin. Make it a religious duty, and the potential for self-harm just increases.

One other thing about the “body as a temple” metaphor. I’m not finding the reference right now (it’s somewhere in 1 Kings, I think), but if I recall correctly, God was supposed to have told Solomon what the dimensions were supposed to be, what the building materials were supposed to be, and how it was to be laid out. To me, there’s a huge parallel there with the fact that body size is largely genetic. God sets the size and composition for each human temple too. And if the body is a temple, is it respectful to the builder to try to force it into another shape from what he created? Sure, we try to change our bodies in all kinds of ways, to fight nature for all sorts of reasons. Some good, some bad, some pretty much neutral. But I don’t think you can use “your body is a temple” to argue that everyone should view thinness as a religious discipline without addressing the issue of whether God *wants* his temples remodeled to human specifications, and probably damaged in the process.

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8 thoughts on “Thinness Is Not a Religious Duty

  1. John Grebe says:

    Reminds me of the common theme in Ash Wednesday sermons in how it is often necessary to remind people that Lent does not equal a God weight loss plan. As viewing Lent as a way to help them lose weight is clearly missing the point and perverting a time of spiritual growth and reflection into selfish and shortsighted gain. Personally I do not have any problems with Christians praying about their weight, if they should lose weight and if so how much and how as it likely causes them to avoid unhealthy extremes if they are open to guidance in their prayers. Although trying to use spiritual disciplines such as Lent and fasting as divine weight loss tools is wrong and missing the point in my opinion. Besides even though as Christians we should not abuse our bodies we have to keep in mind that God never blindly applies a one size fits all standard but evaluates us by what we have done with our resources in our unique situation including health conditions. While there are some that we clearly have some control over such as smoking and lung cancer, others such as a disability which leaves one unable to exercise or a thyroid issue that affects our metabolism are clearly not the same thing as compared to somebody that eats only snack cakes without concern for their diet vs somebody that eats only rice cakes out of an obsession over their diet.

    • itsalllissasfault says:

      I definitely agree that losing weight shouldn’t be the purpose of giving up something for Lent.

      As far as praying for weight loss, I’m vaguely uncomfortable with the idea, but it’s not my place to tell people what they should pray about. Asking if they should lose weight and how much seem like the wrong questions to me, though. It seems to imply that your weight is very much within your control, and if God just gives you a number, you can hit it. It might be more constructive to ask for health and ask if there are things you could do to be healthier. But, in my experience, God doesn’t limit himself to answering just the questions you ask.

      • John Grebe says:

        I agree with you that God is not limited by our prayers and often our prayers are answered not in the way we thought we needed it but in what is really the best for us overall. When it comes to praying about one’s weight I think it has value in helping one to be more honest as to the real reasons behind it. Is it to better look just as good as a model in a bikini who was photo-shopped to look even thinner and “more perfect” in the eyes of society than she really is despite having a heavy makeup job before the photo shoot? Or is it out of a desire to improve one’s wellness through eating more whole foods and less processed junk food, in which case weight loss would be more of a side effect than the main goal? Yet just because one prays about something is no promise that one can not go wrong, just that if one is open and honest I feel they are less likely to go wrong.

        Also on a personal note, I realize I am not a typical reader of this blog as I am in the process of working on losing weight myself. Which is primarily because of a degenerate bone condition that I have which affects my joints, so the lighter I am the less stress on my joints which will also result in decreased pain levels. Personally I enjoy reading Kelly’s articles on weight because she illustrates the danger of becoming too obsessed with one’s weight which is an extreme that I want to avoid.

  2. April D says:

    “I don’t think you can use “your body is a temple” to argue that everyone should view thinness as a religious discipline without addressing the issue of whether God *wants* his temples remodeled to human specifications, and probably damaged in the process. ”

    That is just a perfect way to state something I think about a lot. I have a real difficult time listening to those in even my own religious branch who seem to feel that the phrase “your body is a temple” is sanction for all sorts of self-destructive body-modification diets and behaviors. It makes me sad and frustrated for all the reasons you pointed out. Not only because I *don’t* want to join in on the group self-hate-mantra in the “name of God” but because I too don’t think that’s what the message IS. How could a creator, who made us all “in his image”, want us to starve and otherwise work in vain to make ourselves smaller in body? Wouldn’t that very same creator rather that sort of mental and physical energy be spent for the good of the world; instead of the good of your pant-size? Just my thought…

    • itsalllissasfault says:

      Wouldn’t that very same creator rather that sort of mental and physical energy be spent for the good of the world; instead of the good of your pant-size? Just my thought…

      I think that’s a really important point. Energy spent trying to lose weight is energy not spent on charities, church, friends, family, and pets.

  3. […] Half our focus on controlling our bodies so strictly is because we think they’re sinful. I talked about it a couple days ago, about a devotional urging Christians to quit being […]

  4. […] was approving comments, and I happened to look at a post’s word count. Thinness is Not a Religious Duty has exactly 666 words. See, dieting really *is* evil. Or maybe I am, I’m not […]

  5. […] and devotionals to help people fulfill their Biblical duty to be thin healthy. Back in 2011, I wrote about Rick Warren’s Purpose Drive Life post that turned thinness into a religious obligation […]

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