Todays post is an exploration of a modern day religion that has resulted from several decades of weight normative and anti-fat narratives. I like to call it the church of healthism.
For those of you who don’t know, I grew up without a religion but in my early twenties, I joined an evangelical Christian church. My first church collapsed after the pastor was arrested for sexual assault and money laundering. I left my second church after a visiting speaker celebrated the death of several hundred Nigerian Muslims by claiming it was God’s will. By the time I got to my third church, I was pretty wary. But this one stuck.
It was a Penetcostal church, and for many years I was a Sunday School teaching, Bible preaching, born-again Christian. I got up at 6am to pray. I believed that God loved sinners but hated sin, and that the only way into God’s kingdom was if you confessed your sin and accepted Jesus as your Lord and Saviour. You can imagine how that went down with my Jewish family, but that is a story for a different day.
When you say Church you mean….
During that time I met some truly wonderful people whose faith was inspiring and whose hearts were in the right place. Some of my closest friends and confidantes are part of the church today, and they have never once rebuked or rejected me, even when I left the church altogether and gave up on religion. They love me as I am and accept me as I am, so I want to make it very clear right from the start that I don’t have a problem with Christians and I would never dream of insulting anyone’s faith.
This post is about churches. Not the buildings but what they have come to represent in the 21st Century. Not all churches are Christian and I suppose I really ought to replace the word church with “place of worship”. But that isn’t half as catchy, so you’ll have to forgive me for my laziness and accept that I am using the word very loosely.
Not all churches are bad. Many of them are great. But in my experience, the bad ones are truly awful.
Why I struggled with Church
I struggled at church for a number of different reasons. To begin with, I was encouraged not to question the status quo. Which, as I am sure you’ve figured out already, doesn’t exactly come easy to me. Whenever I would ask why, I was told “that’s just the way we do things around here”. Or better yet, “are you questioning God’s will?”
The problem with not being allowed to question the people in charge and the rules that they are enforcing, is that they can get away with things that they wouldn’t normally be allowed to get away with. You trust them with your money, your health, your secrets, and your well-being. And that’s a lot of power to hand over to someone whom you are never allowed to question.
The rules are rigid
Some churches have a dress code. Most will have strict rules around relationships and sexuality. From the really big stuff to the tiny minutiae, church has your life all mapped out for you. And that’s not ideal for the non conformists among us. Most of the churches I have been to, and I have been to quite a few, seemed to be filled with people who walked and talked and behaved like each other.
You rarely saw a person with lots of tattoos or bright coloured hair. Girls weren’t allowed to reveal too much flesh and men were encouraged to dress up in their Sunday best. And anytime a person strayed too far outside the rules, they were swiftly brought back in to the fold. Or they were quietly and politely asked to leave.
Church leaders have too much power
The pastor of my first church looked at me in a way that made me feel uncomfortable. I wasn’t surprised to find out down the line that he was having sex with minors. I was twenty when I first joined but I looked younger, and the first time I met him he gave me the creeps. Every Sunday without fail, he would quote from the book of Malachi, chapter 3, verses 8-10.
“Will a man rob God?”
Turns out that was exactly what he was doing. The congregation was several thousand strong by the time he was arrested. He used to drive around in a Mercedes, lived in a nice home and always dressed in designer clothes. From what I understand, he plead guilty to the charges, served his time and is now the pastor of another large church a few miles down the road. His name was Pastor Douglas Goodman. Look him up.
Churches attract people in need
When I was eighteen, my parents kicked me out of the house. They turned my room in to an office, threw out all the stuff that I couldn’t take with me to university, and told me I wasn’t allowed to come back. Our relationship was fractious and I was desperately searching for the things that I wasn’t getting from home. Love. Acceptance. Family.
There was very little that I was not prepared to do for that family. I gave up friendships. I commuted on a train for over an hour each way twice a week. At one stage, I even moved house. I would have done anything for my church family, but when push came to shove, they were never really there for me when I needed them. In fact, as soon as I stopped coming to Sunday service, they stopped calling.
Churches are full of poor, needy and vulnerable people who are desperate for someone to show them a little love and kindness. And as long as the leader of the church respects and is willing to honor this, then all is well. But that is not always the case. I was bullied in church. A lot. I experienced a lot of emotional trauma that has taken me years to overcome and raked up a fair amount in therapy bills. Speaking of money, I cannot begin to tell you how much my husband and I gave as tithes and offerings. I shudder to even think about it.
The focus is on exclusion
I have read all four gospels on more than one occasion and I can tell you with absolute certainty that the gospel of Jesus Christ is one of love and inclusion. I am not an expert on other religions, so I cannot speak for them. But in my experience it is the interpretation of the holy books rather than the books themselves that turn religion from one of inclusion to one of exclusion.
The church focuses a lot of on sex and sexual partners. It is also interested in your job, your politics, your extracurricular activities and how you raise your children. Unless you meet certain expectations you can never really be part of the inner circle. It’s the whole “love the sinner hate the sin” theory of Christian doctrine. I left the church because they refused to accept my gay son. If I can love him exactly how he is, then I assume that God can too.
