Question Tuesday: Healthful Boundaries with the Weight Loss Culture

Every Tuesday we gather at Speak What We Feel to ruminate together over questions about life both serious and silly to grow together in understanding and perspective of one another and of our world at large. Today’s question:

We are exhorted as Christians to be masters of, rather than be mastered by, our bodies. Disciplining our bodies can help us with the spiritual disciplines. And being generally healthful within our capacity to be so can be a part of a full and rich life, such as it seems we were intended to have in the beginning.

That being said:

In a world where size 12 (US) is considered “plus size”, how can we maintain healthy boundaries with the Lose Weight Culture of our day which often sees itself as an end in itself and can easily lean toward extremes and false absolutes/ideals?

What does this subculture say is important? How does it define personal value?

And in what ways does that script comply with Scripture? In what ways is it antithetical to the biblical script?

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8 Responses to Question Tuesday: Healthful Boundaries with the Weight Loss Culture

  1. This is such an important question. To be honest, I think a lot of folks in the church just get this one wrong. But it’s hard to know how to get it right!

    I hear a lot of talk about the sin of gluttony, but because over-eating was likely not very much of a problem for most of the poverty-stricken Christians of the first century, I think the Bible is largely silent on this issue. Which means we have to think a little more carefully about how to approach issues of excess and sloth… there’s a balance we need to strike between gnosticism and conflating thinness and fitness with virtue; and that’s a hard line to walk.

    What about the sins of bulemia and anorexia? The sins of teaching young women that to be loveable they need to look, dress, and act a certain way? Perfectionism runs pretty rampant in the Christian undergraduate school I graduated from, and I knew several young women who battled anorexia and unrealistic expectations of their bodies. These expectations were directly linked to the teaching that being fat is a sin (ie, the sin of gluttony). But what were the Biblical foundations for that teaching? I’m not sure.

    On the other extreme is the false idea of “my body’s just going to die anyway, and then I’ll be disembodied in heaven. So why take care of my physical body now?” That kind of thinking just ignores the truth and reality of the resurrection, and the many examples of discipline and

    So it seems like the thoughts in the church on this issue are so extreme! Either there’s no emphasis at all on our bodies as temples and our need to be alert and resourceful with them, or there’s an over emphasis on the importance of physical fitness.

    What’s your take, Renea? Would love to hear how you walk this line.
    -V

    • reneamac says:

      Your comment has made me look into what the Bible actually does say about gluttony. I think I’ve always just taken that for granted… More on this after some more digging!

      How do I walk the line? Well, I enjoy sports and hiking, but I’m not one who loves running. I hate running. Even when training for something; I never get to a place where I love it. So, all that to say, it’s harder for me, especially in Dallas, especially while my time and money are being eaten up by PhD pursuits. (Living in the Alps without a car made it so much easier! 🙂 ) But it’s important, so I do what I can: walking the dog with my roommate, taking the stairs… I’m also looking into a local hiking group: it’s always a bit of a drive to find hills around here, but it’s doable; and I like it, so it’s important. And I think finding something you like and enjoy is, if not “key”, at least helpful. (It also helps to have the genetic luxury to partake only in casual, recreational activities… so I don’t want to say “key”.) Being in nature is good for my soul too. My spirit connects with God in a way it just can’t in urban environments. And, community is important to me (again, team sports… hiking groups and/or communing with God in nature…). So, exercise for exercise’s sake, it’s not gonna happen. All this is a part of what Byron mentioned about the subjectivity of it all.

      At the same time, I also probably have an inordinate aversion to fitness culture. Generally I’m pretty good about walking a middle way, but in this area, I see my spirit overreact, and I can’t seem to help it. It’s like people who are ascetic to a fault; overreacting to lavishness and denying aesthetic value. I’m not that extreme, but it’s an effort. Fitness magazines annoy me and sometimes make me angry, though I’m sure they have perfectly helpful tips; I can’t stand them. I also find myself rebelling against both the cultural and spiritual ideal that everyone should be as optimally fit as they can be. I just don’t believe that’s true. It’s hard because it fits so naturally into the Protestant efficiency theology.

      I’m not sure I know how to articulate and navigate through all this. That’s why I asked the question and appreciate all the thoughtful replies!

  2. bbarlowe says:

    V wrote:

    So it seems like the thoughts in the church on this issue are so extreme! Either there’s no emphasis at all on our bodies as temples and our need to be alert and resourceful with them, or there’s an over emphasis on the importance of physical fitness.

    Well said. I haven’t thought this one through very fully myself, but it does come up. I have a good friend whose workouts and weightlifting reach, to me, extreme lengths–in the time spent if nothing else. However, he justifies his fitness commitment well: while most would be watching TV, I’m at the gym. He seems to have a view toward longevity, alertness and his own personal witness. However, his hair comes down a bit (well, he doesn’t literally have any hair anymore) when he reveals he wants other men to see him as manly, especially since he’s naturally thin. I can relate, so there’s the other side of “the fat issue.”

    Seems to largely be a highly subjective topic, especially for a serious believer seeking Kingdom values and the Lord Himself in the absence (as V said) of much direct Scriptural guidance. So many categorizations are culture-bound (e.g., larger, rounder women in Africa considered more beautiful). And there are oh, so many nuances and influences and insecurities feeding into one’s motives on food intake, body self-image and, directly related to this, judging others on it.

    I may need to ask myself, under the guidance of the Spirit:
    Why do I eat or abstain? Is that a rule of life, a rule of thumb or just what I choose this day? Does it profit me spiritually to exercise this often or in this way? What is it costing my soul-time–losing fellowship, time to read or meditate or to serve? Can I fold some exercise or healthy eating into those more profitable aforementioned goals? Does doing good things make me feel better and get sick less, thus enabling me to serve the Lord better? Was that last question a legalistic one or, to me, a genuine love issue?

