Saturday, March 03, 2007

Theological Reflection On Fat, Skinny, And Image

Yes, my ducks, PeaceBang is also disappointed not ot have been able to see her "Nightline" segment, which got bumped in favor of a story on dangerously thin fashion models and on the perils of SPAM.

She got a wonderful night's sleep and is looking forward to a stewardship campaign kick-off dinner tonight at church.

But she is thinking.

If we lived in a world where we could convene in-depth conversations by way of late-night news, we would have been able to have a very interesting confab last night around the issue of body size. Say they had run the skinny models piece along with the piece on the ministry of clergy beautification. What an interesting conversation, if we had had time to explore it! But given that the "Nightline" team filmed PeaceBang and her congregation over two days and about 7 hours in order to get footage for a 3-minute segment, that's just not how it works.

I mean, how cool would it have been if they had actually done the pieces together intentionally, and I could have talked about the western world's long spiritualization of slimmness and demonization of fatness, quoting from Carolyn Walker Bynum's wonderful book, Holy Feast and Holy Fast, about the "holy anorexia" of the most important female medieval mystics?
Welcome to PeaceBang's media fantasy!!

As George Bush, Sr. would have said, "NOT GONNA HAPPEN." But I am thinking.

PeaceBang has been watching in alarm as the American public gets more obese and more sloppily informal (this is not to imply that large-bodied folk are the only ones getting sloppier -- it's an American phenomenon, not a big-person phenomenon), our so-called icons of beauty are becoming increasingly Botoxed, sliced-up, plasticized and starved.

What is going on with this strange symbiotic relationship?

The exhausted, over-stimulated, perpetually distracted, information-and-entertainment crammed average American consumes the images of plastic skeletal goddesses inflicted on us by a fat-phobic fashion industry and Madison Avenue, and we devour them. Candy, candy, candy. Even if we do not devour, we can't look away, as the images are ubiquitous. We instinctually don't like what we're seeing, but we've been so well trained in the fashion and beauty industry's notions of beauty that we figure they must know what they're doing.

Because we've been assiduously programmed to think this way, we keep our distance: "Naw...this isn't a spiritual issue. I should just shut up. I'm not one of the beautiful people and never will be. People will just think I'm jealous if I decry all of this madness." Don't think that PeaceBang doesn't know that there's a little part of us that never graduated from the insecurites of 8th grade. That's the human condition, my dears. Unless we spend a tremendous amount of time and effort getting over it, there's always going to be that little voice inside our heads going, "Oh man, everyone else at this coffee hour is so much more cool and socially adept than I am. I think I'll go flush my head down the toilet."

But out there in the world outside your head, you're a theologically educated, spiritually advanced religious leader and so some of you have spoken out against the rampant objectification of humans in our society, and the fashion industry and Madison Avenue and Hollywood's role in that. When you did, was your public presence as vital, engaging, charismatic and passionate as Michael Kors' is? Or Isaac Mizrahi? Or Helen Gurley Brown? Do you see what I'm saying? We are in friendly or hostile competition with wonderful, engaging personalities on this issue and on every other issue of importance to the spiritual well-being of the world.

When we show up projecting an image that says, "Please don't notice me," we've lost the battle before we even open our mouths.

It just so happens that human beings are engaged by passion and leadership that projects a vision. And it just so happens that looking put-together and polished helps the vast majority of human beings on the planet feel more prepared to deliver their message, whatever it is. It just so happens that we in America live in a culture that is visually overwhelming and that everyone who lives in this country is being bombarded daily by millions of images being projected at us in the attempt to sell us something. Religious leaders who refuse to embrace that fact and meet its challenge with creative energy are, in PeaceBang's opinion, like sweet little ostriches burying their heads in the sand. Come on out, ostriches. We need you.

Meanwhile, PeaceBang can't help but notice that many clergymen and women are significantly overweight. Why? As an overweight woman herself, PeaceBang has a few guesses: we compulsively overeat to provide instant comfort in the midst of caring for others. We put ourselves last and our self-care practices suffer (exercise, carefully preparing healthful meals, stopping to eat something so we're not ravenous by dinner, going to bed early enough to avoid late-night snacking, etc.). We suffer from the ancient Augustinian mentality that elevates the spirit over the sinful body, and do not have a holistic experience of incarnation, living mostly from the neck up.