The church of healthism
From what I have gathered so far, here is a summary of the tenets of the church of healthism:
- A person’s worth is determined by their health
- Health is something that we can control
- We are responsible for improving our own health
- We owe society a debt of health
- People in poor health are a drain on society. The healthy few end up paying for the lazy, unhealthy masses.
- Good health should be our number one priority
- You cannot be fat and healthy
- Fatness is a sign of weakness and lack of self respect
- Fatness can be cured by eating less and moving more
- Everyone can lose weight if they try hard enough
- BMI is a perfectly good measure of health and any health professional that disagrees is not fit for purpose
- It is OK to discriminate against fat people
Thinness, health and human worth are not actually synonymous with eachother
I want to make it clear right now that I disagree with every single one of these statements.
A person’s worth is not determined by their health
Look at Stephen Hawking or Marie Curie or every single disabled person that ever lived. This kind of thinking is abelism at its finest and I want nothing to do with it.
Health is not something that we can control
Genetics, early childhood experiences, our environment and our chronic stress levels all have a huge impact on our health. We can try and improve our health by optimizing certain behaviors, but in many cases that doesn’t really make much of a difference. I have many patients that change their whole life in order to bring their cholesterol down and are devastated when we retest 6 months later and find very little change.
Who says we are responsible for improving our own health?
The notion that health is an individual’s responsibility is also a very unrealistic one. To start with, if that were the case then I wouldn’t have a job to go to (and that will never do). If you want to improve the health of a nation you need to invest in better infrastructure, better education (especially for women) and easy access to family planning. I learned that in 10th grade Geography.
Enough with the blaming
We do not owe society anything.
Nobody owes society a debt of health
That’s the whole point of living in a free and democratic country. We are all entitled to basic human rights, no matter how much we contribute. But “health is 90% about hard work and only 10% to do with our environment.. If you eat well, exercise often, don’t smoke or drink or take drugs, then you will remain in good health.” Blah blah blah.
First of all, no one has the right to expect us to make choices that are supposedly in the best interest of our health. In fact, if a patient came to see me tomorrow and refused a life-saving treatment, and I deemed them to have capacity to make that decision, there is absolutely nothing I could do to try and change their minds. I couldn’t insist they took the treatment because society demands it of them! Don’t be daft.
We are not a drain on society
Oh, and by the way, the NHS is funded by taxpayers. We are all taxpayers. Even if you aren’t currently earning any money and do not pay income tax, every time you go to a shop and buy something, 20% of it is VAT. That stands for Value Added Tax, so we are all taxpayers. If we are really going to argue that some people should be entitled to NHS care more than others because of how much they use versus how much they contribute then I would like to point out that I pay a good deal of tax and haven’t needed to see a doctor in almost 5 years.
Good health is not my number one priority
There, I said it. It’s definitely up there in my top ten. But I would rather be a good person who made a difference to the people around her than someone that gets to live long enough to receive a card from his/her majesty. And that is my choice. We all get to make that choice. There is nothing wrong with people who chose happiness or even laziness over health. We don’t get to make moral choices for each other. If I want to eat a pizza and skip leg day then I bloody well will, thank you very much.
Fat does not equate to poor health
As far as the world is concerned, fat and unhealthy are synonymous with each other. I respectfully disagree.
You can be fat and healthy
People have written books about this. I refuse to discuss it any further. Please just take the time to read the evidence and if that isn’t enough, look around. There are plenty of fat healthy people out there and there are also plenty of thin unhealthy people too.
Being fat is not a sign of weakness and lack of self respect
Anti-fat bias comes in many forms. The majority of people dislike fat people, blame them for their weight gain, and fear becoming fat themselves. They presume that fat people are greedy, self-loathing people who lack discipline and willpower. Newsflash folks. That’s just your bias talking. It’s not actually true. I cannot begin to tell you how hard I have worked and how much I have sacrificed in pursuit of the “perfect body”. Just because I have given up on that pursuit does not make me lazy or weak. It’s because I respect myself that I am no longer on a diet.
Eating less and moving more does not translate into long term weight loss
Oh and by the way, fatness is not a disease. But even if it were, you can’t cure it by eating less and exercising more. I know some people are convinced that the first law of thermodynamics applies here and it is a simple matter of calories in versus calories out. But that is just a load of bulls**t. Do you really think the body is that simple? Thousands of years of evolution have prevented us from starving to death. Restricting calories is what got most of us in to the mess we are in to begin with. If I hadn’t started dieting before the age of 10, I wouldn’t look the way I look today. That’s what the evidence tells us.
The weight normative narrative
We have reached a stage in society whereby anyone who disagrees with the weight normative narrative is labelled a “deluded moron” or something to that effect. But I believe society has to become a weight inclusive one.
