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‘Fat and Faithful’: A new book probes the spirituality of body image

Author J. Nicole Morgan in 2017. Photo by Faryl Ann Photography

(RNS) — As a teenager, J. Nicole Morgan was fond of her reflection in the mirror. She liked her eyes and her smile. But then she looked at her arms and stomach and reminded herself that she was not pretty and could not possibly be the person God made her to be.

God doesn’t want you to be fat, she told herself. Fat can’t be beautiful.

It’s a message that stuck with her for years, said Morgan, author of a new book, “Fat and Faithful: Learning to Love Our Bodies, Our Neighbors, and Ourselves.”

Image courtesy of Fortress Press

Part memoir and part theological reflection on body image, community and food, Morgan’s book challenges congregations and people of faith to think about what it means to embrace one another as created in the image of God.

The book is not just for the evangelicals she grew up with, said Morgan. They taught her that God did not want her to be fat. But progressive churches can also have an anti-fat bias. Her conversations with people across the religious spectrum indicate that most traditions fail to teach or embody fat acceptance, though few are deliberately malicious.

“It’s more ignorance and misguided good intentions that actually do damage,” Morgan said.

Take the case of megachurch pastor Rick Warren, who once wrote a Christian weight loss book after the experience of baptizing fat people, lowering them into the water and raising them back out again.

“I literally felt the weight of America’s obesity problem and I thought, ‘Good night, We’re all fat!’” he told The Wall Street Journal back in 2014.

Morgan recalls feeling anxiety over her own baptism. Warren’s book, she said, sent a message that something was spiritually wrong with her.

“Warren used a sacrament that welcomes us as beloved children into the family of God to issue judgment on the very people he pronounced new life over as he lifted them from the water,” she said.

In addition to offhand jokes, body shaming from the pulpit and a stream of “diet devotionals” sold in evangelical bookstores, Morgan critiques a particular trend among popular pastors a few years ago: publicly celebrating their “smoking hot” wives.

As a teenager, she said, she believed that inner beauty matters most for Christians. If she loved God, she’d find a godly man who loved her soul.

Churches offered classes on relationships and dating, but Morgan was convinced she did not need them. She assumed nonreligious men would be superficial and thus not interested in her. Godly men would be drawn to her inner beauty, unconcerned about her size.

Reality did not conform to those expectations. Bad relationship stories colored by mistaken ideas about both fatness and faith fill out Morgan’s narrative.

“Part of it,” she said, “is that fat girls don’t have as much practice (with dating). They don’t get the attention early. They don’t learn what’s good and what’s bad.”

Author J. Nicole Morgan in 2017. Photo by Faryl Ann Photography

Morgan noted that pre-industrial societies associated fatness with high socioeconomic status. And she draws a distinction between gluttony and being fat. Gluttony, one of the seven “deadly sins,” is about disordered appetites and consumption, not body size, she said.

“To direct the fault of that sin in the sole direction of fat people is to make a mockery of the Imago Dei present in each human,” she said.  

Being overweight can lead to health concerns.  Morgan devotes a chapter to this issue, advocating that health should be assessed in “weight-neutral” ways. She concedes that there is obviously a correlation between weight and health. But health care providers can be obsessed with weight loss to the exclusion of other health indicators.

She pushes back against the idea that fatness results principally from an individual’s poor habits and discipline: Food deserts, time to prepare healthy food, access and time for recreation and physical activity all play a role.

“We need to change the way as a society that we take care of each other,” she said.

Morgan’s not the only person in the pew to struggle with body image. Readers — even if they don’t consider themselves fat — can relate to the insecurities she describes.

And all people of faith can imagine the distance between where they are and where God wants them to be. But Morgan shows convincingly that, no matter our body mass, our theologies of weight and size are much too thin.

Faith communities should “open their doors and their hearts a little wider,” Morgan said, in order that they might love their neighbors and their enemies and all God’s children better.

(Jacob Lupfer, a frequent commentator on religion and politics, is a writer and consultant in Baltimore. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)

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Jacob Lupfer

18 Comments

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  • Thoughts on the spirituality of “body image” (!)

    1. We think too much about ourselves, not just how we look, but how we feel, how we think we’re coming across, what we think about our own opinions. We need to stop thinking about ourselves so much. We need to focus more on our relationship with God and with others.

    2. Temperance is a lost virtue. Our appetites own us. They seem to command some people to marshall all their resources into feeding them (their appetites, of all sorts).

    Temperance is a real virtue. A practice-able virtue. We need to apply brakes on our appetites. Our appetites, naturally, are good, but they can become disordered. When our mind focuses on the next meal, how good food would taste, or did taset, that’s a sure sign that a person has problems with the virtue of temperance.