All the usual suspects. The same things that contribute to clergy addictions, repressions and eventually, those tragic scandals of acting out that make the front page of the paper...and the late-night news stories.

Then there's this: maybe by being significantly overweight, some of us are rebelling against conventional standards of beauty. Maybe some of us are making a statement with our bodies, saying "I refuse to take up a small space in this world. I am a person of abdundant spirit, and my physical presence reflects that. I am a person of extravagant appetite for all that life has to offer, and I will not be dictated to by any industry -- be it entertainment, fashion or medical -- that attempts to pathologize the way I am present in this world."

If that sounds like you, congratulations! You are an outlaw by today's societal standards, and there will be legions of doctors and health care experts lined up to say that you're unhealthy and in need of a conversion experience. They will be looking polished and slim and authoritative in white coats and tailored suits when they frowningly insist that we're in the midst of an obesity epidemic, and you're in denial. When you respond to this, you need to show up looking poised, confident, dignified, handsomely attired and full of God's love for your body and every body.

It's 2007 in the United States of America, is what I'm saying in my own long-winded fashion, dearly beloveds. People don't just hear our words. They see US.

Now get out there and be beautiful in that John Keats kind of way.



Blogger Lizard Eater said...

"Breakfast at Tiffany's" is one of those movies that if I flip past it, I must immediately go back to its channel and watch. Every time I watch the party scene, I am struck anew at the difference in party attire between then and now. In that scene, they look so comfortable in their suits and dresses. Now, granted, it's a movie of actors, but I remember my parents' parties when I was little being similar. Now, on the rare occasion when you see everyone in suits/dresses, they look so ... uncomfortable. It's like when a mom in tennis shoes puts on heels for the first time in a year (guilty). The clothes are wearing them. The change to casual business dress in America has led to this, IMHO.

So, PB, how do we get folks out of their ruts, and persuade them to not save nice attire for weddings and funerals? Encourage them to dress up for parties and -- dare I propose it? -- church?

Ahh, a man who looks comfortable in a suit ... (LE swoons)

5:43 PM  
Blogger womynrev said...

I could say so much about this. I am a huge fan of the idea of embodied living, body theology, etc, etc, etc.

However, I will leave it at this... One of the things that is connected with the "casualization" of America is the general lack of respect for each other and the work that we do. I have long had a soapbox about people who wear jeans to the theater, because I believe that caring about one's appearance is a way to show your respect for the performers and other professionals who created the performance. a very unpopular soapbox, I will let you know.

This respect issue translates to church and our bodies, too. It isn't about wearing a particular style or having a "uniform" so everyone looks the same... it is about taking the time to make sure that you look your best, and that will help you feel your best, and will tell your "peeps" that you care about them enough to check for spinach between your teeth and runs in your stockings.

In any case, I think that the plumpification of America has a great deal to do with fear and loneliness. But others have written more eloquently on *that* subject. So I will defer to them. Geneen Roth, Jalaja Bonheim, Lisa Isherwood & Elizabeth Stuart, to name a few.


7:26 PM  
Blogger Comrade Kevin said...

One of the reasons I don't watch TV is that it bombards me with all of these subliminal messages.

There's something wrong with me if I don't do this. I need to buy that. Why don't I just do what this person is doing?

And the truth of the matter is that 1% of all women will ever be the ideal of whatever Madison Avenue considers to be beauty. It's a cliched statement, but needs to be said.

We are an image based culture. Lots of things are based purely on image and not on substance. That's why when you're wise enough to see outside the box, it can be a very depressing spectacle.

In this increasingly alienated world where we have drifted away from traditional family ties, many of us live apart from social networks. We then reach for vices. For many, food is the vice. For many, alcohol is the vice. For many, tobacco is the vice. All are available and legal to sell to anyone.

But where does this void come from? Where does this sense of loneliness come from? Can you pin it on one thing--the American Condition--or does it have biological components to it?

Did you know that in third world countries, there are no such things as food allergies? No such thing. You have to live in a country with such multitudes of foods as we do to develop food allergies.

