THE THEOLOGY OF OBESITY

Let’s start with a pop quiz.  Question 1:  How many of you made New Year’s resolutions this year that involved either (a) losing weight, (b) eating more good stuff and/or less bad stuff, or (c) exercising?  Almost all of you, right?  Question 2: How many of you made any New Year’s resolutions that involved anything else?  Maybe one or two? Question 3:when was the last time you used words like “vice,” “virtue,” and “sin” in any context other than diet and exercise?  Maybe back when you were in Sunday school, right?

In short, most of us have moved morality out of the boardroom and the bedroom, and into the dining room and the gym.  It no longer matters much whom or how we screw, as long as we eat right and exercise.  A BMI (body mass index, for the uninitiated—the ratio between height and weight) of 23 or less is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.  It has the advantage that it is outward and visible, very publicly so.  Nobody needs to snoop into your bedroom or read your email or do DNA testing on your girlfriend’s dress to ascertain that you are saved or damned, as the case may be. (Although, interestingly enough, the thing people of both sexes are most likely to lie about on internet dating sites is their weight.)

Now that we have assigned a major moral value to physical fitness, of course, we can start theologizing about its particulars.  How many calories can dance on the point of a pin?  Are we saved by faith or by works?  Specifically, what causes the “obesity epidemic” which (we are told several times a day in every organ of the mass media) now afflicts the US and is spreading (you should pardon the expression) to the four corners of the earth from here?  And how can it be stopped?

There is the hardcore predestinarian view:  everybody has a “set point” of weight, to which they tend eventually to return after every binge or diet.  It is probably genetic, or at least congenital.  The “morbidly obese” person may have an abnormally high set point, as a result of glandular abnormality or some other genetic problem.  The rest of us, by the time we reach middle age, can count on looking a lot like our parents at the same age, barring really unusual circumstances.

There is the equally hardcore moralistic view:  obesity is caused by taking in more calories than you work off.  You eat too much and don’t move around enough.  You’re lazy and gluttonous.  The cure is to eat less and move more.  If you claim to be doing that and you still don’t lose weight, you’re obviously lying, at least to yourself and possibly to everybody.  You’re a sinner, and you’re damned, damned, I tell you!

(The corollary to this approach is that losing weight by any means other than diet and exercise is cheating, even if it works, and even if it significantly improves the patient’s health. For instance, recent research has shown that liposuction and bariatric surgery can help people with Type II diabetes lower their blood sugar, often to the point of no longer needing medication.  Most doctors, however, refuse to perform such procedures on drastically overweight people who are not willing to promise to “do penance and amend their lives” afterwards.)

Then there’s the “salvation by faith” approach: obesity is caused by stress, and the cure is to relax.  Sleep more and better.  Use exercise as a means of relaxation.  Diet by eating less but eating stuff you really like, and eating slowly.  And if that still doesn’t work, accept yourself as you are and work on just keeping yourself healthy and happy.

There are fringe-group views, such as the “obesity virus,” and the attribution of obesity to various chemicals in our food or our environment.  And there is the “peccate fortiter [sin boldly]” school of thought, whose evangelists tell us that we all need to accept our inner [and outer] fat selves, stop discriminating against and harassing the fat people among us, and live with obesity, no matter what causes it.

I’m certainly no expert on what causes obesity.  I’m not sure there is any such expertise among us these days.  Probably one of the causes is just that we are, as a society, accustomed to eating like farm workers and stevedores, even though we now work like code monkeys and telephone marketers.  We have systematically squeezed almost every erg of physical exertion out of our paid work, without decreasing our caloric intake correspondingly.

Let’s look at this a bit more closely.  Most of us have three kinds of time: paid work, unpaid work, and leisure.  As stated above, our paid work almost never involves physical exertion.  At most, we will exercise one or two musculoskeletal systems, often beyond their capacity [that’s called “repetitive stress injury” and it’s the commonest source of Worker’s Comp claims], while all the others loaf. Most of us don’t do any systematic physical labor in our unpaid work time either.  So if we’re going to get in any physical exertion, we have to crowd it into our already scanty leisure time, where it competes with family interaction, dating, entertainment, and other much more attractive pastimes.  Mostly, of course, it loses the competition. Surprise.

And then there’s eating.  Which is just about the only source of physical pleasure we can engage in in public and while working.  It is a social activity. Often, it is a political activity (almost every candidate gains weight during a campaign. The ones who don’t are probably concealing a serious health problem.)  Sometimes it is even a competitive sport (see “American Pie.”)  It is also, in many faiths, a religious observance.  (A real one, I mean, not just a metaphor.)

So, whatever the reason, we should not be surprised that the visible outcome of eating + exercise is an important social marker.  This is nothing new.  In pre-industrial times, being fat was a sign of wealth and importance.  Look at the paintings of the Dutch Masters.  Read the Victorians. Read Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.  The irresistible Grushenka would be, by modern standards, a cow. 

Back when the ordinary lower-class worker did physical labor, outdoors, and thereby became thin and tanned, his betters distinguished themselves by being pale and plump.  But beginning in the 1920s, more and more ordinary lower-class workers did sedentary, or at most single-muscle, labor, indoors.  They became plump and pale.  Those who had leisure time in which to do physical exercise outdoors could distinguish themselves by being thin and tanned.  Now that we have discovered the medical dangers of excessive tanning, we are backing off from valuing it as a component of beauty.  But thin is still in.

There has probably always been a wide difference between the ideal of physical beauty and the reality of how most people looked.  And it has probably always been weighted (you should pardon the expression) in favor of the rich and against ordinary working people.  But that difference is wider now than it has been in a long time.  The Ideal (rich) Woman is thinner and the Real (working-class) Woman is fatter than ever before. 

And, as mentioned earlier, we are putting more and more of our moral energy into issues of body mass than ever before.  There’s nothing new about trying to distinguish Good People from Bad People on the basis of how they look.  It’s pure moral laziness, but it’s purely natural.  It just takes a lot less work than getting to know an individual as an individual.

Human beings have always tried to base their moral valuations of people on things that could be easily seen.  That’s where racism comes from.  White people did not decide to discriminate against black people because they had been slaves. We decided to make them slaves because they were black.  And, when we stopped keeping them as slaves, they were still black, so we could still discriminate against them.

Sometimes, we made the process even easier, by requiring certain people to look different from the rest of us, and then basing our moral valuation of them on that difference.  Prostitutes, for instance, have often been required to dress differently, or dye their hair a particular color, so that they would not be mistaken for respectable women.  In Christian Europe, Jews were often required to wear distinguishing costume.

Full disclosure:  my husband is extremely overweight.  When he is getting to know someone, he often feels obliged to explain that he was not always this way.  He used to exercise, he used to be fit (it’s true, too.)  But now he has an illness that makes exercise impossible.  He doesn’t eat all that much (less than I do, most of the time.)  But he feels ashamed, and guilty, about his weight.  Probably most people who see him think he should. 

In fact, there are lots of reasons for people to be overweight, other than gluttony and sloth.  Working-class women spend most of their time in paid and unpaid labor, with no time for exercise, and no pleasures other than socializing around food.  Children in bad neighborhoods are often kept indoors for their own safety.   And some people have medical conditions that make exercise impossible.  All of these people have more than enough burdens.  We don’t need to go out of our way to add to them.

Yes, obesity can be bad for the health.  But so are shame and guilt, especially when, in most instances, “amending one’s life” is either impossible or possible only at the price of ignoring most of one’s other commitments.  And our current obsession with food and fitness is really bad for our social health.  It is a pure waste of moral energy.  It is a distraction from the urgent real issues that confront us today.  It is one more easy excuse for discriminating against poor people.  It is one more burden we lay upon women, who already have too much to do.  It is one more way we mess up the lives of girls.

So how about another New Year resolution?  Resolve today to use the words “sin,” “vice,” and “virtue” at least once a week each, in some context other than diet and exercise.  And be nice to a fat person today.

Jane Grey 

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