Weight Watchers has recently aired new ads featuring beloved media icon Oprah Winfrey. “Inside every overweight woman,” she begins in one of the new ads, “is a woman she knows she can be. Many times you look in the mirror and you don’t even recognize your own self because you got lost—buried—in the weight that you carry.” Winfrey goes on to speak of her ups and downs with weight loss, saying, “Nothing you’ve ever been through is wasted. So every time I tried and failed, and every time I tried again, and every time I tried again, has brought me to this most powerful moment, to say, ‘If not now, when?’”Instead of setting the oppressed free, many churches are reinforcing the oppressive physical standards of secular culture. Instead of proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor, they are encouraging adherence to Oprah’s “year of our best bodies”.
These ads, which strategically debuted while I was preparing, along with millions of other Americans, for the family’s holiday feast on Christmas Eve, are part of the new Weight Watchers campaign to take the focus off the number on the scale. Fittingly called “Beyond the Scale“, it is a refreshing idea for many overweight people that there is no perfect number for them to achieve (BMI included). According to another commercial in the new campaign, Oprah doesn’t have a specific dress or a pair of jeans or even an event she’s working towards. Presumably, she is after comfort in her own skin and health for its own sake. “I’m really just looking at 2016 as the year of my best body.” She invites us to join her: “That’s what I want for you, too. Let’s let 2016 be the year of our best bodies.”
The response to these ads has been mixed, for various reasons. Some have gushed over the ads as empowering and emotional. Others have called Oprah out for perpetuating the idea that happiness can’t exist at any size. And it is important to remember that behind Oprah’s message is a bottom line. Even so, the message of her advertisements are powerful—even though I may have screwed up a lot before, Oprah tells us, change is possible, and there is no magic number for me to reach.
For many people in the Church, Oprah’s words offer hope for their struggle with weight loss, self-image, and desire for acceptance. Her words could even been seen to echo truth from Scripture (Romans 8:28, 2 Corinthians 6:2). However, the question presents itself: is she right about overweight people, that buried under the fat is their true self?
Our Bodies are the Temple of the Holy Spirit. Right?
Christians tout verses like 1 Peter 3:3-4 and 1 Samuel 16:7, claiming to value a person’s character over external appearance. Unless that person is overweight. Then the discussion shifts to proper stewardship of the body God has given you. This is the Christianized version of “It’s okay if you’re ugly, but not if you’re fat.” Secular activists might call this thin privilege and criticize these realities a result of a culture that participates in fat shaming. Christians, in contrast, might not see it this way, thinking that they are just trying to help their overweight brothers and sisters live a fuller life.
When Christians talk about weight issues in the Church, 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 usually comes up: “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (ESV). Another popular verse to use in the context of physical fitness and spirituality is Romans 12:1, which says, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (ESV).
How many churches promote the message—intentionally or accidentally—that the power of God is most clearly seen is us when we are thin or physically fit? Many Christians think that to be progressing in your spiritual walk with the Lord necessarily means that an overweight person should focus on getting healthier.
Fat Acceptance in the Church
Christian fat acceptance advocate J. Nicole Morgan promotes a different take on overweight people. For Morgan, to be fat and to be a Christian are not at odds. She runs Fat Faith, a Facebook community dedicated to the intersection of fatness and faith. The tagline for the community page is “You are enough. You are not too much.” I asked Morgan why she chose that particular phrase. “It’s addressing what were my standard anxieties about being fat,” she answered, “that I was simultaneously not enough of a Christian because I was fat, while my fat also made me too much of a literal body—to fit comfortably, to find good clothes, to be viewed as acceptable.”
In an article for Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics blog, “God Loves My Fat Body As It Is,” Morgan shares part of her experience as a fat Christian.
As a teen, I thought that being a good, effective Christian meant being thin. Fatness was associated with a lack of self-control, one of the fruits of the Spirit. So I came to view my weight as an outward sign that I must not really believe or obey. I was terrified that my witness would be hampered by the size of my thighs. Surely no one would believe in the power of the Resurrected Christ if his Spirit wasn’t strong enough to keep me from gaining weight.
These days Morgan chooses to glorify God in her body in a different way. “I was so used to acknowledging what my body couldn’t do. Now I celebrate what it does do instead of what everyone thinks it should do.” One example of this is the way that Morgan celebrates how naturally strong her body is; she is proud of that strength.
The Danger of Perpetuating Secular Standards
One cannot look at an overweight person and assume they are mired in sin. There are many reasons that people are overweight. Yes, the causes of weight gain and weight retention may be connected to a person’s emotional or spiritual struggles, but weight loss is a complicated issue. Many people assume that overweight people are lazy or ignorant, but such an assumption can come from arrogance and result in a sort of oppression — the opposite of the message the Church should bring to overweight people.
The message that the kingdom of God is best demonstrated by healthy people, unintentional as it may be, is contrary to the Gospel and damaging to people created in the image of God. The danger of this message is that people who don’t meet the subliminal or overt physical standards will discount what they have to offer to their brothers and sisters in the Church. They will feel like second-class citizens in the kingdom, but the truth is that every body can love and serve God.
Jesus Loves Every Body and We Should, Too
“Jesus loves everyBody” is one of the principles of the fitness program Refit Revolution (c). When I interviewed Angela Beeler, its CEO and co-founder, she explained the vision behind the company she runs with co-founders Catherine Ballas and Emily Field.
“Access to fitness has never been easier,” Beeler says, given the ubiquity of online programs and pop-up fitness centers on every corner. However, “most fitness programs are designed for the fit. [We see] a greater marginalization of women who are just starting their journey.” Beeler and her colleagues focus on getting people moving and helping them get where they want to go.
Sometimes becoming more active means people will lose weight, but sometimes it just means they are enjoying themselves in a fitness setting. A particular body image is not the goal, and Refit supports this in its marketing, including people of all different shapes and sizes.
Just as Beeler and Refit Revolution are moving past the fitness stereotypes to reach out to people who don’t fit the mold, the Church needs to be intentional to make sure overweight people know that they are accepted, loved, and valued, just as they are.
It is easy for our churches to begin conforming to the cultural norm, to believe that to be successful in life — and in the life of the Church — you need to be the best you that you can possibly be, and that means being thin or physically fit. The mission of Jesus and his Church is presented by the Lord himself in Luke 4, and it involves proclaiming good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. But instead of setting the oppressed free, many churches are reinforcing the oppressive physical standards of secular culture. Instead of proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor, they are encouraging adherence to Oprah’s “year of our best bodies”.
This is not the message of the Gospel; it is an Americanization of the Gospel. The message the Church sends to overweight people needs not to be “Come to church for your best body” or “Bring your best body to church.” On the contrary, the Church should offer a counter message like this: “You are created in the image of God. You are loved and accepted as you are. Rest in his love for you and let’s seek God together. You have something unique and valuable to bring to the table.”
Enjoying the fullness of life in the Church doesn’t begin when you shed the extra weight you’re carrying, no matter what Oprah says.