When Thinness is Next To Godliness- Six Ways the Church Can Respond to Eating Disorders Better

 

As an East Texas Eating Disorder Professional living in Tyler, Texas I have noticed a strange phenomenon happening to me.

When I am hanging out virtually with all my body positive friends I start to trick myself into believing this beautiful, life-altering message of radical body acceptance is embraced by everyone. It’s a fun happy little bubble I like to live in from time to time.

Sadly I can’t think of a better place to go burst this fantasy bubble with lightening speed than the Church. You see, I spend about 99.99% (an actual statistic…I have run the data) of my off work time with my church people and the other .1% I spend in bed watching Netflix. And my church people are awesome. They love me with abandon. They care for me when I am at my lowest. They are on my front door step when trees fall through my roof, I am grieving the loss of a baby, and when I feel like this ship is definitely about to sink.

As an eating disorder therapist and person with a history of eating disorder I often find myself in diet talk conversations, where I can no longer sit silently. But I so often feel I am one intuitive eating, body positive, anti-diet convo away from church banishment. Because, you see in our churches thinness is considered holiness.  Maybe it is the moralistic, puritanical nature of the church. Maybe it is that pesky little “the body is a temple” passage. We applaud ourselves for denying any pleasure and food is the daily denial de jour and while we worship at the temple of health we forget that mental health is at least equally valuable.

So bad theology and bad advice abound.

We have Jesus Diets. Wax moralistic over whether we “deserve donuts” or not. Promote fasting and starvation, all the while getting secretly…or not so secretly…excited by the possibility that our Lent fast will help us squeeze back into that magic elusive sized pants. We offer fitness classes, but keep our doors shut to someone that can’t bring themselves to eat a nourishing meal because they don’t feel like they deserve it, especially if they live in a larger body. We make fat jokes from our pulpits (not my church, but I have had a sobbing teen in my office who experienced this at hers). Don’t squelch dangerous diet talk in our youth groups. Offer up body shame talk like Sunday’s communion tray.

In a place where grace and mercy abounds we send the message of do more. Be more. You’ll never be enough.

Thin enough

Pretty enough

Eating Clean enough

I can’t blame my church-y friends. We have been hustling for our worth since way back when a slimy snake tried to tell us we weren’t “very good” enough. We had to be different, better, more. Like gods. Even though we had been made in the very image of God.

Church, I implore you to be the safe haven so many need you to be. I don’t want you to feel guilty (that’s another thing we do well, right?) unless that guilt motivates you to a heart change about this issue.

If you are wondering what you can do to be a safer place for eating disorder recovery, body image shame, and radical self love. Here are some things that I have learned on my wild acceptance journey and my own eating disorder recovery:

  1. Educate yourselves. Eating disorders aren’t weird or unheard of. In fact if you are a small church of 100 it is likely that you have at least 10 people in your congregation struggling. If we just look at body shame it’s likely, if you have any persons that are breathing in your church, they have all struggled at least once.
  2. Change your heart, the easiest way to do this is to actually know someone struggling with an eating disorder. Talk with them. Ask them about their experience. Sit with their loved ones while they worry endlessly about unaffordable treatment options, kidney function, and whether the person they care about is going to be one of the 10-20% that lose their lives to this disorder. Shut up. Don’t offer platitudes and don’t you dare start a sentence with the word “just….” Sit in their pain the way Jesus sits in yours and seeks to understand it. Then open up to the possibility that you may have been a contributing factor to making an arduous recovery more difficult. Then apologize.
  3. Find a better list of compliments to give people (especially y’all….yes y’all southern ladies…I’m calling you out). Try a nice “you are such a joy to be around” if you are struggling, stick to this tip “no comments about anything below the neck.” Don’t grab for the easiest most damaging low hanging fruit. “You’ve lost so much weight…you look amazing.” Someone could be struggling through recovery. When I had my last relapse, it was these types of compliments that continued to motivate me dangerously restrict my food intake. Someone is listening. If “amazing” always equals thinner, imagine the young girl (or boy) who is naturally gaining weight during puberty (more to come on this subject) is thinking “I guess I will never be amazing.” And you don’t mean that bc we all know that little person is beyond amazing!
  4.  Just stop! Stop making jokes about how “bad” food is or how “fat” is so awful. I can’t                       tell you how many clients spiraled back into their eating disorder after a sermon, youth camp speaker, a “are you gonna eat all that” joke was made at a pot luck, or Bible teacher talked about dieting. Stop talking about how you are doing a cleanse to lose weight before a wedding. Stop talking about how you need to eat less “bad food,” food is food folks. It doesn’t have the power to be good or bad. Sorry. You know what makes me want to eat 100 donuts? Shame and guilt. You know what makes me want to eat 1-2 donuts, my taste buds. See how that works? Shame and guilt are never helpful motivators. But God created our bodies to enjoy flavor!
  5. If you are telling yourself right now “geeze ANOTHER group of people I HAVE to be sensitive to” just remember to check your Pharisee at the door. Jesus was always lovingly attending to the least of these. After all that’s why he saved you. When given a chance to hurl insults, judgment, and harsh words he declined. Caring about others hurt and attending to pain is sort of exactly what Jesus got on a cross for.
  6. Finally and I am not sure how I can articulate this clearly but I will try…STOP. THE.BODY.TALK. Stop talking about how much you hate your body. Stop. Stop. Stop. Think about this. We are professing with our lips that God is good, yet we are calling what he makes disgusting, invaluable, unworthy, and undesirable (actual quotes from clients when asked “How do you most often view your body?” I have literally never had someone respond “perfect, good, enough”). We are the one people that should see souls above bodies but we consistently fail at this over and over.

So what now? I know I may have stepped on some toes…trust me I step on my own all the time. I pray to God that I never arrive at a moment where I am doing it all perfectly because if I get to that point let’s all be honest, I’m probably a total mess. I mess up and get distracted by diet culture all the time but I know In my heart diet culture has no place in pews. I know I am fully loved by my creator, He doesn’t care about my stretch marks or arm flab. When I am loving myself the way He loves me, I am so much better able to love others the same.

I haven’t always done this well. I will never do this perfectly. But I invite you on this journey with me, it will be one of the best adventures of your life.

5 thoughts on “When Thinness is Next To Godliness- Six Ways the Church Can Respond to Eating Disorders Better”

  1. Wow! This is amazing! I’m recently out of treatment and living the young adult life in church and similar communities that say all the things you included here. This is excellently thorough and increases my awareness of my allowing those things to be said around me. I usually let them pass on by without a word, because we live in a society that permits such language. Silence is usually easier. Not anymore- I want to speak out, shut down diet talk, and help educate on the impact it really has. Thank you for posting this. Keep on writing!

  2. This post is really helpful. As a pastor’s wife in recovery from anorexia, I am keenly aware of the food and weight related conversations that happen in the context of the community of faith. Fortunately, my husband is intimately aquatinted with the ins and outs of eating disorder recovery, and we have several individuals on our leadership team with experience with mental health and eating disorders. Even with that, the topics of food and weight loss are discussed frequently amongst “church folk”, and I see the trend to place thinness in a realm of moral superiority. It needs to change. We’ve somehow mixed up our ideas of what true virtue is.

    1. First off, way to go on your recovery! It is one of the most difficult journeys ever! I am grateful you have supportive leadership! Yes, moral superiority is a perfect description of many churched people’s view on thinness or even fitness!

Leave a Reply to celestesmiththerapy Cancel reply

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