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Forget BMI: all temples are beautiful

01 April 2022

Is the Church fatphobic? Helen Lynch considers the narratives


Members of the Women’s League of Health and Beauty, founded in 1930 by Mary Bagot Stack

Members of the Women’s League of Health and Beauty, founded in 1930 by Mary Bagot Stack

“WHAT? Don’t you know your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit?” St Paul exclaims in his letter to the Church of Corinth. He was talking about unhealthy sexual practices, but somehow this phrase has caught in our imaginations as a way of thinking about the worthiness of our bodies.

We have, thankfully, challenged some of the ways we pass moral judgements on people’s bodies. But there is an elephant in the room, and I am it.

I am, and have been for most of my adult life, what is known as a “mid-fat” (that is, classed as someone typically between a clothes size 20-26). I have spent most of my adult life feeling unworthy, with my life on pause until I could get myself sorted out (i.e. lose weight). I have tried almost every diet going, and have lost and regained several stone several times.

Guilt and shame is heaped on fat people from all angles, telling us that we are unworthy of love, denying us choices in life, excluding us from things as simple as being able to find clothes that fit, or sitting comfortably in public spaces — even in church. We are forced to believe that our “temples” are unworthy of loving kindness.

But how different would it look if we understood our temples to be the place where we encounter the God of abundance? In doing so, we might put more emphasis on the encounter — not the size, shape, age, or colour of the temple.

GOOD stewardship of the body has been made subject to a proliferation of rules and regulations which would make the writers of Leviticus blush. From a disturbingly young age, children absorb rules about eating which disrupt their intuitive relationship with their body’s need for nourishment.

The regularisation of time and work patterns which arose during the industrial revolution fed in the early 20th century into the New Thought in the United States, and the development of untested and often dangerous “health” regimes, giving rise to prescribed patterns of eating.

Diets were developed for all sorts of ailments, but most especially for keeping or attaining a slim body, which was considered to be a necessary foundation for good health. Body size and weight became yardsticks by which a person’s physical condition could be measured.

The Body Mass Index (BMI) arose from these movements, and the work of a 19th-century astronomer, Adolphe Quetelet, who was searching for the “average man”.

The Revd Helen Lynch

BMI was developed to compare different body types in different parts of the world. It was never intended to be used as a measurement for individual humans, but it became, and remains, widely used in medical circles as an indicator of health.

BMI measurements were divided into categories of underweight, normal weight, overweight, and obese, the narrative being that only a certain weight category is “normal”, and, if you are not that weight, you are unhealthy by default.

It has increasingly been shown, however, that weight/body size alone is not a useful diagnostic tool. Many fat people are healthy; many thin people are not.

Worse, poorer outcomes for people with larger bodies may well be attributable to “fatphobia” on the part of health-care professionals, and a lack of medical equipment suitable for fat bodies: blood-pressure cuffs may give a false high blood pressure reading if they are not big enough for a patient’s arm, for example.

Recent headlines about an “obesity epidemic” can be attributed to the fact that the BMI classifications mentioned above were moved down the scale; so, actually, people didn’t become much bigger — perhaps a few pounds — but they were put into a new category on the revised BMI scale. (More about BMI can be read in Frank Q. Nuttall’s Nutrition Today article on the National Library of Medicine website.)

It has also been shown that people are more likely to be unhealthy in the “underweight” category, and more likely to be in good health in the “overweight” category (Lily O’Hara and Jane Taylor’s “What’s Wrong With the ‘War on Obesity?’” on the Sage Journals website).

In spite of this, the narrative of a “war on obesity” has not been shifted to a “war on underweight”. Being thin does not carry the moral overtones that being fat does.

FAT or thin, we are all, every single one of us, created in the image of God. Yet there is a general consensus that some people’s bodies are better than others. To continue the temple metaphor, the immaculately preserved, architectural masterpiece is better than the dilapidated chapel with the leaking roof.

The truth is that every body is a gift to be treasured and cared for as a temple of the Holy Spirit.

Diet culture, so insidious that most of us don’t even question it, tells us that the only way to treasure and care for our body is to eat certain foods, move our bodies in certain ways, and do everything we can to avoid being fat. If we fail (i.e. become fat), the failing is there for the world to see. This robs us of the perception that our bodies are fearfully and wonderfully made, in all their glorious variety.

Diet culture is alive and well in the life of the Church. In the past year, I have been in no less than three training sessions run by the Church of England, where intentional weight loss has been given as an example of how people exercise discipline and willpower and improve their well-being.

Not to mention the times I’ve had to listen to moral judgements about food (“I’m going to be naughty and have that biscuit”), or struggled to fit into seats or even vestments (fiddleback chasubles are so unforgiving).

A distinctively Christian diet culture grew up alongside the diet-book boom of the 1970s, with titles such as “Help Lord — The Devil Wants Me Fat!” It continued through the aerobics era, when the born-again Christian Rosemary Conley gave her testimony of finding God and the secret of slim hips and thighs; and persists today in blogs and social-media accounts that tell us things such as “How to Lose Weight and Honor God With Your Body”.

The danger is that these narratives underline the diet culture’s implications that fat people are lazy, greedy, and stupid, and add to this a hefty helping of guilt that they are also failing in their faith.

Fat people often feel as though they are living shadow lives, on pause, afraid to take up space in a world not designed for them. Where is the encouragement to believe that body diversity is normal and a natural feature of the diversity of God’s creation?

Letting go of harmful beliefs inside and outside of the Church about fatness, food, and movement will allow people of all shapes and sizes to love their bodies. By that I don’t mean worship them, but respect them, nourish them, nurture and care for them as the temples of the Holy Spirit they are.

In turn, this enables all God’s children to live their lives fully and freely, regardless of the size, shape, colour, age, and ability (not disability) of their temple.

All bodies are good bodies, created in the image of the God of abundance.

The Revd Helen Lynch is Assistant Curate in the Great Yarmouth Team Ministry (St Paul’s; St Nicholas’ Minster; St Mary’s).

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