Obesity and healthy community

January 9th, 2019

Obesity and culture

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 39.8 percent of the U.S. adult population in 2015–2016 was classified as obese based on body mass index, which is a measure of height-to-weight ratio. The CDC also indicated that almost 80 percent of Americans were considered either obese or overweight. Despite this, discussions about weight, size and health are often taboo, and many spaces and communities are inhospitable to large people. These taboos and stigmas allow unhealthy attitudes to continually damage both these individuals and their communities.

It’s not difficult to argue that our entire culture has a disordered relationship with our bodies, food and health. Often, young women — and sometimes men — with eating disorders such as anorexia end up being the poster children for this cultural mentality; but this kind of mentality also marginalizes heavy people.

The main message we hear about obesity is that it’s unhealthy. However, the cultural associations we absorb every day go much deeper than that. Beyond health concerns, there are implicit beliefs that overweight or obese people are ugly, lazy or undisciplined, and even that they willfully choose to be unhealthy. While it’s true that obesity is correlated with health issues such as heart disease and diabetes, it’s also true that large people can eat healthy foods, engage in physical activity and have healthy bodies according to every measurable metric without losing weight. Although there are plenty of habits and choices that can improve health outcomes for people of all sizes, a recent Huffington Post article stated that “since 1959, research has shown that 95 to 98 percent of attempts to lose weight fail and that two-thirds of dieters gain back more than they lost.”

As anyone who has worked in a cubicle can attest, our patterns of life in the United States frequently don’t encourage participating in healthy habits. Many of us are required to sit in a chair for hours a day because of work responsibilities. Life responsibilities can leave little time for grocery shopping and food preparation. Add stress and lack of sleep to this equation, and a person’s health will suffer regardless of their size.

In this context, blaming overweight people for their size only perpetuates a cycle of impossible standards, fear and shame. However, this cycle can be broken by deemphasizing appearance and focusing on health and dignity for everyone.

How the church responds

A community called the fat acceptance movement advocates for the dignity of all people, regardless of size or adherence to standards of health. Because we’ve generally been slow to critique our cultural messages about whose body deserves to be accepted, many of us in the church have a lot to learn from this movement. Some questions we may need to ask ourselves include

  • What is revealed about my values through the ways I speak about my body and other people’s bodies? 
  • How does our space (furniture, for example) include or exclude people? 
  • How would I treat people differently if I believed in different standards of beauty?

We can also look beyond our own spaces and communities to think about how to influence our society more broadly. Large people face discrimination in hiring and in medical care, as well as discomfort in churches, schools and travel settings where seating isn’t adequately accommodating. Where might we have the power to change these attitudes or policies?

Talking to children about the fact that good bodies come in all shapes and sizes not only teaches them respect for others, but it also invites them to accept their own bodies as they grow and change throughout their lives. Often, these conversations challenge us to examine our own attitudes about ourselves. A culture of dieting and dissatisfaction trains us to critique, control and punish our bodies in pursuit of an unattainable ideal. How do we push back against those ideas?

Even if our goal is to cultivate discipline in pursuit of health, we’re likely to be more successful if we also love, tend, appreciate and accept our bodies exactly as they already are.

Reflections on our physical bodies

Recognizing and challenging anti-fat bias and size discrimination aren’t just matters of political correctness; they’re also important ways we can mend wounds in our communities. When we limit our perceptions of people because of their size and allow them to be unnecessarily limited by it, everyone misses out on the gift of a loving and fully accepting community. Often, we also miss out on the specific gifts that these individuals could bring to the church.

Moreover, when we take conscious steps to limit our obsession with weight, we’re actually better aligned with what science says about how to be healthy. Perhaps more importantly, we’re taking steps to define health holistically and pursue wholeness for all. Drastic diets and living in constant shame diminish people’s physical health outcomes as well as their overall quality of life. Conversely, inviting one another into community without judgment, encouraging psychological health through self-acceptance, and erasing barriers to healthy choices are better ways to increase health for all.

Since the earliest days of Christianity, theologians have been adamant that physical matter and human bodies are, as God declares in Genesis 1:31, “supremely good.” Western culture, though, is intent on convincing us of the opposite, especially when it comes to bodies that won’t cooperate with modern standards of health or its ideals for physical appearance. The church can witness to God’s love by becoming a place where everyone and their bodies are greeted with acceptance, dignity and care, and where worth is ascribed to all people regardless of their appearance.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

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