Dieting, Sex, Jesus: The Body as Moral Battleground

What inspired you to write Seeking the Straight and Narrow?

This book is the result of a few different interests coming together in one project. The first is an ongoing interest I’ve had in body size and fat politics. I had been engaged in fat activist community, conversation, and action for a number of years and I wanted to take the opportunity that academic work provides to really hone in on questions that always engaged me: how has fatness come to have such a potent moral charge in American culture? Why do weight loss practices such as dieting generate such strong moral and religious feelings—and why do people use languages of virtue and vice, sin and salvation—to talk about them? And how do fat people navigate the highly moralized webs within which they live their lives?

I wanted to contribute to a critical analysis of fatness in American culture. But I didn’t want to focus just on fatness. I was very aware of how difficult it is for most people to develop and maintain a critical perspective on this issue, especially when words like “health,” “morbidity,” and “death” are raised; words that are often halt critical thinking about fat in its tracks. So I was in search of a case or an issue that would be a productive conversation partner with fatness.

Another inspiration for the project was some reading I was doing in social theory and specifically the work of Pierre Bourdieu. In writing about social movements in general, and feminism in particular, Bourdieu says that movements for change need to focus not only on consciousness (and consciousness-raising) but to intervene in the bodily practices that are part and parcel of how social power works. In reading that I remembered a documentary film I had seen on the ex-gay movement, One Nation Under God. The film documents the movement and tells the story of two early leaders of that movement who renounced it after they fell in love. Knowing very little about the ex-gay movement at the time and remembering the scenes of butch women getting makeovers as part of changing their sexual orientation, I thought that ex-gay ministries would be an interesting case for testing Bourdieu’s idea, raising the challenge of what happens when bodies prove less malleable to social intervention than his theory suggests.

The two came together when I read Marie Griffith’s fantastic book Born Again Bodies: Flesh and Spirit in American Christianity. The book discusses many different moments in the vast and varied American religious practices around food, dieting, and the body, including contemporary evangelical weight loss programs. At the time I didn’t know such things existed. But reading the book made it clear that Christian weight loss was a great way to investigate the moral and religious construction of fatness. And the comparison with ex-gay ministries seemed like a productive way to explore how certain bodies and bodily desires become morally charged, how people try to change them, and what happens when those bodies and desires prove resistant to change.

What’s the most important take-home message for readers?

That religion is both central to and often invisible in many Western bodily projects. It shapes the moral norms and values which fuel projects of bodily change and its practices provide disciplines that are believed to effect change. And, as in many other areas of life and culture, religious hopes and physical realities are often in a complicated dance. Or, in the words of historian Hillel Schwartz, “In faith (as in dieting), no disappointment, however great, is final.”

Is there anything you had to leave out?

I left out a lot of interesting historical material on the connections and overlaps between homosexuality and fatness and eating in American culture. There’s an article to be written on American moral crusaders who wrote about both issues. Peter Wyden, an executive editor of Ladies’ Home Journal, wrote popular books on each, and there are others. I wasn’t able to include much on fatness, weight loss, and social class—an issue that interests me a great deal and that I’ve written about elsewhere.

What’s the biggest misconception about your topic?

There are so many. I think in terms of weight loss, it’s that fatness is self-evidently bad, that fatness on bodies has moral meaning, and that dieting and weight loss is quotidian and harmless at worst, and a moral mandate at best. The discourse surrounding weight loss and dieting has concrete effects on people of all sizes in terms of access to health care, employment, education, etc. And the focus on changing personal health practices for the purposes of losing weight can really backfire when people stop making positive changes in their lives because the number on a scale doesn’t change.

In terms of ex-gay ministries I think it is the perception that people who engage in these ministries are in deep denial and are self-deluded. Some probably are. But many whom I spoke with who have been in these ministries for years or decades foster no illusions about having become heterosexual. What they do know is that they have made a sacrifice of their desires for their faith; a sacrifice they believe their faith requires of them. That is a very different position to take and one that is far more understandable to me, even if I don’t agree with it. Being ex-gay is very different than simply passing as straight; it’s a far more complicated combination of recognition and denial.

In terms of evangelical culture, I think, from the perspective of outsiders, the biggest misconception is that it’s so different from mainstream American culture. The crossover between evangelical and secular self-help culture—whether it’s T. D. Jakes’ gigs on The Dr. Phil Show or Dr. Oz speaking at Saddleback church rally for the Daniel Plan, a new Christian weight loss program—makes evident the deep, mutual interests and practices in both.

Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?

I had a lot of audiences in mind and I kept imaging them fighting with each other (and with me): interview respondents, other conservative Christians, secular academics, fat activists, GLBT activists, GLBT Christians, liberal people of faith. Eventually I had to evict them from my mind just so I could get some writing done.

Did you write to entertain, or to inform, or to piss people off?

Sociologists often talk about making the familiar strange and the strange familiar. I’d be happy if readers came away from the book seeing dieting as more complicated, and more problematic, than they had previously thought and efforts at sexual reorientation more akin to popular self-help culture than they would assume. If evangelical readers found Christian practices somewhat strange and non-Christian readers found them oddly familiar, that would be great too.

Is there a book you wish you had written?

The book that was always in the back of mind when I started this project was Linda Gordon’s The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction because I loved how she conveyed so much about race and American culture through the telling of one story. I don’t think my book bears much resemblance, but it was an inspiration. While writing it I fell in love with Richard Callahan’s Work and Faith in the Kentucky Coal Fields because of how he wrote about the intersections of the body, class, and faith. I also became persuaded of the power of fiction while writing this book and this is where my true writing envy lies. Recently I’ve been swooning over Barb Johnson’s More of This World and Maybe Another, Nicole Krauss’ Great House and Rebecca Brown’s The Gifts of the Body among many others.

What alternate title would you give the book?

It was called “Ruling the Unruly Body” for a long time. I still think that’s a great title for something.

How do you feel about the cover?

I love the visual metaphor and all it conveys about the book. And I love the little white cross at the top of the mountain.

What’s your next book?

I’m doing some research on a GLBT church in San Francisco and its response to HIV/AIDS. I’m pretty sure there’s a book in there somewhere.