Nov 12, 2009
A lot of people are surprised by the suggestion that religion has anything to do with body image and eating problems. Women’s chronic dissatisfaction with their bodies is usually diagnosed and treated as a psychological (and sometimes a biomedical) disturbance, not a spiritual issue.
And yet, as a scholar of religion, I notice how our culture’s devotion to thinness—and the unhealthy body image it promotes—has many of the characteristics of a religion, including beliefs, myths, images, and moral codes that encourage women to find “salvation” (i.e., happiness, health, and healing) through a slender body. However vacuous it may be, this “Religion of Thinness” provides a sense of meaning for many women today, addressing but ultimately shortchanging their spiritual needs for a sense of purpose, well-being, love, and acceptance.
In addition to the quasi-religious function that the pursuit of a “better” (i.e., thinner) body serves, the crusade to be slender in our society is tacitly supported by certain religious ideologies. Whether or not you are “religious,” chances are your attitude toward your body has been shaped by these ideologies because religions don’t operate in isolation from other societal spheres. Rather, religious tenets (especially those of the dominant group) shape the values and norms of the culture in which they circulate, sometimes explicitly but often implicitly, so that we may not consciously recognize their influence.
There are several long-standing religious ideas that indirectly promote an unhealthy body image, especially among women. While some version of these ideas can be found in a number of religions, Christianity has had the most power to shape our attitudes toward our bodies here in the United States.
The first idea is the notion that women are more “carnal”—i.e., more physical and sexual—than men. This view goes all the way back to the story of Eve, whose unruly appetite led to humanity’s downfall. Throughout Christian history, this mythical incident fostered a view of female desires as untrustworthy and women’s bodies as shameful. Again and again, church fathers returned to the story of Eve to find evidence that women are more tied to “the flesh” than men, and thus more prone to give into temptation, and therefore more in need of regulation and salvation. No doubt, the author of the Genesis creation myth did not intend to send a message that women need to contain their appetites and be thin in order to be happy. Nevertheless, the symbolism of the story—particularly the association of female appetite, temptation, sin, and shame—continues to have resonance for many women today.
Another deep-seated religious idea that implicitly supports the Religion of Thinness is the notion that the body itself needs to be controlled—not because flesh and spirit are separate in Christian theology, but precisely because they are linked. Thus, your body expresses the state of your soul. Medieval women who starved themselves were not simply trying to regulate their bodies’ wayward appetites; they were also seeking to cultivate an inner state of holiness and spiritual power, as well as public approval. Though most women today don’t try to lose weight in order to please God, they nevertheless seek to control their bodies as a means of feeling empowered, defining their worth, and gaining acceptance in the eyes of others.
The idea that the “good body” is a controlled body—a body that reverses the sin of Eve—is connected to another religious idea that quietly promotes an unhealthy body image, namely, the notion that the suffering of self-denial is salvific. This “atonement theology” became popular in the late Middle Ages, when Jesus’ suffering came to be seen as a necessary sacrifice for the forgiveness of human sins. The idea that the pain of self-sacrifice is somehow redemptive has been especially applied to women, for whom selflessness is supposedly a natural virtue. Though today most women do not think of their weight-loss efforts as “redemptive,” they may experience the pangs of hunger as a sign that they are being “good.” Or they may feel “bad” after giving in to the “temptation” of dessert and do “penance” for this “sin” by purifying/purging themselves with laxatives, vomiting, or excessive exercising. It is the paradigm that is similar.
Sadly, the notion that women of different sizes and shapes need to conform their bodies to the slender ideal also resembles the all-too-familiar belief that there is only one path to salvation. The superiority complex that has plagued certain religions and the lack of appreciation for diversity that it fosters provide a blueprint for the one-size-fits-all mentality that many women harbor.
But why must the “good” and “beautiful” female body be slender? Does health really come in just one narrowly defined size? Why not value a diversity of shapes and sizes? Why not see this variety as a gift rather than a liability that needs to be fixed? Instead of one particular ideal defining how all of us should look (or what everyone should believe), what if we came together and affirmed the intrinsic value of our differences—both physical and spiritual? What if we enjoyed the beauty of every body and learned from the wisdom of each spiritual path?
