Being fat is not a sin

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This morning I ran across this article on Instagram: Everything you know about obesity is wrong, by Michael Hobbes and his team. Hobbes makes a startling point: that the blame for fatness – and it is very much blame – is still laid at the feet of the wrong things, like willpower and self-control, rather than increasingly unhealthy food systems and proven research that for most people, weight loss diets just don’t work.

It’s a fascinating article, and I encourage you to read it in full. Hobbes writes about the  culture of fat shaming in our society and touches on how many larger people have internalised this fat shaming, leaving most of us feeling lonely and dejected.

I want to add something to this discussion from a religious – specifically a Christian – standpoint. It’s pretty much encapsulated in the title of this post: being fat is not a sin.

Now, I’m sure if you asked most people, they’d say that no, they don’t think being fat is a sin. But is that how they act? From my own experiences in and around churches and Christians, the answer to that is “no”. A resounding no, even. At best, being fat is disapproved of – quietly and behind your back (although never so much behind your back that you could remain blissfully unaware of it). At worst, it’s seen as a slippery slope, because if you can’t muster self-control over your eating habits, it must follow that for you, it’s open season on other sins.

This attitude was brought painfully home in a book my Bible Study group started a few weeks ago (we stopped when I told them the book made me uncomfortable). In Priscilla Shirer’s A Jewel in His Crown (Moody Publishing), she writes the following:

Weight is a big problem, and many women are plagued by it. However, the Lord is showing me, slowly but surely, that my weight worries are really not only a physical problem. At least part of the problem is spiritual. My struggle with weight has taught me two very important things about my relationship with the Lord.

First, a continued struggle with weight, if it is not the result of some medical condition, is a direct sign that we have not submitted ourselves completely to the Lord. A woman who struggles continually with weight due to lack of self-control eating will also struggle with other self-control issues, such as immorality and anger. It’s not about our weight. It is about not allowing the Lord to be the Lord of our body.

For this reason, our bodies can become a very negative reflection of the power of God to do magnificent things in the lives of His daughters. How can we minister to drug addicts and tell them to be rid of the disease of drugs when we cannot rid ourselves of our addiction to food? It is so important for us to allow God to gain control of us in this area, and we can only begin this process by praying. We must ask God to forgive us our arrogance in assuming that he can’t handle our weight.

In her next point, she talks about how weight is tied to low self-esteem, and how we can’t have faithful sisters believing the lie of low self-esteem. But again, the blame – and it’s very much blame, with an added dose of self-righteousness – is laid at the feet of these fat women, and not the culture body shaming them into low self-esteem in the first place!

In essence, Shirer’s brand of Christianity (and she’s far from alone; see, for example, how popular Saddleback Church’s “Daniel diet” is) has adopted the body shaming culture around it – a culture steeped in capitalism, exploitation, superficiality, fads and discrimination – and justifies it by falling back on an attitude of quasi-asceticism that applies only to body weight and not, for instance, fair and just use of money, to name the most obvious shortcoming of this particular hive-mind. To Shirer and her ilk, fatness is a symptom of a deeper malaise of sinfulness. What she doesn’t say, but which is nevertheless heavily implied, is that it’s because it’s such a visible sin that it’s a problem.

I fear, at the heart of her writing is the very simple belief that fat equals ugly, and that ugly is bad for the church’s image.


I have a bit of a history with the concept of “visible sin”.

A church I attended, notable for its yearly Daniel fast, had an obsession with what I term “visible sin”.

To this church’s way of thinking, visible sins were things like drinking, smoking, foul language and living together before marriage. The church policed people’s Facebook accounts and shamed them from the pulpit for their “visible sins”. But by all accounts, invisible sins – asking for disproportionate amounts of money for ego projects, for instance, or being deeply controlling, judgmental, and narcissistic, or even adultery, domestic violence, pedophilia and misogyny, were smoothed over. The facade was what mattered.

If you’re someone who equates fatness with sinfulness, then yes, fat people must make you uncomfortable. Fat people and other visible “flaws” (flaws in this way of thinking) inevitably end up taking the congregational or societal flack so that people don’t have to confront the darker, deeper, invisible sins people can’t see (read: judge) in passing. The truly troubling spheres of behaviour.

