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Feminist Theology and Contemporary Dieting Culture, by Hannah Bacon

21 February 2020

Jennie Hogan reviews a theological look at the world of slimmers

SUSIE ORBACH’s 1978 seminal book Fat is a Feminist Issue broke taboos about women’s fleshy bodies. In Hannah Bacon’s engaging analysis of notions of fat in relation to Christianity, she argues forcefully and gracefully that fat is also a theological issue. Indeed, we are invited to experience the “faithing” of fat in her book, which is at once accessible and academic in its sustained personal and theological engagement.

Bacon maps notions of sin and salvation in relation to dieting culture and the unceasing drive to create the perfect body. Classical theologians, especially St Augustine, are employed; and yet, since this book is unashamedly feminist, many lesser-known theologians are introduced. The extensive bibliography is a rich feast. The “economy of sacrifice”, as she names it, challenges presumptions about the framing of fat as sin. She highlights brilliantly how bodies, especially women’s, are sites of fear and danger rather than delight.

Bacon adds an innovative twist to her project: she joins a slimming club. Reflections of her own, as well as other group members’ narratives of repeated attempts to lose weight, manage to be all at once frank and tender. She is adept at applying complex theological ideas to the difficulties of daily experience. Moreover, through the linking of conversion with weight-loss, lazy assumptions are boldly questioned.

This is at odds with polite pulpit-talk, but shouldn’t be, because her insights are original and very relevant. Admittedly, Bacon is given a good start, because the rules of the slimming group force everyone to count daily their dangerous “syns”, as the non-slimming food is labelled.

While Bacon shows a sustained suspicion of dieting culture, it would be wrong to presume that feminists are against losing weight. Bacon is not a voyeur among the group, but also a participant who struggles to feel at ease with her body. Bacon seeks, however, to challenge the tendency to conform, proposing instead “sensible eating” as she describes it.

This, she warns, is not suggesting that women should be uncomplaining good girls. Rather, sensible eating foregrounds the enjoyment of eating which is allied to relationships as well as the pleasure of relishing the gifts of God’s creation. Eating, she affirms, should be a generative act. Sadly, we learn and, indeed, may recognise ourselves that the taint of temptation is rarely far away.

While Bacon’s book is unashamedly feminist in its approach, readers need not be female or fat to find it fascinating. That said, a women’s reading group could find it empowering as well as instructive. We are reminded here that the Word becoming flesh includes being fat.

The Revd Jennie Hogan is Chaplain at Goodenough College, and Assistant Priest of St George’s, Bloomsbury, in London. She is the author of This is My Body (Canterbury Press, 2017).

Feminist Theology and Contemporary Dieting Culture: Sin, salvation and women’s weight loss narratives
Hannah Bacon
Bloomsbury £28.99

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