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.

When Already-Skinny Women Obsess about Thinness: Time for a Little Soul-Searching

Chasing the Thin Dream: What Do You Really Want to Lose?

This is the third in a series of blogs designed to elaborate my suggestion (originally posted January 18th) that you make a different kind of New Year's resolution in 2010-one that replaces the conventional pledge to downsize your figure by going to war with your appetite with an alternative commitment to practice peace with your body.

A fundamental part of this alternative resolution is learning to recognize the desire to be thinner for what it is. You can start doing this by asking a few simple questions, like: What am I really looking for when I yearn and strive for a "better" body? What does the weight I wish to lose really represent? As these questions suggest, a resolution to practice peace with your body is considerably more complicated than the promise to simply lose some weight. It involves some serious soul-searching.

In reflecting on the questions stated above, I'm reminded of a radio interview I did a few months ago. I was talking about my recent book (The Religion of Thinness) on a Philadelphia talk show called "The Women's File" (http://www.zoominfo.com/people/Scheivert_Emily_486105011.aspx). The host, Emily Schievert, didn't waste any time getting to the heart of the matter. "Why is it," she asked, "that so many of my female friends who are already skinny are still obsessed with being thin or losing more weight?" It's a great question, I think, because it points to a fundamental insight, namely, that the pursuit of thinness isn't simply about a slender body.

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The reason many already-slender women want to be even leaner is because a size 2 figure (or whatever the low number) isn't really what they are looking for. Essentially, what they want is not to be thinner, but to be happier.

Regardless of your current body size, if you look deeply at your desire for a "better" physique (and if you don't have this longing, you no doubt know someone who does), what you'll find is a desire for peace and well-being-a yearning for happiness and health that is part of the human condition.

If beneath the pursuit of this physical ideal, there is an even deeper quest to be happy, no wonder many women feel they can never be thin enough.

In fact, this yearning to be happy is a sign of our vitality. The problem is that in the course of the past several decades (particularly in the U.S. and other affluent nations and especially for women), the happiness we crave has come to be associated with a narrow but ubiquitous image of physical "beauty": the fat-free female figure.

The symbolic associations between slenderness and happiness have several sources. They are repeatedly produced and reinforced by commercial culture. A multi-billion dollar a year market for weight-loss products depends on advertisements and rhetoric that convince us that our satisfaction is just a few pounds (lost) away. If you listen carefully to the promises of Jenny Craig ("We Change Lives"), Weight Watchers ("Stop Dieting, Start Living"), or the sales pitches and jingles of countless other weight-loss companies and products, you will notice what they all have in common is the assurance that a thinner you is a happier you. Before-and-after photographs illustrate this message with cliché clarity: a depressed-looking, slouched over, frumpy-dressed person with a bad hairdo (in the "before" picture) stands in stark contrast to the same happy-faced, well-postured, finely coiffed person (in the "after" image).

Ads featuring "before-and-after" photos are only the most obvious example of the promise of being "born again" through weight loss. A plethora of other visual representations coalesce to reinforce the connection between happiness and thinness. The images themselves, and the dramas they are part of, need not be focused primarily on body size to convey the message that thinner=happier. This lesson is tacitly taught through the stories and pictures of popular culture (i.e., TV shows, films, magazines, the internet, and so forth) that repeatedly show smiley-faced, successful, and beautiful women in just one size: tall and narrow. The message that thinness will make you happy is also implicitly conveyed through the paucity of alternative images-including the representation of diversely-shaped women who are happy, healthy, successful, and beautiful.

Understanding the consumer-oriented, media-driven origins of the myth that happiness=thinness is an important step on the path of practicing peace with your body. But further movement on this path requires us to dig a bit deeper. At some point, each of us who has bought into the Religion of Thinness needs to stop and consider: what makes us vulnerable to believing this myth? When we do, we may discover an inner unhappiness we have been avoiding-a kind of malaise or dissatisfaction we project onto our bodies.

Maybe it's not those "extra pounds" that are keeping you from being happy. And maybe it's not even the weight itself that you really seek to lose. Maybe what you really want to get rid of is not the flab but the unhappiness you have learned to associate with it.

What if you could be happy without having to change or "fix" your body?

What if you replaced the quest for the holy grail of thinness with the pursuit of real happiness?

The kind of happiness I'm talking about here differs from the temporary good feeling that comes from getting what you want, or accomplishing something in the eyes of others, or satisfying an urge. It's much deeper and more abiding, and it's rooted in a sense of peace and well being that cannot be "gained" or "lost" because it is always already part of you.

Ultimately, this deeper happiness is the product of spiritual practice. More specifically, it is the fruit of repeated acts of kindness, love, compassion, forgiveness, patience, courage, and responsibility towards self and others. For these are the means by which we bring true happiness to our lives and to our world.

Cultivating this kind of happiness is a way to practice peace with your body. But here's the catch: your desire for well-being must be stronger than your attachment to thinness. Your yearning to be peaceful and whole needs to be bigger than your ego's craving to be "beautiful" and "admired" in the eyes of our culture.

Here are a few simple strategies for cultivating real happiness by practicing peace with your body:

1) Be kind to your body (instead of engaging in cruel self-talk and/or physical torture)

2) Show your body love by nurturing it with enough good food (i.e., real, whole food) and physical movement that you feel relaxed and energized rather than stuffed and depleted

3) Practice compassion for your body by slowing down enough to listen for signs of suffering - i.e., a sore back, upset stomach, head ache, tight shoulders, etc. - and give yourself/your body the care it is asking for

4) Forgive yourself for not being physically or spiritually "flawless;" instead, embrace yourself as a whole human being who is a work in process and whose destination is the journey

5) Exercise courage when you feel the urge to escape uncomfortable feelings or situations by depriving or indulging your appetite. Seek instead a middle path of staying present to what is

6) Act responsibly towards your body by caring for it in a way that promotes overall health and well being-mentally, physically, spiritually

These are just a few ways that you can learn to feel at home in the body you have, while cultivating the deeper kind of happiness, peace, and well being that no diet or promise to lose weight can give.

 

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

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