Controlling Our Bodies

Lesley over at Two Whole Cakes wrote a brilliant piece on fat, eating disorders, and the desire to control our bodies.

A culture that supports weight loss by any means necessary is a culture that supports eating disorders. It is a culture that supports the sickening and weakening of us all, in the name of improving our health, the very thing that we sacrifice. It instructs us either to succeed or be destroyed by the effort.

To some extent, eating disorders are a compulsive urge to control the uncontrollable — one might as well try to lasso the ocean. At a certain point, past denying, past deprivation, we don’t have intellectual control over our bodies any longer. No matter how hard we try, no matter how fierce our conviction. We don’t have control. The only way to win the fight with our bodies is to die. The winners are the ones who are dead. They are the ones who have triumphed, decisively, over the needs of their bodies, forever.

Every diet I’ve ever been on has had that same motivation at its heart, that desire for control. This is not to say that everyone who diets has an eating disorder (though I think deliberately eating less than your body needs is disordered eating). It’s just that they’re manifestations of the same thing.

It also doesn’t matter whether it’s about beauty, health, or some of both. It still comes down to what Lesley said about controlling the uncontrollable. In our culture, we have the idea that health is controllable. If you eat the right foods, do the right exercises, live “virtuously,” you will be thin and healthy for 80 or 90 years. And if you’re unhealthy, you must have done something to deserve it, and if you start doing the right things, you can fix it. Again, at its heart, it’s about control. We don’t have near as much control over our health as we’d like to, and we can’t get around the fact that everybody gets sick and everybody dies.

Part of me feels like faith, or more faith, would correct that. “Let go and let God” is the common saying in a lot of Christian circles. Relax, trust, and accept that you don’t control the universe, you were never meant to, and that’s okay. And maybe on an individual level, for people with that particular sort of faith, that’s part of it. But the focus on control–particularly on controlling the body and ignoring its desires–is deeply intertwined with Judeo-Christian religious ideas. 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 fat.

DRST expanded on Lesley’s post, talking about the role of religion in the cultural push to beat our bodies ruthlessly into submission.

There’s a whole thread deeply involved in body policing that stretches back to Judeo-Christian religious philosophy and sin and how we must control ourselves at all times and resist all temptations – this mindset that hails a God that supposedly created us in His image, which means we are like God in all ways, but simultaneously put in us urges to do all sorts of things that are inherently ungodly (like stuff our faces and have lots of sex) and the way we prove our devotion to that God is to deny the most basic urges He supposedly put into us. It sets everyone up to fail from the start, basically, because what we’re programmed (by God) to want to do is somehow sinful and the only way to be really faithful is not do things we want to do. This is, IMNSHO, a really sadistic view of God. I mean, what kind of person/being/whatever would do that to anyone?

This is a hugely important point. We fear our bodies, we fear our desires, we think they are sinful, and we think God wants us to live in a constant state of denial and deprivation. And that has so thoroughly soaked into our cultural consciousness that we still talk about this denial in religious terms. Chocolate is described as sinful and sex as impure and salad as virtuous in completely secular contexts.

I wish we didn’t have this focus on control and rigid discipline. I wish that my first church had had two or three God loves you, warts and alls for every Thou shalt nots.

Religion and health are alike in that we pursue them in ways that are drudgery, when they should be joyful.

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