Celebrating All Bodies

written on 12 April 2021 by Indy Hollway

Art by Nat Iwata

Trigger Warning: This piece talks about disordered eating. Although there is no graphic description of events, please read cautiously.

In terms of the body positivity movement, I am still a work in progress. I still spend time looking in the mirror, pulling my stomach in, or asking my husband those most dangerous of words “do I look fat in this?” But my brain has slowly started to compute, and sometimes I remember to love my stomach the way it is and hope that my husband will answer me: “so what if you do?” I have to remind myself time and time again that I may not yet be comfortable wearing a bikini on the beach, but if 13 year old me could see me now, eating food until I’m full and celebrating myself, re-evaluating my internalised fatphobia, she wouldn’t believe her eyes.

When I was a young teenager, I was solely focused on looking skinny and edgy. I would often skip breakfast and lunch, curbing the hunger with cigarettes, and I would have skipped dinner if my family didn’t have sit down meals. If somebody asked why I hadn’t eaten I would never say it was because I wanted to be thin, I would say I had forgotten or there was nothing in the cupboard at home. When I was 15/16 I experienced a resurgence of the asthma and eczema I had struggled with as a child, which completely changed my relationship with my body. I was now finding that certain foods made me feel uncomfortable, and I was skipping meals because I was scared of how foods would make me feel, as opposed to focusing on what I looked like.

It wasn’t until I was 17, and I had to go on the biggest elimination diet of my life, that I started to appreciate food, but even now I not only struggle with the size of my body but also with remnants of disordered eating caused by years of bad relationships. A lot of people struggle with body image, especially women who are constantly told that to be thin is to be beautiful. Fatphobia is so entrenched in us that we uplift non-scientific governmental structures, fund flawed healthcare programmes, and even let it into the church.

The church should be incompatible with all forms of judgment and hatred, and fatphobia is no exception. We are so easy to celebrate “we are fearfully and wonderfully made” and so quick to endorse diet trends, weight loss programmes, and fitness regimes. This is not about encouraging people to feel and be healthy: the connection we have between thinness and healthiness is categorically incorrect, there is no one body type that epitomises health. We take the verse “do you not know your body is a temple” to mean we should beautify ourselves to society’s standards, and adorn ourselves with thinness. Or we can go the exact opposite direction and preach about how happy we should be that we have fully functioning bodies that work so hard to keep us alive, thus falling into unnecessary ableism. It’s a difficult trap.

When I first wandered into the church in my late teens, I did not find the culture around food welcoming. Even though I did not take communion until I was baptised, the idea of a communal table of bread and wine was a horror, even in my church where the juice was metered out into separate cups. As well as that, the way that Christians connect is most often over dinner, something that I really had to adjust to. Don’t get me wrong, I love this part of our community, and it is how my husband and I connect to people now. There is something special about sharing a meal together, but for those of us who have broken relationships with food, it can be daunting and uncomfortable.

Then there’s the fasting. In my legalistic baby Christian days, I tearily asked my now husband if I would have to fast to be a Christian. Fasting can bring up memories and patterns in people who are recovering from disordered eating, and it is not always the right choice. I’ve been lucky that my churches have never cast judgment on people who don’t fast for whatever reason, but I have had people ask me why I don’t fast which is an uncomfortable position to be in (maybe they’ll read this article and finally discover why I duck out of those conversations).

When discussing this article with my husband, we tried to come up with some practical ways that the church can move away from fatphobia and health obsession, and help those who have a past (or present) of disordered eating:

  • Awareness is key. We must become aware of our biases and biases in the church. We must move away from fatphobic comments and thought patterns, and call these out as much as possible. The church should not be a place of diet plans and exercise groups with the aim of ‘losing those pandemic pounds’, (as the amazing Heidi Carrington Heath says: Diet culture exists to help us avoid and fight against the fear of death) but must instead be a place where we continuously try to live in Biblical truths. (Google ‘fatphobia and the church’ to start).
  • Sensitivity and choice are so important. Meals in the Bible are a celebration, they’re a time to thank God for all he has done, and they are a wonderful way to connect with new people and build community. However, we must make these meals as accessible as possible. Simple things like making sure that our guests know it’s okay to eat, letting them choose their own portion sizes, telling guests in advance what they will be eating, and not serving messy or complex foods can really help. We aren’t canceling meal culture, we are encouraging acceptance and building a family.
  • Don’t ask prying questions. It should go without saying but if somebody says they can’t eat a certain food, or they don’t want to eat at all, then don’t ask them why.

What I hope has come across in this article is that the church is dealing with real people with multifaceted lives and that our celebration of diversity should be in all areas of life. We have to be careful, and love each person with an intersectional view: walking alongside them in their personal struggle, and not trying to fit them into a mold. Because, in the end, fatphobia, ableism, and any image promotion is just another way of trying to force someone to become ‘the model Christian’: a mythical creature that does not exist. We need to find a way to celebrate all bodies.