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The Worship of Slim
The Epidemic of Fat

Here are two interesting figures: 16 percent of American kids are obese; 11 percent of high-school students have an eating disorder—anorexia or bulimia. What do those stats tell us? That we eat too much? That we don't eat enough? That we eat the wrong foods? Well, they tell us this much at least: Americans have a confused and confusing relationship with food.
Thinness as Sanctity
In her riveting book Born Again Bodies, Princeton University's R. Marie Griffith charts the history of the Christian dieting industry. Modern Christian dieting began with Presbyterian pastor Charlie Shedd's 1957 book Pray Your Weight Away. Shedd insisted slenderness was a sign of discipline and righteousness, while fat was a sign of decadence and rebellion. Similar titles followed: Deborah Pierce's I Prayed Myself Slim, Joan Cavanaugh's More of Jesus, Less of Me, Patricia B. Kreml's Slim for Him. Christian aerobics videos and low-cal cookbooks appeared, and Christian dieting support groups cropped up nationwide. By the time Gwen Shamblin founded the Weigh Down Workshop, many American Protestants took for granted that "God expected Christian disciples to display fit, slender bodies." As Cavanaugh puts it in More of Jesus, Less of Me, "Being fat is basically a sign that something is seriously wrong. It is a big cover-up, and when we get serious about losing our cover, we will need a big exposure. We will need to admit that we need help, and we will have to expose our hidden faults to the healing power of God."
While not dismissing the idea that some people overeat in a misguided attempt to fulfill emotional needs, Griffith points out that this can obscure as much as it reveals. For example, obesity is strongly correlated with poverty. As Griffith notes, poor women tend to buy inexpensive, starchy, high-fat foods, not slenderizing, healthy, and often more costly choices like fresh veggies and fruit. And poor women have neither the cash nor the leisure time to join a gym. But the social critique that links poverty and obesity is generally absent from Christian dieting books.
The call is for American Christians to do better than absorbing and parroting our surrounding society's obsession with slimness. It is one thing for the church to encourage healthy living. It is quite another for the church to have uncritically embraced the idol of slimness.

The Obesity Epidemic
In Don't Eat This Book, Morgan Spurlock, best known for Super Size Me, the prize-winning film that documented Spurlock's self-imposed McMonth—30 days in which he ate nothing but food from the Golden Arches - both reprises and expands some of the themes he addressed in the film. In short, 21 percent of Americans are medically obese. Our health, of course, suffers from obesity; we spend about $17 billion dollars a year treating "high cholesterol, high blood pressure, heart disease, colon cancer … diabetes," and other "obesity-related illnesses." This obesity epidemic is relatively new—obesity began rising precipitously about 30 years ago. What was different in 1975? We ate fewer calories per day, we ate healthier food, and we exercised more. In 1970, Americans spent $6.2 billion at fast-food joints. In 2004, it was $124 billion." The industry will do whatever it takes to ensure that we keep queuing up to order their burgers and fries. And the American population is gluttonous and slothful. We are too lazy to exercise, too lazy to cook, and seemingly unable to restrain ourselves from supersizing. Thanks to Spurlock, we will at least no longer be ignorant.

Beyond Compulsiveness
These two (personal and social problems) trends—the worship of slimness and an epidemic of obesity - reflect a disordered understanding of our bodies. Instead of honoring our bodies, we either diet them away or stuff them with unhealthy fast food; both are ways of distancing ourselves from our own bodies.
Yes, we make an individual choice every time we put, or don't put, something in our mouths, but our choices are conditioned by the available options, by social expectations, and by market forces. To be sure, Christians should critique both the dieting industry and the fast-food industry. And surely Christians are called to neither gluttony nor Gnosticism.
But we can do more than critique. We can also model something radically different—a relationship to food driven by Christian notions of joy and peace—and non-compulsiveness. We can model homes and communities where people leave work in time to cook dinner, making time even to cook with our children. We can seek to eat food grown in our local communities, sending our food dollars not to conglomerates but to a farmer a few miles away. We can resist the social pressure to enroll our kids in 17 different after-school activities so that family and friends can gather around the dinner table together. We can remember that eating a meal together sits at the heart of Christian communal life—and is the very image of the kingdom of heaven (Isa. 25:6).