And don't get me started on the unrealistic portrayal of feminine beauty that we indoctrinate all women with, beginning right from the beginning.

Don't get me started on the idea that we teach our young girls that Prince Charming will sweep them off their feet and all their cares will be taken care of. That's a myth perpetuated by Disney and the mainstream media.

Prince Charming does not exist, just as there is no perfection in this often times cruel and unfair world.

8:01 PM  
Blogger Maggie said...

Re overweight America, just maybe we should stop beating ourselves up as individuals. Peacebang, have you ever read The Omnivore's Dilemma? Agribusiness is a major culprit where America's expanding waistlines are concerned. It can't just be attributed to our sloth, lack of self-respect, etc.

8:11 PM  
Blogger Sarah said...


The minister emeritus raised many eyebrows at our congregation last year when he preached a sermon on "spiritual obesity." I'll encourage him to send the text to you.

Incidentally, he's lost over 40 pounds since retiring...

11:33 PM  
Blogger Louise said...

Comrade Kevin, your comment, "That's why when you're wise enough to see outside the box, it can be a very depressing spectacle," really struck a chord with me. Thank you for your insights.

11:07 PM  
Blogger Kaji said...

Thanks for writing this, PB. I, too, am an overweight minister, and while I'm working on that for health reasons, I fear that I am losing the safety that fat offers. I've been a skinny woman, and I remember how little people were willing to listen to me or even to talk to me because they judged me as a beautiful woman, a woman who'd have little to say.

Now, people look at me and see someone who's put together, but overweight. And they've stopped lusting and started listening, which has been so wonderful.

So, perhaps for women clergy, the extra fat may be more than overindulgence, and instead a layer of security.

On another note, now that I've started limiting my food intake (and lost 30 lbs since Thanksgiving, thank you!) I've noticed how much food (particularly sweet food, but also those delicious cucumber sandwiches) is wrapped into my ministry, particularly in pastoral calls. Given the major fluctuations in our schedules, it's especially difficult to plan a day around our diets. But it is possible, friends!

9:03 PM  
Blogger Lisa said...

Congratulations on your "Nightline" feature - just caught it and was moved to ask the question "how is it so many ministers are overweight?" You surprisingly addressed this right on your blog (I actually Googled the question and was directed here) and I thank you for your candor.

I am a female, attractive (so I am told), athletically slender (I try to run daily and do yoga) and really find it hard to understand not eating properly or exercising, regardless of your lifestyle. I work over 80 hours a week and when I'm not working I'm writing, helping my 21 year old build his career and yes, its really tough sometimes not to eat poorly ( I love chocolate so much you can't know) or not to hit the streets, and I want to embrace everyone regardless of their shortcomings, but I have to be honest and say I find myself uncomfortable around a traditionally religious setting because so many individuals I encounter are very overweight - ministers and pastor especially.

Believe it or not I wanted very much to pursue a life as a spiritual counselor or minister but felt discounted because every time I started to go after this by way of meeting with various schools and institutions, the responses were always "are you quite sure this is what you want? Maybe channeling your talents toward teaching or the Arts?" The conclusion was "if you're too pretty, they won't listen."

Anyway, thanks for your post, it really opened my eyes. Best to you and I hope the late night feature brings you great rewards!

12:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lisa, just a suggestion: maybe the people you floated your vocation by actually didn't see you as a spiritual leader or ministerial type. Maybe you jumped to the conclusion that they were saying you're too pretty to be taken seriously. It sounds like you have some serious judgment issues if you can't abide a community because there are too many overweight people around.

12:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Although I do have to frown on Lisa's attitude when it comes to avoiding religious community because people are overweight, I have had a similar experience as hers. My first contacts with people (read: older men) in charge of the same religion program which I later attended occurred when I was just out of college, and quite skinny and cute, if I do say so myself. I got the very clear impression that I was not taken seriously. Several years later, the same person, only about 40-50 pounds heavier and less cute on account of that, was respected and welcomed into the program, even given a large scholarship. I don't know for sure, but I am afraid there is a bias in the religion and philosophy world that you can be too pretty to be taken seriously.

11:40 PM  

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