In popular discourse, “salvation” itself is often seen as something that happens in another place and time—whether in the heavenly afterlife or in a few weeks when you lose enough weight. In both cases, the paradigm is other-worldly and futuristic: The ultimate happiness and peace we seek are not available to us right here and now. They are something we have to look forward to, like the promises on the cover of women’s magazines: “Lose 10 Pounds in Just 2 Weeks!,” “21-Day Countdown to a Better Body!” The assumption is that the body you have right now is not OK. But the sad truth is that clinging to the hope of “salvation” later (i.e., when I’m thin) robs us of the peace of acceptance now.
Religious ideologies also promote an unhealthy body image to the extent that they encourage believers not to ask too many questions. Both within and beyond Christianity, women in particular have been taught that their obedience is a virtue and that challenging authority is dangerous. Instead of cultivating critical thinking, religious leaders often call for blind faith in the truths and norms they declare to be beyond question. This kind of socialization-indoctrination prepares women to accept any number of spiritual and social ideals without scrutiny or inquiry. Implicitly, then, it allows them to devote their energy to critiquing their figures rather than challenging our culture’s dysfunctional attitude toward women’s bodies.
Please let me be clear: I am not saying that these religious ideas cause the wars that contemporary women wage against their bodies. Rather, I am suggesting that these ideas tacitly and indirectly support these wars, particularly those focused on the goal of thinness.
And yet, this is only half the story. There are also many resources in every religion that call into question the Religion of Thinness. Contrary to popular belief, Christianity teaches that human bodies—including women’s bodies— are essentially good because God created them that way. This teaching is officially affirmed in the doctrine of the Incarnation (i.e., God became human in the person of Jesus). Symbolically, this doctrine suggests that spirit and matter are intimately connected rather than mortal enemies. There is an important message here for women who wish to live more in harmony with their flesh.
Indeed, throughout Christian history, the body has been seen as not only an obstacle but also as a vehicle for spiritual growth. “Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit,” Paul says in his letter to the Corinthians. This suggests that caring for it wisely—i.e., eating, exercising, and resting in ways that optimize your physical-mental-spiritual health—is the best way to honor the life-giving power that creates, permeates, and sustains your body.
It also implies that bodily self-denial and mortification are not the best path to the happiness and well-being of salvation. Indeed, the image Jesus most frequently used when describing the “kingdom of God” is that of a festive banquet to which everyone—especially those most despised by society—is invited.
This inclusive vision challenges the idea that only those with the “right” faith (or “right” body) will experience peace and fulfillment. Moreover, it suggests that the wholeness we seek is not something we should wait to happen in the future. Rather, it is available right now, right here. “The kingdom of God is in your midst,” Jesus told his followers. It is present when we let our hearts open, soften, and expand so that we can love that which may seem unlovable—whether it’s our own flesh-and-blood bodies or members of the social body (or both). This is the path of healing.
Finally, just as religious ideas and values can function as powerful supports to the status quo, they can also be used to challenge social norms and ideals that are typically taken for granted, such as the norm and ideal of thinness. When religions teach critical thinking, they equip their members to resist the false gods of their society—which in our day includes the “god” of slenderness. Indeed, scrutinizing rather than blindly accepting our culture’s devotion to thinness can be a kind of spiritual practice insofar as it awakens us to another perspective, transforming our consciousness and challenging us to grow in our understanding of what it means to be happy and whole.
There are undoubtedly many more traditional religious ideas that challenge the “truths” of the Religion of Thinness, but we will miss the opportunity to learn from them if we fail to see the relevance of religion to this seemingly secular problem.
Summary of religious ideas that tacitly support the Religion of Thinness:
1) woman = body (men = mind/spirit)
2) body needs to be controlled/mastered
3) suffering in the body is redemptive (i.e., atonement theory)
4) black-and-white/rigid morality
5) there is only one path to salvation (i.e., religious exclusivism)
6) salvation is something that happens in the future
7) faith = obedience/blind faith/don’t question