I think, in their heart of hearts, the people who think fatness = sinfulness and belabor the idea that what matters in weight loss is strength of will (and therefore, strength of character), do so because it makes them feel better about their own perceived strength of will. At the end of the day, no matter what else is going on in their lives, no matter how deeply they sin, at least they’re not fat, right?


“It feels like the worst kind of weakness,” says one of Hobbes’ interviewees. In Christian culture, that weakness – the idea that you’re just not trying hard enough, that you’re being greedy or selfish or entitled or lazy – is made out to be a moral failing.

Although fat shaming has been a constant throughout my time in church, before this article, I’d never thought to connect it to my present alienation from institutional religion.

Has my fatness become the metaphor for all the things “wrong” with me, in a Christian sense? Has my fatness been connected to my character, to my character’s disparagement?

Have I been found fat, and wanting?


I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that if being fat is a sin, then being fat and female is even more so.

Fat shaming has a uniquely misogynistic element to it that goes all the way to its roots.

Culturally, fat shaming is shaming someone for the “crime” of being fat. All things being equal, fatness is only a crime because our current society equates fatness with unattractiveness, and what’s attractive or not is primarily defined and determined by men. One could therefore argue that fat shaming is shaming someone for being visible in an unapproved-of-by-men way.

Now, add to this already ugly cocktail the institutionalised misogyny of your average church.

In terms of Christian culture, if fatness equals sin, then fat shaming is merely sin correction; and if the offending fatty is female, then fat shaming her attains a gendered prerogative to also subdue her. Being fat, female and Christian in a mainstream, conservative church must therefore equal being in rebellion.

It’s hard for me not to wonder how many people have seen me as being “rebellious” simply because I was there, and I was female, and I was fat, and I was not sorry enough by their standards for any of it.


“[T]here is no magical cure. There is no time machine. There is only the revolutionary act of being fat and happy in a world that tells you that’s impossible. We all have to do our best with the body that we have,” dietician Ginette Lenham told Hobbes. “And leave everyone else’s alone.”

If we want to go around calling ourselves Christian, then Lenham’s advice must strike a deeper chord with us. The church has fallen into the trap of buying into the pervasive “beauty culture” of which fat shaming – a layered shaming in the church, as we’ve seen – is an integral part. It’s endlessly ironic to me that the same churches who would warn their congregations against the dangers of worldliness probably don’t realise that their conscious and unconscious prejudice against “visible sinners”, like fat people, are rooted in the very worldliness they preach against.

Because let me tell you, it isn’t rooted in God.

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“God is a woman and she is growing older”

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I know, it’s been ages and ages since I’ve posted here. Someday I’ll get into why, but for tonight, I just wanted to share this piece I found via Twitter. It’s called “God is a woman and she is growing older”, by Rabbi Maggie Wenig. Read it in its entirety here.

God is home, turning the pages of her book. “Come home,” she wants to say to us, “Come home.” But she won’t call. For she is afraid that we will say, “No.” She can anticipate the conversation: “We are so busy. We’d love to see you but we just can’t come. Too much to do.”

Even if we don’t realize it, God knows that our business is just an excuse. She knows that we avoid returning to her because we don’t want to look into her age-worn face. It is hard for us to face a god who disappointed our childhood expectations: She did not give us everything we wanted. She did not make us triumphant in battle, successful in business and invincible to pain. We avoid going home to protect ourselves from our disappointment and to protect her. We don’t want her to see the disappointment in our eyes. Yet, God knows that it is there and she would have us come home anyway.

Shipping Shyan as a subversive act of self-definition; some thoughts

I don’t usually do writing prompts, but I’m in the mood to write and have no idea what to write about. WordPress’ prompt for today is “Interest”.

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I think the above picture sums up my approach to “interest” pretty well. Generally, I either like something or it’s nary a blip on the radar. It really is like a switch being flicked in my brain, and my Pinterest boards – most notably the “Fandom” one – bear testament to this switch being flicked on and off on various interests: knitting, crochet, Harry Potter, Christian Bale, Christopher Nolan’s Batman series, Tom Hardy, BBC Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch, drawing, photography, dolls, bullet journaling, Bible journaling, Pokemon Go, Dungeons & Dragons, Stranger Things, Jane Austen, historic fashion, 1900s New York and so on. Pinterest is like a beach littered with the junk of past interests.

