I feel sorry for those who have to put up with me this month. It gets pretty unbearable. You see, some people try to lose weight in January. For me, it’s June, the month when the calendar empties out and I can devote what little willpower I have to the project of reduction. The other eleven months of the year, for whatever reason, such attempts have always proven to be “subject to futility”.

So for thirty days at the beginning of each summer, the majority of my mental energy is occupied consumed by dieting. I try to play the single-mindedness for laughs, but it’s irritating.

8bb772350139fbb1e5bf9bbae6d9de55The upside is that for men my age, the lbs fall off with relatively little effort. Cut out deserts and late-night snacking, and old pants soon begin to fit again. Affirmation flows your way in the form of unsolicited comments (which, of course, the inner lawyer immediately flips into condemnation, i.e. “had I really gotten so heavy?”), and you feel a bit better, both physiologically and emotionally. Your body thanks you, as they say. The social rewards are pretty noticeable, too, even for a guy. No more pizza-neck!

Yet the downsides are considerable. For starters, there’s the inescapable self-centeredness required. However much you may tell yourself that you’re doing this for the sake of your family, or to be a good steward of what God has given you, weight loss keeps a person focused on squarely themselves and their performance. Meals turn into thoroughly absorbing nutritional psychodramas. I dare say it’s the physical equivalent of the pulse-taking that defines so many attempts at spiritual fitness, AKA the opposite of self-forgetfulness. (What a cruel irony that many of us who “eat our feelings” are–counter-productively–trying to get away from ourselves).

What’s more troubling, at least to me personally, is the self-righteousness involved. The moment the scale registers less is the moment you reproach both your (past) self for being lazy/irresponsible, and others for their failure to be as disciplined as you are. You become what Joyce Walder recently called “a Dieting Supremacist” or we might call a Fitness Pharisee. You forget all of the many factors that contributed to your reduction/increase, the inconvenient fact that you gained it all back the last time, and instead craft a narrative about self-determination and effort.

Then there’s the added element of discovering just how superficial you actually are. Despite all your talk about whole-heartedness and grace, it turns out your self-regard is hopelessly tied to a number. Alas, given the choice between being a self-aggrandizing performancist who can fit into their clothes and a self-loathing performancist who can’t, we all choose the former. Neither is what we might call spiritually healthy, though I suppose the latter at least reinforces need rather than self-sufficiency.

Anyway, the occasion for this post is not actually humble-bragging (then again…). It is the recent episode of This American Life, entitled “Tell Me I’m Fat” (above), in which Ira and co discuss the ins and outs of the new F-word. Needless to say, I was struck once again by how we as a culture have absolutized eating, how the categories that used to apply to sex now apply to food.

But the spiritual-religious parallels don’t end there. The opening segment with writer and self-described ‘fat person’ Lindy West gets things off on a provocative note:

Ira Glass: …As long as you’re a fat person who’s trying not to be fat, that’s acceptable. That’s a good fat person. You don’t totally admit to yourself you’re fat, because, well–

edae29b8c9f738143e3f1c4818f7253bLindy West: The way that we are taught to think about fatness is that fat is not a permanent state. You’re just a thin person who’s failing consistently for your whole life. [LAUGHTER] So to actually say, OK, I am fat– and I have been as long as I can remember, so I don’t know why I live in this imaginary future where I, you know, someday I’m going to be thin.

Ira Glass: So before you declared to others, OK, I’m fat, how did you see yourself? Did you see yourself as fat? Did you conceive of yourself as fat?

Lindy West: Yeah, but I was determined to not be fat forever. And my worst fear was, what if I am? And then at some point, I just was like, you know, it’s fairly likely that I’m going to be fat forever.

This sounds uncannily like many a religious conversation. “Yes, God loves me as I am, warts and all, but he loves me too much to let me stay that way.” There are noble intentions behind that statement, an esteem for aspects of the l-/Law certainly, but what is heard and experienced is contingency, i.e. to remain in God’s favor, I must improve. Surely if I show no signs of progress in _____ area, God will eventually remove his love and acceptance, blood of Christ or no. And if I actually get worse as I grow older? Forget about it!

It’s an indication of the moral import we’ve given this issue that West’s words raise one’s hackles immediately. Hold on a second, we say, let’s not get carried away and pretend as though ‘fat’ is somehow okay (or justified). Sure, it’s nice if people can accept themselves, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t serious health concerns involved, right? Biology follows certain rules, after all, and we haven’t even mentioned the political or financial implications.

In theological speak, we punt back to the first use of the law rather than acknowledge that, psychologically, we are firmly in the territory of the second, or existential, use.

To be honest, I’m not terribly interested in figuring out where the line is between healthy and unhealthy. To deny that it exists at all seems nihilistic/wishful (as the segment with Roxane Gay makes clear). Yet from what I can tell, the Bible doesn’t reference any ideals re: body-fat ratios, and all it takes is one look at a Rubens painting to realize that the little-l laws of beauty vacillate wildly over time. The water is very muddy.

