The Religion of Thinness

A religion scholar reflects on our culture's devotion to thinness and explores the unmet spiritual needs that eating and body image problems mask.

The Good Health and Healing of "Salvation"

Looking beneath women's quest for a slender body

A few blogs ago, I challenged the futuristic, other-worldly orientation of The Religion of Thinness, which is epitomized in the belief that "I will be happier when I'm thinner." This belief, I suggested, mirrors a popular Christian view of "salvation" as something that happens later (i.e., in the afterlife). But this suggestion raises other questions, such as: What does "salvation" really mean? And how might a better understanding of this term shed light on women's body image and eating problems?

Of course, there are as many different understandings of "salvation" as there are people, and no one of them is singularly correct. And yet, probing some conventional as well as some alternative definitions may help illuminate my suggestion that women's never-ending quest for a "better" (i.e., thinner) body masks a variety of spiritual needs.

When I say that many women today act as though their "salvation" depended on having a slender body, I am using a broader understanding of this term than the one many people typically assume. I'm not talking about what happens "when you die and go to heaven." Rather, I'm talking about the overall sense of mental, physical, and spiritual well being that was originally associated with the term.

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In fact, the word "salvation" is connected to the Latin term salve, which means "good health." This definition is very revealing, both because of its this-worldly orientation, and because it includes physical as well as spiritual and mental well being. The term is thus best understood holistically as pointing to the sense of wellness all of us long for in our hearts and minds and bodies. Understood this way, "salvation" refers to the good health and healing that everyone craves-whether or not we're sick, and whether or not we're religious.

The tragedy, of course, is that the quest for a better body cannot provide this sense of well being in any deep or lasting way. And this tragedy is compounded by our inability to see the spiritual yearnings beneath this quest-the yearnings for wholeness, good health, and healing. Our culture encourages us to assume that thinness is what we really want (or should want). It is a superficial but seductively simple solution our everyday problems and unhappiness.

The "salvation" of thinness is also alluring because of the widespread assumption in our society that the healthy body is a slender body. We are constantly reminded of this equation from various corners of our culture-from doctors' admonishments to "watch what you eat," to headlines news decrying the "obesity epidemic," to magazines with titles like "Fitness" or "Women's Health" that feature exclusively tight and trim bodies. Indeed, the assumption that health and thinness go hand in hand is virtually axiomatic in the U.S. today, which is perhaps all the more reason that it needs to be questioned.

In fact, a growing body of research suggests that health does not necessarily come in one narrow size, that being slightly to moderately overweight is not unhealthy, and that thinness is not necessarily a sign of vigor. For example, a large 2008 study found that the death rate among "overweight" adults was lower than those of normal weight, although morbidly obese individuals had a higher rate (See Tara Parker-Pope, "Better to Be Fat and Fit Than Skinny and Unfit." New York Times, August 18, 2008).1


What's more, the experiences of millions of women attest that making thinness the touchstone of a "healthy" body and lifestyle can easily lead to a decidedly unhealthy preoccupation with weight and eating. Is it really healthy to spend a good portion of our daily mental-physical-spiritual energy worrying about being "too fat" or trying desperately to lose weight?

Whether the suffering we experience in our lives is primarily physical, mental, or spiritual, we need to stop and ask whether this is really the path of health, happiness, and healing.

In an interview I did last month for a radio talk show in Philadelphia, the show's host asked me why a lot of her female friends who are already thin are still trying and wanting to be thinner. It's a great question! And I think the answer may not be too complicated. Many already-slender women want to be even thinner because their desire is not really about thinness. Whatever our current size or weight, what we really want and need is not to be skinny but to be happy. The quest for thinness masks a host of other spiritual needs-including the need to be healthy and healed-which is why I see it as a quest for "salvation."

If thinness is not the path to the happiness, health, and healing we crave, what is?

I don't claim to have a simple, one-size-fits-all answer to this perennial question. But I suspect that the good health and healing for which we yearn are found through our acceptance of what we already have and our appreciation for what already is. Perhaps this is why Jesus taught that "the Kingdom of God is in your midst," and the Buddha instructed that suffering can be alleviated when we fully enter the present moment.

In the end, it seems to me that the "salvation" so many women are looking for in their pursuit of thinness body is precisely the good health, happiness, and healing that comes when we stop trying so hard to "fix" our bodies.

 

Michelle Lelwica is an Associate Professor at Concordia College in Moorhead, MN and the author of The Religion of Thinness.

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