My current interest (read: obsession) is the web series Buzzfeed Unsolved. A friend put me onto Unsolved: True Crime, where two guys dredge up unsolved cold cases and discuss the cases with likely (and sometimes wildly unlikely) theories as to what could’ve happened. There’s also a paranormal version which sees the hosts become the world’s unlikeliest (and unluckiest) ghost hunters. It’s fun and funny and the hosts have great chemistry; great enough that I googled whether they’re dating. The results were: they’re not, but a whole lot of people on Tumblr think they are, could or should be, and there are gifs to back up all positions.

Tumblr is sort of Obsession Ground Zero, at least for literature, movies and series. It’s ubiquitous enough that “Tumblr fangirl” has become a sort of slur among the kind of bros who generally don’t recognise their intense and obsessive interest in for example sports as being on par or even exceeding the dreaded “can’t even” of “Tumblr fangirls”. It’s interesting to contrast these double standards among the sexes’ stereotypical interests. Men’s interests are normalised: “Guys like sports.” There’s no stigma. But women’s interests don’t get the same acceptance. It’s “weird” when a woman obsesses over something. But this is an old ballgame. Men’s interests are seen as inherently reasonable (although reason is usually far from the mind of someone on the edge of their seat during some game involving a ball and several men), but women’s must tiptoe around the ever-present accusation of being “hysterical”.

I wonder why society, in general, seems to be so leery of women liking things or having interests. It is because it’s a fairly new concept, insofar as a hundred and fifty years ago, women’s interests tended to be restricted to certain fields? Is it because historically there’s been a lack of space for the female expression of interest, notably female sexual interest (which is often a big component in “fandom”)? Or is there something inherently threatening about how active an interest makes you – it’s an involved thing, one that requires initiative and pursuit, traits that are usually masculinised?

A great example of this was the fight for the Democratic nomination between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders and later the election that pitted Democrat Clinton against Republican Trump. Clinton’s campaign engaged a large sector of society, most notably the female African-American vote. Her supporters received a lot of flack, not just from Republicans but especially from so-called “Bernie bros” – white, male Democrats who wanted Sanders (an independent) for the Democrat primary. Most of their criticism and engagement was gendered in nature. “You’re only voting for Hillary ’cause she’s a woman,” they argued, totally oblivious to (or in denial over) the fact that their interest in Sanders for the nomination was spurred on by his “white guyness”.

The fact remains that, at its core, their criticism of Hillary supporters often boiled down not to disputes about politics, but rather irateness that women of all colours had an intense interest and vocal investment in the elections. It seems that the world just doesn’t like women taking an interest because inevitably this interest is different than men’s, and demands the same platform, a platform they are not willing to part with. In his book The Ironic Christian’s Companion, Patrick Henry writes that people tend to dislike a roundtable approach for this very reason: with a roundtable, it’s not always obvious who is in charge. Taking an interest challenges the status quo.

Is all interest equal, though? No, probably not. But it doesn’t have to be in order to achieve a – I want to say higher purpose? Taking an interest is a fundamental act of self-definition: you like something or you don’t, and that says something about you saying something about yourself. It’s the “saying something about yourself” that’s important. In that way, women having interests can be a subversive act, because it’s a way for us to say something about ourselves in a world where we have more often been talked about than spoken with.

Book review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

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There’s nothing like a TV adaptation to spur you on to read the classics you’ve been delaying in favour of novels that don’t want to make you kill yourself. With Hulu’s recent adaptation of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, I thought I’d better get off my laurels and add Atwood’s flagship novel to my feminist credentials. We’ll pretend it didn’t take me a decade to get here.

The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a dystopian near/ever-present future where parts of the US have been taken over by a theocratic far-right. Under their regime, women are steadily and stealthily stripped of their rights and freedoms, leaving the protagonist Offred to navigate life as one of a number of “handmaids”, women attached to rich men for breeding purposes. The handmaids’ behaviour, appearance and movements are all strictly monitored and controlled. They have no personal agency and are simultaneously the desire and scorn of other parts of Gileadan society.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a fantastic book of course; presumably this is why they gave it a Booker prize! The prose is beautiful and hypnotic, capturing Offred’s dreamlike disassociation from the horror around her even as it suffocates her. I think it’s this contrast that makes the book so unsettling: it makes you question the appearance vs substance of everything, especially dearly-held notions of safety and order.