Not everyone is thin because they try hard and trying hard does not make you thin
Almost anyone can lose weight if they try. But keeping it off is a completely different matter, which is why almost everyone gains the weight back. And that is why the church of healthism is such a profitable one. That’s why their leaders are driving a Mercedes Benz, living in fancy houses and wearing designer clothing. Because a lot of them are actually just pedaling weight loss. And their congregation keeps coming back over and over again because they can’t survive without what their leaders are selling.
BMI is a terrible measure of health
It always has been. According to a report by the house of commons, “it has been widely reported that historically BMI was established as a measure of health for populations rather than individuals, and was based on studies of European men. It has been argued that BMI does not give an accurate portrayal of health, particularly for BAME groups and women”. If you want to learn more about this, Christine Byrne has written a fantastic article on it for HuffPost.
Discrimination is always wrong
BMI has been used as a means of oppressing fat people for the last 40 years. Ever since the powers that be started using it as a way of measuring health and condemning people by labeling them with the “diagnosis” of ob*sity, it has become acceptable to discriminate against us. We are not entitled to certain operations. Our insurance premiums are higher. We cannot get assistance with fertility. Fat people who belong to other minority groups, such as black and/or queer women, experience this oppression the most. Some argue it is a form of eugenics.
Why I decided to call it the “Church” of Healthism
When I see certain well known “fitness professionals” and “well-being experts” online, they remind me of my former pastors. They are charming, self-assured and they know how to hold an audience captive. They ooze power and confidence and they inspire devotion. Interestingly many of them lack the qualifications and experience that you’d expect from someone so powerful and popular, but they make up for it with other things.
Their fans are zealots. They are fanatical about fitness and they have no problems conforming to the rigid rules and high expectations that are put in place by their leaders on high. They genuinely believe that anyone that does not subscribe to their way of thinking is immoral and wrong. Many of them think it is OK to bully and attack individuals who speak out against them. Some might call them fanatics, fundamentalists or extremists.
The church of healthism fosters a sense of moral superiority and exclusivity. You can only gain entry if you demonstrate that you place the “pursuit of health” above all other things. It’s human nature to want to feel like you’re better than everyone else. Deep down inside, there is a part of every single one of us that is determined to feel superior and have someone to blame for all the things that are wrong with the world. Some of us learn to ignore it. Others have no concerns about expressing it freely.
Not all believers
Not all religious folk are zealots. In fact, in my experience, some of the best people I know follow a religion and regularly attend a place of worship. Their faith inspires kindness, compassion, and sacrifice which I greatly admire. The religious fanatics and fundamentalists represent a very small proportion of any religion or church, but they somehow manage to make the most amount of noise. And as a result, they are the people that we associate with that particular belief system.
It’s a shame really. Not all religious leaders are bad people. I just happened to get a bad bunch. A criminal and rapists , an Islamaphobe, and then there was Kenny. My husband and I adored Kenny. In our eyes, he could do no wrong. We were members of his church for over 10 years. In fact, my husband joined the church when he was sixteen, and the only reason we went looking for another one for a time was because we were at university and it was too far away.
Why I left church
I put up with the bullying and the ritual humiliation that I experienced at the hands of various elders and deacons within the church because I believed in Kenny. I believed God was working through him. Then in June 2012, I suffered a miscarriage. It happened on a Saturday and I sat on the toilet as I bled all the way through the night. I woke up on Sunday feeling like there was a boulder on my chest crushing me. Not because I had just lost a baby, but because I couldn’t stomach the idea of another Sunday morning service at church again.
So I turned to my husband and told him I could never go back there. And I started going to a different church down the road. My husband made the choice to follow me, and he went to Pastor Kenny to tell him that the time had come for us to move on. Kenny advised him that it was better to divorce me than to follow me. He told my husband that I was the devil trying to tempt him because I “wore the trousers” in the relationship. Wives were meant to submit to their husbands, and clearly he had made a mistake when he chose to marry me.
The difference between faith and religion
My husband walked out of Pastor Kenny’s office and never returned again. You see, my husband is a man of God. His Christian faith has kept him alive and made him the incredible person that he is today. One of the last things my mum ever did before she died was let my husband brush her teeth and pray for her. My mum was the one of the fiercest athiest you could meet, but she loved her son-in-law and she knew that his faith meant everything to him.
My husband prays. He reads his Bible. He knows his scripture like the back of his hand. There is no doubt in my mind that he believes. But he hasn’t seen the inside of a church for quite a few years. Because church seriously let us down, you see. In many ways, most of which I do not feel ready and able to share with you today. Church failed us and it wounded us and it damn near broke us.
But there is a difference between faith and church, and when it comes to healthism there is a difference between what you believe to be true for yourself and what you try to force on to everybody else. You can believe in the importance of staying thin. You can chose weight loss for yourself. As far as I am concerned, you can even recommend weight loss to others if they ask for your opinion in the first place. But you don’t have to become a card-carrying member of the church of healthism.