A Theology of Body Image

I’m fat. I know that I am fat. I have been for a very long time. I was born with thighs that touched. I was a chunky kid. There are no pictures of me growing up where I was not round and heavy. I grew up in a household of emotional eaters and people with little self control over their desires. I am not the only member of my family to be overweight. Part of my being fat is simple body chemistry and genetics. But what about the other part of it? What about the emotional aspects? Or the helath aspects? Or the body hating aspects? And what about the theology of the body? What is that? And what does it have to do with being fat?

Body Image and Body Positive

Nowadays, weight is an issue that many people struggle with. A news program here in Australia recently ran the story that Australians are getting fatter. I kind of laughed at that because as an American, I’ve been hearing that for years. Fat is always used as a pejorative (I used it in a negative connotation in the previous paragraph), as if there is some standard of weight that everyone should meet. There is, but it’s not what we think it is. A person can look “fat” and be perfectly healthy. A person can look “thin” and be facing death. Weight and the appearance of weight fall on a spectrum of healthiness where no one weight is better than another. If you are healthy, you’re healthy.

Appearances are deceiving, so we’re told. But everyone wants a certain image of their body that says something about themselves. Let me give you an example.

I want to look like this:

body image
This is from my Pinterest. I have a clothes problem – I want to wear all of them.

I like the clothes, yes, but I want to look like that when I’m in them. I want to be thin. I want to have muscles. Basically, I don’t want to look like I currently do. As a result of this desire, I have a terrible body image. My wife can tell you that I probably say “I’m fat” every day. She has heard me say, “I have no idea why you’re with me” in conversations about my body image. Keep in mind she’s a thin little sexy person, so my constant comparing myself to her does not help anything. That’s not her fault. It’s a fault in my own thinking.

There are a lot of body positive campaigns these days. One of my favorites is nobodyshame.com. It all started when a woman posted a video of herself dancing on YouTube. That happens a lot, but she happened to be “fat” and it led to backlash and a new body positive campaign. I think that’s great! I support anyone who wants to have a good relationship with their body no matter how they look. I am not so shallow as to think that how someone looks is the most important thing about them. But I may just believe (unconsciously) that it is the most important thing about me.

How Religion Views Bodies

So we have a lot of social pressure to be thin, fat is a bad word and is often used to shame people about their bodies, and there are now social movements involving being “body positive.” But where’s the Church in all this? Religion is a social actor that has an effect on people’s every day lives, whether they’re religious themselves or not. It moulds opinion and leads to social action. So what does the Christian religion have to say about this?

body image
The words of JP2, which in practice only matter if you’re having sex.

Pope John Paul 2 tried to create a coherent Theology of the Body during his time. It was kind of a revolutionary thing to do in a church tradition that has often focused very closely on the evils of the body and the material world. It could be argued that at least three out of the Seven Deadly Sins involve the material body: lust, gluttony, and sloth. They involve some kind of bodily function or activity. But the Catholic Church and most other Christian denominations focus only on one type of body image: the sexual body.

JP2’s Theology of the Body was no different and in that respect was not really revolutionary. For instance, most of the questions on TheologyoftheBody.net involve sexuality.

  • Is there a real purpose to life and if so, what is it?
  • Why were we created male and female? Does it really matter if we are one sex or another?
  • Why were man and woman called to communion from the beginning? What does the marital union of a man and woman say to us about God and his plan for our lives?
  • What is the purpose of the married and celibate vocations?
  • What exactly is “Love”?
  • Is it truly possible to be pure of heart?

Obviously, the focus of the Church and most Christians is the sexual function of the body. In fact, there is very little discussion of any other form of bodily existence at all. Gluttony and sloth may be sins of the deadly sort, but they are seriously ignored in church teachings. Maybe they aren’t as “deadly” as we once believed.

A New Theology of the Body

I would argue that in Christianity, we need a new kind of theology of the body. We need to teach people to value their bodies more than they do now. After all, every person is under some kind of misapprehension about their body. Fat people think they are ugly, unlovable, and unhealthy. Thin people also think they are ugly and unlovable, though healthier than the rest of us. Lucky them. Thin people and fat people are at risk for bulemia and anorexia. Eating disorders hit everyone. No one is immune to bad body image. These kind of things affect people’s lives in bad, soul crushing ways. Sometimes they lead to suicide. How can these continue to be ignored by religion? Isn’t religion supposed to help make people’s lives better?

Instead of focusing on the sexual identity of the body, I would argue that religion needs to focus on body positivity. Instead of seeing the body as an obstacle to a good religious life, it should be made a partner of a good religious life. Part of that is to encourage a body positive image. This would require a change of culture. But that’s the kind of business religion should be in. It should try to change culture for the better. Right?

I Don’t Want to Be…

body image
From right to left: A friend from Church, my mother, our bishop, another friend from Church, and me. At my mother’s house blessing, hence the clerical garb.

I’m fat. And while I believe in body positivity, I don’t want to be a poster child for it. While I think that people who do such a thing are incredibly brave, I don’t want to be like them. I want to change my body. I have the ability to do so and… well, I think I should. I need to be healthier so I can keep up with my wife, do the things I want to do that I can’t do because I’m overweight and unhealthy, and keep up with my future children which, if they’re anything like my wife will be complete trouble. I also want to wear really awesome clothes.

But (if I was going to be part of a religion) I want to be part of a religion that supports that kind of attitude and wants to make me a better person in as many ways as there are. Instead, religion tends to focus on so few aspects of the human experience that it almost makes itself irrelevant. And religion, if it’s going to survive that “post-Christian era” needs to be as relevant as ever.

So, yeah. I’m fat and I don’t want to be. Now you know that I have a Pinterest, am overweight, and critical of Christian dogma. But in all seriousness, body image is a problem and it’s one that I think religion has a stake in, but has largely ignored. Yes, I want to change myself, but I would also like to change religion in the process. And if not now, then when?

 

Link to the YouTube video (highly recommended)
Link to No Body Shame Campaign
Link to Theology of the Body
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