Giving up diet culture for Lent

March 4th, 2019

Ash Wednesday, which occurs this week on March 6th, is the start of the liturgical season of Lent, the 40 days of preparation for Easter. Traditionally, fasting, penitence, and prayer are the focus of the lead-up to Lent, and many churches offer special educational or worship opportunities for members of their congregations to deepen their faith.

But Lent has also been appropriated by more secular influences. Every year, I’m surprised by the people I run into who declare what they are “giving up” for Lent, even though they haven’t darkened the door of a church in years. More specifically, I am concerned by the way the fasting aspect of Lent gets co-opted by diet culture.

Most of the things people choose to fast from — chocolate, alcohol, sodas, chips, or foods high in carbohydrates like bread — coincide with the foods our culture has deemed “bad.” When Lent begins right around the time New Year’s resolutions are wearing off, it serves as an occasion to re-focus on goals that are more health-and-fitness-based than they are spiritual. But Lenten fasting is a spiritual practice, not a weight loss one.

The motivation behind fasting is to refrain from luxury items that we would normally enjoy during a time of feasting, hence the common practice of not eating meat on days like Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and other Fridays during Lent. It is also a way of gaining control over our lives and exercising discipline. Hence, it is not a requirement that one fast from food. Perhaps fasting from social media, watching Netflix, or unnecessary spending might accomplish the same purpose.

Isaiah 58 tells us about the kind of fasting that God delights in: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” When we are called to actually loose the bonds of injustice and let the oppressed go free, giving up chocolate seems like an easy win.

Many of us, especially women, have internalized the messages of diet culture so thoroughly that it can be hard to disentangle from fasting. Diet culture tells us that weight loss is a means of achieving a higher status, demonizes certain ways of eating while elevating others, and equates thinness with health and moral virtue. If one’s goal for fasting during Lent is discipline, it might be easier to choose a neutral food to give up. For example, one Lent, Father James Martin gave up anything containing oregano.

Or you may discern that what will really help your spiritual growth is to fast from diet culture, from that yoke that tells you that you’ll never be thin or disciplined enough. Fasting from diet culture looks like not judging whether a food is “good” or “bad.” Fasting from diet culture is moving your body because it feels good and not to “burn off” what you’ve eaten.

Fasting and abstinence from certain categories of food is an historic Christian discipline that can bring spiritual awareness and compassion towards those who do not choose to go without. Restricting foods that diet culture tells us are bad is not the same as fasting for spiritual purposes, and we should be cautious to not conflate the two.

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