    If a person has a problem controlling their mind on food…they will more than likely have a hard time controlling the content of their thoughts about other things….hard projects at work, small slights from others, and they will give in to other appetites….lust, anger, self-pity. etc.

    When our mind is focusing on our weight, on our stomach, on our image, on us…we become insenstive to the needs of our children, our spouse, our neighbor, our co-workers.

    We become “owned” by our senses and appetites (and passions). Trouble ahead.

    We need to learn to mortify our senses a bit, in quiet, small ways…for instance delays in drinking water, slowing down our eating, smaller portions, less of what we like, and more of what we don’t like, fasting occasionally, telling our stomach who is the boss: our will and our intellect.

  • I thoroughly agree with criticizing pastors who publicly celebrate their “smoking hot” wives. It’s hard to even know where to begin with all the things that are questionable about that. A wife is someone the pastor presumably loves. She should never be rhetorically entered into some kind of appearance competition with other women, even if she might look like a winner in most of them. Men of the congregation should not be asked to concede “Wow, what a hottie he got. Too bad I didn’t quite keep up with THAT”. Women of the congregation should never be invited to compare themselves to the pastor’s wife—–or to compare their husbands to the pastor. This is the kind of yucky stuff we got from Sarah Palin years ago as she invited other women (church women mostly) to check out her hot husband, Todd. Or, from Donald Trump today as he implies to other men that they should look up to him as a role model for his prowess at capturing a series of models.

  • Every person is responsible for growing in virtue. So it’s entirely at someone’s freedom to either grow in mastery over one’s appetites, gaining in self-possession or not.

    Prudence is called the “charioteer of the virtues”…it helps us decide how much to apply of this or that virtue at any moment. If they live in a way that leads them to become “slaves to their senses” then that’s their choice. They will be abandoning a considerable amount of their freedom. A mortified soul is actually a freer soul, and a happier soul, despite what the secular world of advertizing tells us.

    Humans have natural appetites…but what makes us human, what makes us the “made” in the image of God, is our will and our intellect.

    So “virtues” are an example of where we build on top of nature. We become more than we were before as it were.

    Asceticism is necessary for us to be more fully free, more fully human in fact, more in the image of God, every day.

  • hu·bris
    ˈ(h)yo͞obrəs
    noun
    excessive pride or self-confidence.
    synonyms: arrogance, conceit, haughtiness, hauteur, pride, self-importance, egotism, pomposity, superciliousness, superiority;

    This was a word that was bandied about frequently in my classes on Dickens, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Hemingway. I do believe you could be one of many self fellating characters created by these authors.

  • LOL!!
    I spent 21 years in the Navy dealing characters from all walks of life. I enjoyed deflating egos.
    We made short work of puffed up, self entitled academy graduates…when the Mustangs and CPOs were not eating them for breakfast. Especially on sea duty and at remote duty stations.

  • So now women who are fat are selfish and vain too. I don’t know what your weight is, but if you had been teased and made fun of your whole life, you would realize that it doesnt make you selfish to worry what other people thin, No one likes to be made fun of. I don’t accept your premise. Food is an addiction. Many people with addictions are moderate in other parts of their lives or they are dealing with issues that affect their whole livesl. Many women who are overweight were sexually abused as children.

  • Compassion is misunderstood. It’s been fairy-dusted up. You’ve bought a superficiality. And that’s why you find yourself so moody and unpleased with your progress.

  • Oh..don’t make it a women’s thing. Men get fat and comfort seeking too. Women have no claim to vanity and pride and comfort seeking.

    Don’t pull out an old dusty “women’s march” banner to wrap yourself in.

    You try to over-explain everything with “men abusing women”. Get a life.

    Food is not an addiction…it’s our prior choices that make it seem so.

    Food as addictive substance…pahleeezze.

    You’re running from one excuse to another.

    Put down the over-buttered croissant, and triple latte.

  • Uh…but fatness is directly related to your food intake. Nobody is naturally obese, just by default even while eating a healthy diet that is the right amount of calories, without there being any underlying food-related habits. While it’s very true that people need to be careful not to dehumanize obese people or see them as being less Christian somehow (that seems ridiculous to me…who even does that? we all have besetting sins and personal struggles!), it doesn’t erase the fact that being morbidly obese shows a weakness in someone’s character. It just does. Nobody gets to be that large if they are not also eating like a glutton. Being poor, being in a food desert – if you are still eating the roughly 2000 calories per day, even if the quality is poor, you will not be overweight. My worry here is that this is a theology book that also employs all the usual excuses that justify getting and staying morbidly obese…more “health at any size”, “all of us are beautiful the way we are” but marketed at Christians. We don’t need more of that though. :/

  • Well said. If you can master an appetite as basic and fundamental as your appetite for food, you can conquer pretty much any other appetite you have.

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