Like many of us tuning into the Olympics, I love stories of inspirational feats. I enjoy montages of athletes who devoted their lives to perfecting that one sport, often at great cost to other areas of their life. We marvel at how strong these top competitors can be when they push their bodies to extremes.
But we quickly notice a pattern in their stories: Nearly every star athlete has suffered a serious injury as a result of their intense training, and some put themselves at risk for long-term health issues. Along with details like childhood enthusiasm and dedicated parents, Olympians’ backstories are dotted with words like “dislocated shoulder,” “torn ACL,” “concussion,” and “broken bones.”
They know the risk of injury, but the risk is worth it for the chance to achieve their dreams. Same goes for other individuals who take on extreme feats: those who surf the biggest waves, climb the tallest mountains, hike the longest trails, and freefall from the skies.
While life would be far safer without the risk of succumbing to overtraining, extreme elements, or freak accidents, we can understand their justification to an extent. We all want to live fully by doing what makes us feel alive. With wisdom, there is nothing wrong with this mentality. In fact, we can all probably imagine the opportunities lost out of fear. Our desire to follow our dreams makes us human and reflects the image of our vibrant and creative God.
However, the conversations about accepting possible risks in pursuit of the good life—the exciting, happy, life-we’ve-always-dreamed-of life—changes when we start talking about fat bodies. It seems the only expected priority for a fat person will always be pursuing a skinnier, presumably “healthier” body—for the sake of ourselves, society, and God.
I recognize that this is an imperfect parallel, and the idea of comparing Olympians to our fat selves, friends, and neighbors seems uncomfortable to most and ridiculous to some. But if we can accept that someone can put their bodies through grueling, injury-prone training to win gold and glory, can we also accept that fat people can stop fighting their weight in order to live a happy, well-rounded, fulfilling life? (For what it’s worth, there are far more of us in the latter category.)
I know what you want to ask: “But what about health?”
There are two things that I want to make clear before I go any further: 1) People can have healthy lifestyles at any size, and 2) Our health does not define our worth. (I previous wrote about my journey to fat acceptance as a Christian here.)
Many people question fatness out of concern for people’s health. Among Christians, this mentality gets coupled with concern over how we honor God in our bodies. However, this principle seems to weigh disproportionately on fat bodies. We advocate that people devote their lives to becoming thin, saying to not do so would be disrespectful to ourselves and to God.
Rarely do we see the same advocacy around the many other ways bodies are treated: over-exercised, stretched to extremes, beaten and broken. Is it okay to put our bodies at potential risk for the sake of greater priorities, or not? (I happen to see my weight and size as fine for my overall health, but still get told by some that I’m facing certain death by living life in a fat body. Most women of size go through the same thing.)
When we look at the discrepancy between how we view the “risks” some people take with their bodies, we see different definitions of health. One is about muscles and strength and physical feats. The other is about not being fat. I’d like to suggest that health is a holistic concept that cannot be restricted to size or shape. Instead, it brings together mental, physical, and spiritual well-being in the context of our individual body and life. This approach to health invites everyone—from the chronically ill to the gold-medal Olympian—to pursue habits and rhythms that are good for them.
Even Scripture, which has been used to convince people in fat bodies that God wants them thin instead, makes a distinction between physical activity and what is truly of value. In 1 Timothy 4 we are instructed to “train [ourselves] to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.” In other words, physical activity is great, but it’s not the most important thing. We are allowed and even encouraged to have other priorities before God.
In Romans 12 we are told to offer our bodies, holy and acceptable, as living sacrifices. I used to think that I had to make my body holy and acceptable in order to fulfill this command. But that’s not the case. Our bodies are temples because God dwells within them through the mystery of the Holy Spirit, not because we have somehow constructed them in a satisfactory way. God has dwelt in a variety of places: elaborate structures, pillars of fire, clouds, burning bushes, still small voices, tents, and a tiny baby. Do we doubt his ability to dwell in differently shaped humans?
I have a shelf full of Christian diet books. They do not routinely advise against playing professional sports or hiking Mount Everest, yet they all advocate weight loss or talk about thinness as if it is a natural consequence of living life the way God intends you to live.
My own dream life isn’t as alluring as the fame, glory, and brand sponsorships of star athletes. I dream of living a balanced life where I can develop my career, invest time in my family, volunteer, remain active at church, and pursue my hobbies like sewing and travel. Those things all take priority over the scale. This life allows some time each day for exercise, as well as the financial resources for regular, routine medical checkups. I get to go on walks, wander farmers’ markets, and cook delicious meals that I can share with others. This life does not make me thin. I put my overall lifestyle before any number on a scale. This is how I pursue holistic—mental, physical, and spiritual—health. And it gives me a fat body.
Of course, I could prioritize weight loss. Many women who are my size do. To lose a significant amount of weight and keep it off long-term, I’d have to sacrifice time and attention from other areas of my life. Even if I found a program that worked, I’d have to keep up the effort to some degree for the rest of my life to maintain the results. Plus, outward signs of “success” like pounds lost or a smaller size still wouldn’t guarantee my physical health; it could lead to harmful yo-yo dieting. For me, this option does not offer the time or resources for holistic health.
Sharing with others the message that God values us and allows us to pursue health at every size has become a central part of my calling and a demonstration of love for my neighbors. Fat-shame has dire consequences, not only to people’s emotional and mental state, but also to their physical health. It actually prevents people from seeking medical help, since they assume the doctor will not investigate or address their concerns, only tell them to “lose weight.” When fat people do find the courage and determination to make an appointment, anti-fatness contributes to the biases of medical professionals who treat fat patients differently.
The way we talk about our bodies, and fat bodies in particular, matters for society and for the church, and I will continue to speak up against harmful biases that dismiss the worth and value of fat bodies. I refuse to give up that calling for the pursuit of a thin body just because others believe that will make me healthier.
We honor our bodies, our temple, by honoring the creative and passionate calling of God in our lives, not by trying to form our body into a culturally palatable shape.
J. Nicole Morgan lives near Atlanta, Georgia. She earned a master of theological studies from Palmer Seminary of Eastern University. Her work centers around body diversity in the church, specifically the way a fat-positive church is better able to love all of our neighbors. Find Nicole @jnicolemorgan and on Facebook at Fat Faith.