    I can almost hear Solomon saying, Ecclesiastically: Enjoy breaking bread, and the bread itself–with a little butter, since God made that too–don’t overeat and be seen a fool or cover for your inadequacies, since this too is chasing after wind. Vanity, all is vanity under the sun. Until we get our new bodies and lose the shame that seeks to cover whatever we don’t like about the embodiment we now have–and the soul it embodies.

  3. Kerri says:

    Well said on both comments left above. This is a subject area very prevalent in today’s society. The world tells us that size 0 is what real beauty means. Wrong! And true, our bodies are eventually going to wear out, Jesus is returning, so one could say who really cares. But, the Bible says our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit…and if the Almighty truly is using MY body as His dwelling place, this gives me great encouragement to pay heed to this earthly body of mine.

    Looking at the Bible, many verses tell us of the preincarnate Christ, the birth of Christ, and the three-year earthly ministry of the Lord Jesus. But I have found only one verse that encapsulates his near-thirty years before his ministry truly began. Luke 2:52…And Jesus kept increasing in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and men.

    If one verse describes what my Lord did for thirty years, this shows me it is of great importance! I take this that he grew and matured in four areas…in wisdom (intellectually), in stature (physically), in favor with God (spiritually) and in favor with man (emotionally). If the Lord grew in these areas, then I take it that these are the four areas in which I need to grow and develop in as well. I have found that when I am growing in all of these areas, I feel that I am doing His will and feel balanced. In my life, I cannot grow in one or two areas and neglect the rest. I cannot hope to grow spiritually even if I daily read Scripture and pray if I am a glutton on the couch who eats nothing but junk food and never gets an ounce of exercise.

    Of course, over-emphasis on any of these areas could be detrimental as well. Being balanced and trying to give glory to the Lord in each area helps me grow and mature. I am the mother of three young children, and I have almost no extra time in my day. But I have found that if I don’t get proper exercise on a regular basis, my spirit is severely lacking and its effect is clearly seen in my energy level, stamina, and joy for my husband and children. When I am exercising and taking care of my body physically, it makes me want to grow intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. When I am exercising, I give complete and total credit and glory to the Lord that my body is His and I’m doing it all for Him. As Eric Liddell, Scotish athlete and missionary said, “When I run, I feel His pleasure.”

    I’m running my first half-marathon next month, and training for this has been an amazing experience. The Lord has gotten the glory, physically I feel wonderful, and my kids see Mommy working toward a goal and are encouraged by it as well (and even several of them have taken up running!). If I run all the time and neglect my family, my Lord, my church, etc…then that has obviously been taken to the extreme. Likewise if I study the Bible all the time and don’t have time to feed my family, that too has been taken to the extreme. I think “everything in moderation” is a nice motto to live by. Chocolate is okay! (if in moderation) Running is okay! (if in moderation) TV watching and couch-sitting is okay! (if in moderation).

    Jesus said that He has come so we might have life and have that to the fullest. Enjoying the life He has given us, taking care of our earthly bodies, souls & minds, and keeping our eyes focused on our Lord and heavenly home-to-be.

    • bbarlowe says:

      Extremely well said, Kerri. I thought it was the voice of my colleague Renea, who posted another great nugget–until I got to the “mother of three” part.

      I, too, find moderation in all four areas plus a balance between the earthly / temporal and heavenly / eternal stuff of life to be a good goal. I’m hearing about guys who’ve run their bodies into the ground. I joke about eating whatever God made, yes, including eggs when that was thought to be bad (as opposed to Zingers, that are straight from the pit). Sanctified common sense and Proverbial thinking patterns make it easier.

      But none of it’s easy, esp. when people come from and remain in crisis. That’s a whole ‘nother blog post. Renea?

      • reneamac says:

        I’m not sure I quite understand what you mean by “come from and remain in crisis.” I might have an idea, but will ask for clarification first so I don’t misdirect. Thanks!

  4. justin t. says:

    frankly i’ve never understood the stigma associated with an extreme dedication to fitness and health. the body is the one thing you will always have from the day you are born until the day you die. More than your house, your church, your car, or even your family, your body is the only thing that is with you every second of every day. if you’re going to spend time focusing on something, why not the food you put in your body and the exercise you receive? what other leisurely pursuits could possibly be more beneficial? Just my thoughts.

    • reneamac says:

      Hi Justin,

      Thanks for your comment. From a Christian perspective, our present bodies are temporary (though they will in some way, for the Christian, be resurrected… We aren’t given much on exactly what that will be like, though most infer that our bodies will be free from the decaying effects of sin: ie. disease, aging, etc). So there are leisure pursuits (by which I understand you to just mean generally, free time pursuits; otherwise there’s nothing leisurely about extreme dedication to fitness in the first place) that will have more eternal benefits.

      By this I am not suggesting that there are no eternal benefits (per the Christian perspective) to healthy diet and exercise. I and others have already discussed above how physical discipline often has the potential to supplement and aid spiritual discipline and how we are to be stewards of, and therein enjoying, God’s gift of bodies honors God, in part because our bodies house the Holy Spirit.

      Furthermore, as the God’s Spirit dwells within those who receive him, neither do we believe that our bodies are the only things with us every second of the day. In our spirits too, we are connected to the Body, and in a sense, carry the fellowship around with us in some mystical way.

      At any rate, if one did not espouse such distinctions between temporary and eternal, I suppose either extreme would be justifiable: both, This is all we’ve got, so we need to take the best care, and, This is all we’ve got, so we need to have the most fun.

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