It’s no accident that Hulu should adapt The Handmaid’s Tale now when under Trump’s GOP the world’s most powerful nation leads a fresh assault on women’s rights. The Handmaid’s Tale is a timely reminder – and has been, since it was first published in the eighties – that civil liberties are hard won and far from guaranteed. While Atwood’s story may seem fantastical, its reality is never far-off.

So, what’s the verdict?

Title: The Handmaid’s Tale
Author: Margaret Atwood
Publisher: Vintage Books
My rating: 4/5 (Goodreads rating, for comparison: 4.05/5)
The book’s best feature: The writing itself; its prophetic message.
The worst feature: The oppressing patriarchy.
Trigger warnings: Rape and misogyny in general.
You’ll like this if… Liking this isn’t the point, I think.

Weeding the garden: Gretha Wiid under fire

 

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Gretha Wiid. Facebook.

 

Popular Afrikaans lay speaker and self-appointed “relationship expert” Gretha Wiid has been in the news a lot lately. She’s come under fire for the controversial anti-LGBTI views she espouses in books aimed at ten- to thirteen-year-olds. In her Lyfslim (“Body Smart”)  books she writes that same-sex attraction is a choice and typically the result of, among other things, sexual abuse at a young age.

Wiid is in the same camp as Angus Buchan – a position she set up with his approval, hosting “Worthy Women” conferences to complement his “Mighty Men” ones – and espouses the same supposedly theologically indisputable “men are the heads of their households” and anti-gay nonsense that he does. That she’s so popular with women baffles me; as Lilly Nortje-Meyer points out in this illuminating article, Wiid and her staunchest followers are formeninists; essentially believing that a Christian woman’s core value revolves around her relationship to men. This – and the whole belief that men are the “prophets, priests and kings” of their homes – is unbiblical. I’d even go so far as to call it idolatry. But I digress.

I wanted to write about Wiid’s response to her criticism, which has been telling in the extreme. It’s not uncommon for people like Wiid to defend their actions by claiming sovereignty from criticism, which they usually do by saying that any opposition they experience is Satanic in origin. Wiid has done that; a few days after the debacle started, she posted to Facebook that no plans formed against her family would prosper. She skirted around the issue – her bizarre, and might I say entirely unscientific views on same-sex attraction – by saying that she loved gay people because her brother is gay*. Anyway, the non-apology didn’t work, and the South African Human Right’s Commission has confirmed that it’s investigating complaints of hate speech against her.

This even more that her weak-as-tea theology is what bugs me the most: her arrogance. She claims her Scripture-derived inspiration supersedes the inherent value of other people (nonbiblical. Seriously, has she met Jesus?), and she acts as though her interpretation of the Bible is supreme, despite the fact that it is hermeneutically unsound. To Wiid, any opposition must be the work of Satan. If she’s so eager to find Satan’s hand in her circumstances, she need look no farther than her pride and her ego.

I doubt any of what’s happening to Wiid will work to soften her heart; Christians of her persuasion are usually only a step away from a persecution complex, and I suspect that’s what we’ll see unfold in the next few weeks: how South Africa, and the “liberal gay agenda” is causing Bible-believing Christians to renounce their convictions or face punishment. I strongly suspect that she’ll fail to see that freedom of speech and belief does not cover the freedom to espouse absolute bullcrap that devalues the full personhood of others, and to impressionable children no less.

The bigger issue, of course, is how these books of her – published back in 2009 – were seen fit to publish in the first place. Wiid is published by Carpe Diem Media, who also have “perennial shelvers” like Isak Burger and Andries Enslin in their stable. Unsurprisingly Carpe Diem Media are responsible for the women’s magazine Finesse, a publication that centres its content around “modern Christian women” of the soft complementarian persuasion, mixing fashion with diet tips to “keep him interested” with soft-lit covers of local celebrities.

Yet for Wiid to be as popular as she is – more than 120 000 people like her Facebook page, after all – she has to be selling well. Her market is a niche one: white, Afrikaans-speaking conservative Christian women. Proportionately she probably has a big share of this market, so clearly she’s appealing to some people. And that’s most worrisome of all: that in 2017 Wiid easily drums up support for damaging, ludicrous and unscientific claims, all under the flag of “Christianity”, with the consent and even approval of so many people.


*Her brother has spoken out in support of her; interestingly, and probably in no way related to anything, he is also her manager.