My pet theory about the moralization of food/fitness isn’t terribly novel: that it has become more pronounced as other avenues of traditional morality have weakened/polarized. We crave (pun intended) agreement on ‘right’ and ‘wrong’–places where ‘good’ and ‘bad’ still have meaning–and so we thrust them into ever more tangential spheres. I have no doubt our great-grandparents would laugh/cry at how much hand-wringing takes place in regards to food. They would probably be horrified that we use “cheating” in reference to eating more than sleeping around. That doesn’t necessarily invalidate it, but the perspective is helpful.

No, what fascinates (and saddens) me are the underlying presumptions about human nature and agency, that information and shame are enough to change a person for the better. The former is essentially neutral, while the latter tends to make things worse.

We embrace this truth, especially the shame part, in relation to pretty much every other health question (chronic illness, depression, addiction, even eating disorders that skew in the skinny direction, all seem to warrant our compassion). And yet, we’re somehow convinced that “fat” is an area of exemption, a place where “choice” reigns, where blame is therefore not only warranted but practical. “They” need to know that what they’re doing is not just unhealthy, but actively wrong. Ira observes:

When you’re over a certain size– it’s been explained to me by a few people now– complete strangers walk up to you on the street and tell you to lose weight. They shoot you dirty looks when they see ice cream in your shopping cart. They talk down to you like you’re stupid about nutrition and calories, as if pretty much every fat person has not been around the block 500 times on that one already.

paul-noth-sorry-but-i-m-cheating-on-my-diet-and-i-don-t-like-loose-ends-new-yorker-cartoonFat people are told all the time they’re choosing to be unhealthy. Lindy and other fat people point out that actually, the causes of obesity are way more complex than just eating too much.

According to the National Institutes of Health, they include physiological, metabolic, genetic, psychological, social, and cultural factors. Also, we haven’t invented a way to make fat people thin long term. Fewer than 1 in 100 obese people get thin and keep it off, according to one recent study, which tracked over a quarter million people for nine years.

So we’re in this situation, where a third of all Americans are classified as overweight, another third of us are obese. Can it really be that so many of us are just weak and choosing to be unhealthy? There must be some other way to think about this. OK, back to Lindy:

Lindy West:… I’m not concerned with whether or not fat people can change their bodies through self-discipline and choices. Pretty much all of them have tried already. A couple of them have succeeded. Whatever. My question is, what if they try and try and try and still fail? What if they’re still fat? What if they’re fat forever? What do you do with them then?

She’s right. That is the key question, and not just weight-wise. Is there any hope for those who’ve fallen short of both the ‘should’ and the ‘could’? Lindy opts for the gospel of self-acceptance; as good as that sounds, I’m afraid something, er, higher calorie might be called for (emphasis on the ‘Higher’).

Ultimately, the extent to which we link dignity and love to progress (our own or that of others) will be the extent to which we condemn ourselves. To speak about the Gospel as good news, it simply cannot be tied to human agency or deserving. It has to apply to the addict, the leper, the sinner, yes, even the morbidly obese person–in other words, the person who’s problem is beyond their ability to control it. The person who cannot appeal to deserving for consolation, but needs God to be God (creator and deliverer) if they are to be redeemed.

At the risk of stating the obvious, this is true of all of us. Other problems may be less visible, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. They’re just more devious.

Believe it or not, that’s not where the episode ends. Before signing off, Ira passes the mic to Daniel Engber, who takes a look at what he considers to the forerunner of our current weightism, the Christian weight loss movement. To do so, he interviews Paul Brinson, the man who directed the controversial “Pounds Off plan” at Oral Roberts University in the early 70s, which prohibited overweight students from graduating until they met a certain body fat percentage.

I know, I know, sounds like a cheap shot at an easy target. Yet to their credit, it wasn’t long before ORU realized the fundamental dissonance of how the program squared with Mark 7 and their insistence that God valued the heart.

As Engber notes, a similar renunciation did not take place in the ‘secular’ sphere. If anything, the nation’s spare religiosity had found a suitable anchor:

“Born again by losing weight. The newscasters [on The Today Show] made it seem like this was some crazy Christian thing. But it wasn’t really all that strange. Paul Brinson may have taught what he called God’s diet plan to the kids at Oral Roberts. But by the mid-’70s, diet plans were as ubiquitous as they are today. Then, as now, being fat was not just seen by lots of people as a medical failing, but a moral one...

Oral Roberts still has a physical fitness requirement. Students there still have to collect aerobics points. But they’re not required to lose weight. When we asked the school about the Pounds Off program, the current administration said they hadn’t heard of it. They said it was super difficult to comprehend that such a thing had existed. But I don’t think it’s difficult at all. Stuff like this is all around us. Oral Roberts just made it more explicit.

Retain the imperative but subtract the (pretense of) mercy. All ‘should’ with no allowance for the limits of ‘could’. Ov vey.

I say we reverse the math. We remember once again how much Jesus loved to eat. The food itself may not have been the point, per se, but the people certainly were. We remember that no one was given a seat at his table because they deserved one. Not then and not now.

What’s more, when they sat down together, this Jesus didn’t relate to his fellow diners according to their shameful failures or unbearable successes. He didn’t deliver a pep talk on the benefits of courageous self-acceptance either. Perhaps because he knew they hadn’t gotten there by accident. Just like you and me, they were hungry–for love, for absolution, for bread.

Thanks be to God, they had come to the right place.

I may head there myself. In about 48 hours, that is.