Please Reverend, Do Something About the Fat People

There’s a piece by David Briggs in HuffPo on the various studies suggesting that the religious have a “weight problem.” What this means is that some people have done studies and concluded that there’s an association between being religious and being more prone to obesity.

One study suggests that:

participants were more likely to be obese the more religiously active they were. Each step of the way, from those never attending worship to those attending weekly, greater religious activity was associated with significantly higher rates of obesity.

Of course, another study, also referred to in Briggs’ article, suggests that obese women are less likely to attend religious services than “healthy weight” [sic] women. Sooooo… uh, greater religious activity is associated with higher rates of obesity, except when it isn’t?

I’m not hating on Briggs, but I’m dreading the actions of all those who will use this to conclude that being religiously observant actually makes you fatter, and that fat makes you less healthy, and that therefore congregations and ministers need to DO SOMETHING ABOUT ALL THE FAT PEOPLE! But rather than pick these findings apart, it might be easier to just go through and list the hypothetical conditions under which that call to DO SOMETHING might actually be compelling:

1. It might be compelling if associations and correlations said anything about causality. But they don’t. If they did, wearing panties would put you at a sharply increased risk for becoming female, and burying yourself in dirt would put you at an increased risk for turning into a carrot. Now I suppose that living in a house with electricity does probably make you more likely to use an electric shaver, but it’s still a leap to go from there to the conclusion that everyone else has a “facial hair problem.” Age, income, overall health, and ancestry can all affect body weight, and they may also correlate with different patterns of religious activity. Perhaps these things were controlled for. (There isn’t a link to the study as far as I can tell.) If so, that’s great! But could you find confirmation that they did? I couldn’t, and until I can, I shall hold off on concluding that there’s any sort of causal relationship here. If the more religious are indeed fatter, absent further information, it does not follow that being religious makes you fatter because of LATKES!

2. It might be interesting if “obese” were not an arbitrary category. When you read “obese,” what sort of body did you picture? A body that is quite a bit larger than most people you see every day, and probably suffering physical ill effects as a result? Yeah, you might want to check that. Obese—defined as having a BMI over 30—is… well, perhaps the kind way to say it would be that the BMI, like the Bible, did not descend from heaven on little fairy wings, fully-formed, with its authority installed by unseen hands. But perhaps you are a visual learner, in which case: here ya go. Of course, it goes without saying—at least, one would hope—that it’s not a moral failure to have a big body, with or without health problems; but to hear “obese” and think “really unusually fat” is inaccurate.

3. It might be compelling if being obese necessarily made you unhealthy. But it doesn’t. The health outcomes related to body weight occur mostly at the extremes. Both extremes. The majority of people (you know, that high percentage of people in the middle of the bell curve, the ones we’re supposed to be so worried are so overweight) are not at the extremes. But the arbitrary “30” line still slices right through a pretty thick part of that curve. As Paul Campos explains, that means that if the population as a whole gains a modest amount of weight—due to overall aging, changing demographics, reduced income, changes in food distribution and consumption, or some combination of those, or something else entirely – then a whole lot of people who were just under the line go just over it. Ta-da! Instant “obesity” “epidemic.” Hmmm. I can’t imagine whose interests that might have served.

4. It might be compelling if obesity were a growing health problem, except it’s not. Aside from its connection to health being tenuous at best, obesity seems to be leveling off.

5. It might be compelling if there were any safe and reliable way to permanently turn most fat people into thin people. But there seems not to be. Of the people that lose a lot of weight, the vast majority—like nearly all of them—gain it back. Many have a little extra weight to show for their troubles. Some have seriously screwed-up metabolisms and attitudes about food. Oh, and it turns out that weight cycling (which, again, is what happens to the vast majority of people who go on diets) is actually bad for you. And weight loss surgery carries serious risks too. Now I still think people get to do things with their bodies for reasons other than maximal life preservation—freeclimbing, anyone?—but don’t pretend like everyone can easily and safely become a thin person for life.

6. It might be compelling if the rush to be “concerned” about obesity were not an obvious element of a trendy moral panic wherein fat has come to be seen as emblematic of poverty, illness, poor impulse control, failed femininity/masculinity, and overall yuckiness. Indeed, being “concerned” about fat can function as an awfully handy screen for recipients of privilege to unleash their prejudices about the poor (“Do you know how those people EAT!?”), people of color (“They like their women to be ‘thick,’ and no, I’m totally not talking out of my butt based on an unreflected-upon stereotype! I saw it on a sitcom once!”), people with disabilities (“I mean, she had to use a WALKER!”), and women for whom it generally takes less to depart from Acceptably Thin than it does for men. So actually, these studies might be interesting inasmuch as it’s telling that more than one researcher sat down and thought, “Of which population should I check the fatness levels? How about people who attend religious services a lot?”

Look: My own tradition, Christianity, has not always had the healthiest attitudes about the appetites. Appetites have too often tended to symbolize loss of control, selfishness, and compulsive behavior, for which the only antidote was too often thought to be shame and projection. You see this with sex: If we don’t vilify anyone who deviates from the ideal of celibacy or heterosexual lifelong marriage, the thinking goes, then you may as well endorse 24/7 exploitative, unkind, compulsive, unhealthy sex… the sort we imagine is undertaken by those we hate and dehumanize.

Likewise with hell. There’s this fear that if we don’t say for certain that some people are hellbound, then nobody will have any compelling reason to act kindly. We’ll all just turn into exploitative, unkind, compulsive, unhealthy hedons… just like we imagine is true of those we hate and dehumanize. And so, now, with food: if people aren’t shamed for eating “bad” foods and having “bad” bodies, why, there’s nothing to stop us from being gross gluttons who consume only deep-fried butter dipped in mayonnaise and ice cream… just like we imagine are the eating habits of those we hate and dehumanize.

Yeah, see, I don’t think that maneuver has been very helpful. It doesn’t succeed in making everyone “good.” In fact it virtually guarantees that a lot of people carry around so much fear and loathing (whether directed at themselves or at others) that they act in ways that are unkind, compulsive, and self-destructive. Which was one of the things we were trying to avoid, yes?

But think about it: if you believe you’re an actual or potential vile reprobate, might you try to cover up those feelings by using food, drugs, alcohol, or other people? Yeah, you might. Might you demonize the people who seem happy despite their not upholding very strict standards and temptation-avoidance that you’ve organized your entire life around? Uh, yeah. Might you find yourself in a situation where you do one of the “bad” things and discover you are unable to stop even when you don’t really want to do it anymore, and meanwhile you completely lack any language for talking about this with others? Indeed.

My point is: go on and eat that latke and that coffee-hour doughnut. It will probably not touch off a three-day latke/doughnut bender. If it does, then you should probably pay attention to that and maybe talk to someone… but also know that it’s probably not because you’re religious and it doesn’t make you evilbadwrong! Keep on marking the times and seasons with feasts. For heaven’s sake, that’s one of the things religious communities do best.

And by all MEANS, go on and spearhead an effort within your faith community to get rid of food deserts, hold nutrition and cooking and fitness classes, address food insecurity, make your neighborhood pedestrian-friendly, and get recess back into school days overfocused on standardized test prep. You don’t need fear of fat to make any of those things worth doing. Indeed, you might find that in your faith tradition, those kinds of neighborly behaviors have always been religiously valued—since long before there was any sort of obesity “crisis.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *