It’s interesting to look back to through history and realize that thinness was not a standard of beauty until the last one hundred years or so. Prior to that, larger bodies were associated with better health, fertility, and higher social status. With the creation of the body mass index as a way to estimate one’s health or mortality risk, our society’s push for smaller bodies has dramatically increased, while our waistlines continue to expand. With the ever-growing involvement of churches and Christian organizations in the weight-loss industry, it brings up an interesting question. How much emphasis should the Church be putting on our physical bodies?
Body Image & Weight Loss Statistics
The main driver behind weight loss attempts is usually poor body image and societal pressures to thin. But as Christians, our identities should be found in Christ, and not our temporary bodies, correct?
It is estimated that 91% of women are unhappy with their bodies and resort to dieting to achieve their “ideal body shape”, but the truth is that only 5% of women naturally possess the body type often portrayed in the media. Even though there has been a slight shift from dieting to a more “wellness” focus, it still conveys the same message that if you eat this way or do this exercise, you will look better. And yet despite all of the programs, advertising, research, and money that has gone into weight loss, two thirds of American adults are still “overweight”.
The research is pretty conclusive that long-term weight loss is extremely hard to achieve. In fact, 95% of all dieters who do lose weight will regain their lost weight in 1-5 years. Many even gaining more than they lost in the first place. That is only a 5% long-term success rate. And yet, the diet, fitness, and weight loss sector remains a 60+ billion dollar industry, and churches have joined the effort.
Weight Stigma in the Church
Diet and wellness programs are not specific to secular culture. There are more and more faith-based organizations writing books and developing weight loss programs for the Christian market. Preachers will make jokes during the sermon about their own bodies getting bigger or their need to “cut back”. Christian radio stations are allowing advertising for diet-related businesses, and many radio hosts share the latest headlines on diet and weight loss studies during their air time. They have even gone as far as to to include fat jokes in their dialogue. Unfortunately, Christians are just as easily caught up in diet culture and societal expectations as unbelievers.
Because we were all raised in this culture that values thinness and views fatness as a weakness, we have let it infiltrate the Church. We see overweight people as lacking self control or discipline. We assume that because they have a larger body, they have to be overeating. We even go as far as to think that it must be a “sin” issue.
I am currently writing a book on body image and stewardship from both a science and biblical perspective. And as I’ve been doing my research, I’ve read a lot of books from Christian authors that are currently on the market. I feel like many of them are grounded on the concept of “taking care of the body God gave you”, and I wholeheartedly agree with that mission. But most if not all of them, also have an underlying message that weight loss or obtaining a “healthy weight” is necessary to improve your health. Or that eating (insert fad or idealistic eating pattern here) is how you need to obtain weight loss or “improve” your health. In some of those programs, I’ve read statements that go as far as to say that “God created us with the desire to be thin”. I don’t know about you, but I’ve read the Bible and have never found any mention about what our bodies should look like or what size they should be.
Weight is not an Indicator of Health
The Health at Every Size (HAES) approach has researched the effects of dieting, poor body image, and weight stigma on not only body weight, but also on overall health. What the studies have shown is that the act of dieting or even feeling like you should lose weight has more of a negative effect on your mental and physical health than the actual weight does. In fact, it’s proven that the act of dieting eventually leads to weight gain.
However, when people accept the body that they have and make the choice to respect it and take care of it well, rather than to try to change it, their health indicators improve even if their weight stays the same. Realizing that our biology (the way that God created our bodies to work) has more control over our weight than we do allows people to live more meaningful lives instead of constantly chasing after a fantasy body shape. If you need to refer to the weight loss failure statistics above, please do. It’s evident that trying to lose weight is not the answer, and the Church needs to realize this too.
How Should the Church Address Weight?
The purpose of the church to fulfill the great commission, not police people’s eating and exercise habits.
God doesn’t care what you look like or how much you weigh. He doesn’t care if you fall in the “healthy” or “overweight” category on the BMI scale. Sure, he wants to you to take care of the body that he has given you. But restricting your diet or ignoring your God-given hunger signals to lose weight is not honoring your body. It’s trying to control it to meet society’s expectations, not God’s.
There are so many more important things for you to spend your limited time and energy on in this life. Don’t waste it trying to perfect your human body.
Love and serve other people.
Have compassion on those who are hurting.
Offer grace to others and yourself.
Be grateful for the body you have.
And stop bowing down to the idol of thinness.