Friday, October 28, 2016

When the Body of Christ is Fat

Bitmoji Julia enjoys tea
Within a very short amount of time, two people whom I love were called "fat ass". One of these slurs occurred in the church building and the other occurred in the same building and within the context of worship. Both incidents were the result of a person with already impaired judgment lashing out at the person who was in front of them, perceiving them to be unhelpful or denying aid or service. Regardless of the "why", the reality is that the name was uncalled for, hurtful, and aimed to be a deep cut.

The reality is that a person who is under the influence of legal or illegal substances and often displays impaired judgment can still tell that body shaming- comments about shape, appearance, or size- is a way to lash out at someone who is frustrating you. That means those words and that way of using them are deeply rooted in our culture. An additional truth is that when we, as a congregation, attempted to console and listen to those who had been hurt in this encounter, I don't know that we said anything about the slur "fat ass" being wrong. "You shouldn't have to hear that" or "I'm sorry that happened" is not the same as "That was a crappy thing to hear, especially since it's untrue."

Bitmoji Julia doesn't care for this.
I've turned these events over and over in my mind. I have an unformed set of theological thoughts roiling around in there and I can't seem to make them beautiful, but I can sense their truth. The church is not good at talking about body image- especially as it relates to size. Even as we come to understand race, culture, sex, gender expression, attraction, and even mental health as things that are innate, but not necessarily immutable- we have not applied that learning or that spiritual growth to body size and shape. Even in the life of a congregation, we reflect the cultural idea that a bigger body is related to immorality. Despite a wealth of scientific information related to body size and shape as inherited, that BMI is not worth the metal to make the calipers, that a sedentary life is the biggest health risk, and that diets rarely produce long-term, lasting results... despite all of this, the church still jumps on the bandwagon of good/bad food choices, silence in the face of fat and/or thin shaming, privatizing size (it's all your fault), and ignoring the call to physically move.

The church is the place where we are supposed to reveal an inclusive welcome, open arms, and a reflection that all people are children of God. What happens when we don't include size- fatness and thinness- in that conversation? When our scripture readings are about banqueting, feasting, rich wines and marrow, open tables, hospitality, and eating in community, how often do we subvert that welcome and the joy of creation by creating binaries about what we should and shouldn't eat, can and can't wear, do and don't look?

Bitmoji Julia feels this more than real Julia
Lest you think that I have no idea what I am talking about, I know my own weight so well that I know if I am down just 2 pounds. I wrestle with my own body image, including how much of it there is. I would be tempted to respond being called "fat ass" with saying, "You probably need your eyes checked because that's not all that's fat." Of course, I acknowledge that while I have high BMI (worth nothing!), I am on the smaller side of being overweight. My weight also doesn't conflict with what I enjoy doing- outdoors or otherwise and yet I am hyper-aware of it. When I think of the gifts I can give to God, I would quickly name my brain or my ears or my hands and feet- as though these exist on their own, instead of within the sanctified casing of the rest of my body.

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Romans 12:1

Bitmoji Julia tells it on the mountain
Then God said, “Let us [shape soil] in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created [humans in the  Divine] image, in the image of God [they were created]; male and female he created them. Genesis 1:26-27

So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.1 Corinthians 10:31

So, what do we do with this? How do we move to make sure that body shaming is not part of church culture and that health, wellness appreciation, and confidence in God's creation is? 

1. Do not make food "good" or "bad". All food is a political choice. When we decide what to eat or what to provide, we are deciding where to put our money, our community resources and time, our energy, and our support (expressed and unexpressed). Think about what you want to communicate about how you perceive God in farming, ranching, research, community life, and vocation through the food you provide or consume- both as individuals and as a congregation. 

2. Fat people know they are fat. They probably know better than you what they weigh, their measurements, and where they can find clothes and where they can't. Do not participate in shaming by ignoring or by patronizing. Also, do not assume they have no idea how to make correct food choices or exercise habits. Don't moralize size. 

3. Consider what it means that a sedentary life is more dangerous than being overweight or obese. Who do you know who might need a walking partner who is understanding and willing to go slow? Who might need a friend to come by a couple times a week for a low-impact exercise video? Who else might need to know that they aren't alone in having Type 2 Diabetes? Could you rideshare to the hospital's T2 class or organize a presentation with a nurse at the church for the community? 

4.  Do not assume that all health issues are related to weight or that weight is automatically related to stress. Sometimes yes, but sometimes no. Are you the doctor of everybody? 

5. When someone struggles because of their size (thinness or fatness), do not pretend that their body is not a real thing. Being rejected from an exit row seat because one needs a seat belt extender isn't actually an FAA regulation and it is pretty insulting. Acknowledge that this is a hurtful thing and be willing to listen to what it stirs up in the person. When someone is called a "fat ass", listen to that story. Maybe it hurt them, maybe they dismiss it. Acknowledge that this is about an attempt to embarrass them about their body- a reality of their world and how they are created. 

6. Do not participate in body shaming of any type (yourself or others), including when it happens to people you don't particularly like. Loving your neighbor means critiquing their behavior with an eye toward repentance or metanoia (turning around), not being cruel about something that is part of how God has made them. 

7. The Body of Christ is the body of Christ. Sometimes it has a soft, squidgy tummy or flappy upper arms or large strong thighs or round face. The fat body of Christ can still come to your house and do a load of laundry when you are flattened by chemotherapy. The underweight body of Christ can still bring a pizza to a family after an adoption. The roly-poly body can collect your cups after communion with Spirit-filled smile and the body that cannot keep up with its metabolic disorder can still read the gospel during Bible study. The Body of Christ is the body of Christ.

What would it look like for the church to embody this? 


Julie said...

Thank you for putting into words things I have long been mulling over myself.
I tend to use self deprecation as a protection - yet another means of self shaming!

Marci Glass said...

I was thinking of this with the Body of Christ Shimmies chapter. Thanks for this.

Anonymous said...

This is a wonderful article! This is definitely something that needs to be addressed in the Church. Some of the most wonderful people I know have struggled with weight. I have even known people who have been dismissed from Bible Study Fellowship because of their weight. Weight is only an issue for each individual. The rest of us should mind our own business.

Pastor Julia said...

An excellent chapter in the commendable book There's a Woman in the Pulpit!

Unknown said...

I've been thinking about this all week, since leaving the comment on your Facebook page.

SuzanneES said...

This meets me at just the right time. Thank you.
I am graduating from Seminary in May and noticed that I am terrified of going out there to look for a call..because of my size.
I needed this.