Stereotype unjust, simplistic

Christianity shows 'little tolerance for the suffering fat'
December 31, 2003

It's hard to argue with being healthy. Consequently, responding to Mary Lynn Dell and Andrew Merrow's commentary "Obesity a theological issue" (October '03) might seem to be arguing against God, sanity and apple pie (sugar-free, of course). But still, I wonder how overweight readers reacted when they discovered that, at least in the authors' minds, their physical condition is prima facie evidence of their sinfulness.

The authors' contention that "most of us who are overweight become this way by yielding to temptations we know we should avoid and by not engaging in activities and healthy eating practices we know we should embrace," while sanctimoniously covering bases of both "omission" and "commission," is desperately simplistic. Not only do the authors ignore emerging research on the genetics of obesity and the reality of food addictions and allergies, they also turn a blind eye to the powerful cultural forces that have made us the plumpest of all nations and the most guilt-ridden of eaters.

Television advertising is a veritable gladiatorial arena that pits fast-food eateries against weight-loss systems. Schoolchildren are tempted daily by high-sugar, high-fat foods dispensed by vending machines placed in cafeterias in order to produce necessary operating funds for education. The fashion industry idolizes the anorexic on the same pages where the sugar industry lures the consumer with the "sinfully rich."

There is, indeed, a war going on in America: a war between the call to consume and the demand to reduce, and we are all the losers. Yet Dell and Merrow would have us believe that the fight against fat is evidence of nothing more than individual weakness.

The body struggles of Christians predate the current fit-or-fat frenzy. In his Epistle to the Romans, Saint Paul laments the war that he perceives going on in his own body, recognizing that even he, the most stoic of apostles, can't make his body do what his spirit wills. Saint Francis' anguish over his own body's tastes and desires led him to refer to his fleshly vessel as "Brother Ass."

The anonymous author of "The Cloud of Unknowing" (and other ascetics with him) advocates unrelenting effort in bringing the body's appetites into submission. Archbishop William Temple (who wore a size 17 collar) lamented his inability to control his physical shape. Our history with body conflict is a long one, but no one Christian thinker, before Dell and Merrow, was content to consign the fight to such a simplistic interpretation.

But the authors' assertions (and the tragic choice of a photograph that editors presumably selected for the piece) raise a deeper, darker truth -- that in our society, unlike others throughout history, the overweight are legally and medically demonized. The stereotype of fat people as undisciplined, self-abusive and unattractive, so firmly underscored by the commentary and its illustration, is, like all stereotypes, blatantly unjust.

Certainly, some fat people do consistently overindulge, as do many of the ectomorphic. And yes, many fat people do fail to exercise (as do many slender folks). But, at least in my experience, you are unlikely to find a more systematically determined, disciplined and self-conscious group of people than the overweight.

Most fat people, consistently scorned by society, spend their lives in pursuit of the right food plan. From corporate weight-loss programs to doctor-recommended plans to fads and food supplements and crash programs and radical surgery, fat people, driven by the revulsion of those around them plus a fair amount of self-disgust inherited from society, spend their lives in constant self-deprivation. That they fail so frequently may have something to do with Dell and Merrow's assertions of "sinfulness," but more often than not it has as much to do with rebound body reactions to weight loss and their own reaction to the self-punitive feelings that arise from such endeavors.

But Dell and Merrow have overlooked the distinct benefits of being a society where the benefits of pluralism are extended to all but the fat. For a religion that so clearly values suffering and its lessons, Christianity seems to have little tolerance for the suffering fat. Few in our culture understand the Christ-like experiences of rejection, scorn and public hostility as do the chronically fat.

Living under the lie of "one size fits all," the obese are not only disdained by the fortunately lithe, but also crammed into seats that don't fit (airplane, bus, train, stadium and concert hall), turnstiles that don't accommodate, school desks that squeeze. Insurance companies won't deal with them, garment manufacturers ignore them, and potential employers are free to reject them on the basis of body type alone.

Now, at the suggestion of Dell and Merrow, they are to be singled out from America's pulpits as trespasseurs extraordinnaire, giving their fellow parishioners permission to "tsk, tsk" when they reach for the forbidden cookie at the coffee hour.

God forbid that we should ask the obese to share with their faith community what it means to be at the margins of societal acceptance and to learn from them. Far be it from the church to urge people to love and accept the body they have been given, to view it with kindness and honor instead of disgust and shame, no matter what shape it is in. Heaven forbid that the church should turn its attention to a culture that promotes indulgence every eight and a half minutes on television and then condemns its consequence, leaving America's youth vomiting after meals or starving altogether to fit in.

There is no question but that the incarnational interface between spirit and flesh is a fit topic for theological reflection, but I pray that the myopia present in Dell and Merrow's writing will be abandoned for, well, a larger view.

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