In all of my remembered days, two truths remain constant: I believe in God, and I am fat. While there have been seasons where I struggled with my faith or my fatness, neither has ever left me.
As a teen, I thought that being a good, effective Christian meant being thin. Fatness was associated with a lack of self-control, one of the fruits of the Spirit. So I came to view my weight as an outward sign that I must not really believe or obey. I was terrified that my witness would be hampered by the size of my thighs. Surely no one would believe in the power of the Resurrected Christ if his Spirit wasn’t strong enough to keep me from gaining weight.
My home church offered weight-loss groups as a Bible study option. Like other well-known church leaders, the pastor talked about his exercise regime from the pulpit. He would not become one of those “fat and lazy pastors,” he told us. One of my church classes kept track of our weight to find out if we were improving our “stature” and so modeling Jesus, who “grew in wisdom and stature” (Luke 2:52).
I spent years under a spiritual pressure on my physical body: taping Romans 12:1-2 to the inside of my locker, hoping the reminder to sacrifice my body would bring the discipline needed to look like a Christian. I went on mission trips almost every year in high school and college, but Southern Baptist policies would require I lose significant weight before I could become an international missionary.
Finding Fat Acceptance
In college, while looking for visual ways to hide my fat, I stumbled into a “fat fashion” community online. The people there were not trying to make themselves appear slimmer; instead, they promoted “fat acceptance,” a subcultural movement that unapologetically embraces bodies of all sizes. This group changed how I viewed others' bodies, and eventually it changed how I viewed my own.
The fat acceptance movement rejects the negative stereotypes about fat people by accepting them as humans worthy of dignity, love, acceptance, and inclusion. We believe people can pursue “health at every size.” And yes—as you have no doubt noticed—we use the word fat. It’s a move to reclaim a word that has been used to stigmatize and criticize.
What about health concerns? Rather than looking to weight or size alone, many in the fat acceptance movement focus on other health indicators, such as cholesterol, blood sugar levels, energy, or endurance. While people may address such concerns by increasing activity, changing their diet, or trying medication—and may lose weight as a result—being thin is not our definition of health. (For people with chronic illnesses, who may not become “healthy” in the typical understanding of the term, the “health at every size” philosophy supports any steps they choose to take toward health.)
While the movement is decades old, in recent years it has gained momentum thanks to online activism. Media campaigns now occasionally feature larger women, and I’m beginning to see people on my Facebook feed voice outrage over fat-shaming. There is still a lot of work to do, particularly for women of color, those who also have a disability, and “super fats” whose bodies need clothing larger than what is carried in most plus-size stores, but progress is being made.
Still, some Christians hold on to some negative stereotypes that intertwine fat with sin in ways that clearly counter the efforts of the fat acceptance movement. Scripture speaks directly about the importance of our bodies, created in the image of God, who saw our frame even before it came to be (Ps 139:13-16). Yet, somehow we’ve come to believe that honoring our body means applying social conventions for size and weight.
The fat acceptance movement changed my perspective and made me more aware of the bias fat people face. Once, a woman came to the altar to pray with me at church. She didn’t ask what was on my heart that day; instead, she prayed that God would help me overcome my sin of my weight. She prayed for me to be freed from the bonds of my flesh.
At a time of brokenness, it felt like all this other person could see was the weight on my body. That moment energized me to encourage other churchgoers to not fall prey to the lies of this world about our body, but to be a people who speak the truth of a Creator who loves each of our very different bodies.
The Difference Between Gluttony and Fatness
I often hear Christians remark about how “the church doesn’t talk about gluttony.” Maybe you’re a bit more tuned into the topic if you can hear the way the pew creaks every time you shift. Maybe you notice it more if the stadium-style sanctuary seats are digging bruises into your hips. While we may not talk about what gluttony actually means, Christians regularly speak about sin and temptation as it relates to what we eat and what we look like. We frequently equate gluttony with fatness.
While in seminary, I researched Christian weight-loss books, or “diet devotionals.” The first modern book in this genre, Charlie Shedd’s 1957 book, Pray Your Weight Away, is full of the type of things I told myself as a teenager: “When you are fat, you wear a badge which announces to all the world that you are weak,” and, “Being fat means we wear a big sign on our neck that says insecurity!”
Even decades later, political correctness didn’t keep Carole Lewis, director of a weight-loss program called First Place, from saying, “If I’m 100 pounds overweight and trying to tell [people] about God’s power in their life, they will look at me and wonder why there’s no power to help me in this area.” More recently, Rick Warren’s The Daniel Plan was so popular and well-received that it won the 2015 Christian Book of the Year Award. Dr. Oz, who is a “founding doctor” for the book, promotes the book by calling it “a holy war on fat.”
But no one needs a war waged on their body, and it’s certainly not holy.
Of course, gluttony is a sin that runs rampant in our society, but it does not rest solely on the hips of those who are fat. One can engage in gluttonous behavior and remain thin. One can be fat and not be struggling with gluttony. Jesus himself was accused of being a glutton (Luke 7:34)—which shows how imperfectly we assign and judge this particular sin.
When it is time to address the sin of gluttony, I encourage church leaders to focus on gluttony, not fatness. When my pastor talked about not wanting to become a “fat and lazy” pastor, what I heard was that my pastor saw me as lazy. The all-too-common jokes about getting fat at the church potluck make it even harder for a fat person (or even the person afraid of being fat) to enjoy the fellowship without scrutinizing everything on her plate.
Honoring Our Bodies at Every Size
Part of living in community will mean we have the chance to encourage and partner with people who are taking steps to honor their bodies. But that doesn’t mean we have to focus on pounds on the scale, even if weight loss coincides with their changes. We can instead talk about improved markers of mental, physical, and spiritual health. We can continue to support each other in the pursuit of health at any weight.
I used to believe I would feel better if I lost weight. But eventually I realized the things that made me uncomfortable about my body were situational: “It’s hard to find clothes” or “The desks at school are uncomfortable” or “Sometimes I worry about a chair supporting me.” I had bought into the vague idea that I would “feel better” in a thin body, when what it really meant was that I would quite literally fit better.
Romans 12:1-2 remains one of my favorite verses. I just read it a little differently now. Instead of trying to make my body holy and acceptable to God, I trust that God has called me “wonderfully made.” I trust that this body of mine—all the many pounds of it—is deemed holy and acceptable when I offer it up to God as a living sacrifice. I seek to not be conformed to the image-conscious patterns of this world. I long for a renewing of my mind that opens me up to the vast world of possibilities that God has equipped this body for in his good, pleasing, and perfect will.
Nicole lives near Atlanta, Georgia, where she works as a freelance editor, specializing in theological writing. She enjoys spending her free time hunting thrift stores for vintage sheets to up-cycle into clothing, honing her "cool aunt" skills, and finding new recipes to try for the next church potluck. She blogs about bodies and theology at jnicolemorgan.com and tweets @jnicolemorgan.