Years of women being taught to develop a positive body image may actually be hurting them. A recent study in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology surveyed 81 Philadelphia-area women who fell along all points on the body mass index scale. Conducted by Marisa Rose at the Temple University School of Medicine, the study found that, as the women's body mass index increased, two-thirds of them said they still believed they were at an ideal body size. When asked to pick out an ideal body shape from a series of silhouettes, 20 percent of the women categorized as obese chose an overweight or obese model.

This study points to the body-image confusion that has surfaced over and against Western culture's unhealthy emphasis on thinness as the ultimate feminine asset (e.g., the recent gossip about Jessica Simpson's pants size). The debate pits those who advocate health against those who preach unwavering self-acceptance, isolating the two as mutually exclusive. And Christian women often face an added, more complicated dimension as thinness becomes associated with moral purity.

As any woman who struggles with weight issues can well attest, finding a balance between loving yourself and changing bad habits can be psychological turmoil. I grew up bombarded by images of impossible thinness in ads and on TV, but at every turn - at school, at home, and at church - these standards were countered by messages of self-acceptance, even celebration. "We should be happy and proud to be who we are," I was told. "Don't let anyone make you feel bad about the way you look!" I internalized the messages all too well; for me, as I suspect it is for many others, the cycle of food addiction is deeply emotional and linked to my most essential understanding of self. Many of us have so successfully developed a sense of self-acceptance that we cannot find the motivation to break bad and potentially dangerous habits; to gain one would be to lose the other.

"We fatties are the only people on earth who can weigh our sins," said Charlie Shedd in his 1957 book, Pray Your Weight Away, the first "Christian dieting" book. But as a church, we are largely ignoring the problem in our pews, and in a circular way, that has become the problem. To suggest that people might need to address their food issues for spiritual reasons is practically unmentioned in pulpits and Sunday school teachings. Because food addiction is so personal and so closely tied to a sense of self, we avoid facing the issue at all and fail to get people the help they need. We have yet to find a balance between the Bible's admonishments against gluttony and its message of unconditional love. But overeating is a spiritual issue, and it demands a spiritual response.

There have been Christian attempts to address the issue in the past; Christianity Today, for example, has covered faith-based weight loss programs and the theology they espouse. One helpful voice is that of former American Idol contestant Mandisa Hundley. In a March 2009 interview with CT sister magazine Today's Christian Woman, Hundley described her struggle with the emotional and spiritual elements of her 75-pound weight loss and deliverance from food addiction. She said she is not losing weight to conform to media standards of beauty, but is responding to both the physical and spiritual war she realized she was losing.

Alongside calling out the harmful standards of beauty perpetuated by the media, the church also needs to take a firm stand on the seriousness of food addiction - and loudly proclaim the freedom that is found in the love of Jesus Christ.