It’s the new year, which means it’s time for lots of people to announce on social media what they are or aren’t eating and why. And then, in a few months, a flurry of before and after photos will appear with tales of “getting healthy,” “putting myself first,” “taking care of myself,” etc., etc., etc. If the person is a Christian, they may even reference honoring God with their body, overcoming gluttony, or other turns of Christian phrase. They’ll be met with encouraging comments, self-deprecating remarks, and requests to know the poster’s “secret.”
I don’t comment on these posts. In fact, I hide them—and if a person persists in posting these types of things, I mute or unfollow them.
It’s not because these types of posts make me feel bad. As I’ve explained elsewhere, although I am fat, I am happier and more at peace with my body than I have ever been. I’m more willing to be in photos, and happier with how I look in them, than I have ever been.
But these posts make me profoundly sad, because I know the immense damage that is done when we equate weight loss with getting healthier, or having a smaller body with being healthy.
When I was at my smallest, praise abounded. People marveled at my commitment to health, as I ran so much that I injured myself. I was so disciplined, they said, in a tone that indicated that declining dessert made me a morally better person than the one who ate the brownie.
I would have qualified for a clinical diagnosis of anorexia, had I been assessed, but I’d never had more admirers.
Fast forward to a few years ago. I had to have my tonsils removed. Complications from the steroids I was given after the surgery and my already imbalanced nervous system resulted in nearly six months of having to learn how to eat normally again. At first, I could barely eat at all.
At the time of surgery, my body was the largest that it had ever been. Unsurprisingly, my inability to eat normally resulted in rapid weight loss.
The compliments poured in.
“You look great! Have you lost weight?”
“Have you lost weight?” (Said with delight.)
“You’re looking great, what are you doing?”
I no longer weigh myself other than at the doctor’s office, because I now know that it is one of the very worst things that you can do if you are in recovery from an eating disorder or disordered eating. But I could tell that I had lost weight, because my clothes fit differently. Still, I just didn’t know what to say.
“Oh, just having the most emotionally and physically torturous experience of my adult life, thanks!”
“Struggling to maintain my mental health because medical complications are triggering every somatic memory from the most deeply unhealthy period of my life!”
“I don’t weigh myself because I’ve recovered from a life-threatening mental illness, but thank you for calling attention to it!”
Probably more information than casual acquaintances needed to know.
I know of people receiving compliments about weight loss because they were so wracked with grief over the loss of a loved one, experiencing such relational trauma, or fighting such a virulent illness that they could barely eat. And of course, many people whose weight loss was complimented and appeared to be the result of them doing all the “right” things, when it was, in fact, the result of deeply disordered behavior.
To me, and all of them, the message was, “We prefer you when you’re emotionally tormented. Your mental and emotional health is not as important as how you look.”
You might think, “That’s ridiculous! That’s obviously not what people meant!” But regardless of the speaker’s intent, this is the message that is conveyed.
As Christians especially, this is a horrendous message to send to people. We, of all people, should know not to value the outward person over the inward person. Yet so often, the language we use around weight loss, and particularly intentional weight loss, sends the message that the size of a person’s body directly correlates to their godliness or moral goodness.
You are not a morally better person if you have a smaller body—but we use language that suggests you are.
The time that you spend pursuing a smaller body is not unquestionably worthwhile—it can stem from a slavish devotion to self just as easily as anything else, and we are notoriously bad at judging our own motivations.
You cannot determine from someone’s body size whether they are honoring God with their body—yet so often, weight loss is described in these terms.
Gaining weight, or living in a larger body, is not de facto evidence of gluttony and failing to care for yourself—yet the way we talk about intentional weight loss suggests it is.
Weight loss is not inherently virtuous or evidence of godliness—but you wouldn’t know it from the way we often talk about it.
Is there even a category in American evangelicalism for someone getting fatter as they grow in godliness? The way we talk about intentional weight loss suggests that we don’t think such a thing is even possible.
Before and after photos, and commentary about weight loss, is not just about you. It creates an ecosystem in which everyone in the church learns to see their bodies—and themselves.
Most troubling of all is the fact that the burden these messages create falls particularly heavily on children and teens. In particular, I cannot even express in words the incalculable damage that praising weight loss, and the mindset behind doing so, wreaks amongst teen girls.
Do we want a generation of young women pursuing Christ, or thin bodies to prove their godliness? You may think this is a false dichotomy, but I speak from experience when I say that it is not. No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and thinness.
But we’re sending the message that by bowing down at the altar of thinness, we are pursuing God. And so we are sending countless people, children and adults, on the pursuit of something that is NOT God, or godliness, and telling them that it is. It needs to stop.
I don’t compliment weight loss, and it’s my fervent hope that one day, none of us will.