What the Church Taught Me About Being Fat

I grew up fat and loving Jesus. I was frequently distracted and burdened by what I saw as my biggest spiritual and personal flaw: my weight. I was fat. I am fat. That has never changed. I now see the image of God reflected in my body, marveling at the way my size reveals parts of the heart and character of God—contributing to the full body of Christ that is the church. That was not always the case.

From an early age, I heard fatness mentioned as a sin from the pulpit. I eventually grew to hate my body and believed with passionate conviction that not only was my body wrong and ugly, it was ungodly. I fully believed that my body was shameful and an embarrassment to God. I believed that I had wasted the gift of my body, my temple, and could offer nothing of worth. I believed that everything I had was tainted and unusable because it all came from a body that was fat and therefore sinful.

After I graduated high school, I decided to spend my entire summer helping a church in a small mountain town in the Appalachian hills of West Virginia. I worked alongside six other high-school and college-age interns and the two pastors at the local church. We organized food and clothing giveaways, ran day camps for kids, cleaned up the church to make the space functional, and loved and served the local community who called the Appalachian town home.

A few weeks into the summer, we spent a day sorting and organizing the clothes donated to the church clothes closet. Later that day, we met back in the office for our standard meeting. Some of the other interns had found a pair of women’s underwear and stretched it across the boxy computer monitor in the office. They all got a good laugh at how large those panties were. They couldn’t imagine how big someone must be to need the underwear that stretched easily over the monitor. I laughed along uncomfortably. The panties would fit me, maybe. They might have been too small. As a fat person, I have a body that is simultaneously highly visible and yet invisible. My coworkers, brothers and sisters in the body of Christ, were mocking a body that was standing in front of them, and they didn’t even know it. I tried to hide my shame. I hoped somehow it was a sign they did not know that the joke-inducing undergarments would fit me. That God’s grace was covering my flaws in order for his name to be made great in spite of my fat body. It seemed my back rolls did not speak louder than my love for God.

My heart breaks for my 18-year-old self and for all who silently endure shame when fellow Christians speak and act in ignorance. My prayer is that I speak up in such situations—whether the bodies and lives being mocked are fat people, immigrants, people of color, women, persons with disabilities, or any number of people who receive ridicule. I do believe that my coworkers would not have laughed if they had known the shame it brought, if they had heard someone they knew and trusted speak up and offer correction.

I believed I was a fat person with a thin person inside, trying to get out, and the thin person tried to be on her best behavior. As a Christian, that meant that I needed to discipline my body until it became godly and thin.

It would be five years after my summer in West Virginia before I would first read the phrase fat acceptance. I stumbled upon it while I was trying desperately to find fashion tips that would make me look slimmer. What I found instead was an online community of mostly women who believed that their fat bodies were not wrong. They did not try to hide their fat; they embraced it and treated it as worthy of love and respect. It was a community devoted to plus-size fashion with a side of fat politics and activism. I learned about the structural oppression that fat people face in everything from finding employment to getting adequate health care. I read medical studies that made me question what had been my commonsense understanding: that fat is bad for the body. I learned to call myself fat as a way to reclaim a word that is so often used as an insult.

My struggle with my body image and how my body fits into the body of Christ is not unique. I’ve spent the past decade speaking to friends and strangers about my experience with Christian fat shame. I hear similar stories over and over—people who tell me that they believed there was something spiritually wrong with them because they were fat, that it disqualified them from serving God, or that they were afraid that they were giving God a bad name. Thin Christians have expressed similar spiritual fears to me about becoming fat.

It is not a struggle unique to our modern times. Though the modern Christian weight-loss message and industry arguably began with the 1957 publication of Charlie Shedd’s Pray Your Weight Away, we as Christians have a long history of not knowing what to do with our bodies in relationship to God and our spiritual life. The religious of Jesus’s day created numerous rules about whose body was acceptable or not; Jesus rejected those classifications and touched the untouchable. Our Christian heritage is filled with stories of people of faith who believed that intentionally inflicted physical pain and suffering brought them (or others) closer to God. Gnostic beliefs that devalue the body entirely, finding it a stumbling block to a pure faith, have crept into the theologies of Christianity.

In the name of seeking purity and holiness, Christians have frequently decided that our bodies deserve scorn or punishment. This is a lie. And this kind of lie weaves its way into well-intentioned talks about our bodies, holiness, and spiritual disciplines. I hope you will be able to call these lies out, first to yourself and then to others, and instead live victoriously in the body you have right now.

God is not ashamed of you.

God is not ashamed of your body.

Our right to speak is not taken away by our imperfect bodies.

A body the world calls flawed does not invalidate the wonder and power of our Creator.

No one’s size, appearance, or ability prohibits that person from serving neighbors with love.

 

This piece is excerpted from Fat + Faithful: Learning to Love Our Bodies, Our Neighbors, and Ourselves by J. Nicole Morgan. Used with permission.

What the Church Taught Me About Being Fat
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