Religion of thin: Concordia professor examines America's obsession with weight
By J. Shane Mercer
One passionate soul gushes, "I cannot explain the joy and happiness that I have experienced in the past year."
Another feels "so lucky to have a brand-new life, a second chance. The quality of my life has increased in immeasurable ways." Testimonies of the recently converted faithful at a revival meeting? Nope. They're quotes from the Web sites of weight loss programs.
If it sometimes seems like the weight loss pursuit in America has become something more than an obsession with good health, there may just be a reason.
Concordia College Associate Professor Michelle Lelwica, author of the book "The Religion of Thinness," argues that weight loss and the quest to be thin in the U.S. function like a false god and a pseudo-religion.
It's part of the reason why Americans spend more than $60 billion a year trying to stay trim.
For Lelwica, these issues of weight loss are more than academic. They're very personal.
She began making herself vomit as a weight-control method at age 14. Starving, bingeing and purging became part of her life as the skinny-obsessed girl hoped others would "see in my thin body an expression of my inner goodness."
She writes that she was "certain that God 'Himself' was pleased whenever I denied my seemingly constant urge to eat."
Lelwica overcame her eating disorder. Her bulimia ended in high school, but she thinks her real recovery began in college. There, she developed interests in things other than being thin, found close friendships and talked to others who'd struggled with the same issues she had.
Among the interests that developed during that time was a curiosity about religion. It's an interest that, along with her personal experiences, drives her to dig into the connection between eating disorders and spirituality as a faculty member in the Concordia religion department and a blogger for the Huffington Post and Psychology Today Web sites.
Keeping the 'faith'
Lelwica says the "religion" (and she puts the word in quotation marks) of thinness comes with a mythology that weight loss will bring happiness.
Among this religion's "sins" are eating too much and eating the wrong things. And like the practice in some spiritual religions, guilt and the need to atone for acts of sin. For people chasing weight loss that can mean heading to the gym for a caloric sacrifice or more radical forms of purging.
Lelwica says that, for some, weight loss is a means of fulfilling what she would describe as "spiritual" needs - things like love, purpose, strength, stability, inspiration and even community.
If weight loss has become a "faith," so to speak, the coffers of its churches are full.
"Americans spend over $60 billion per year trying to shed their 'excess' flesh," writes Lelwica, who holds a doctorate in theology from Harvard.
Taking projected market growth into account, the numbers come to $200 per person in the U.S. in 2010.
And while both genders are spending their money on ways to lose weight, Lelwica's book focuses on women in America.
"There's a way in which our culture worships the slender female body," she says.
Dr. Kelly Kadlec, a psychologist at the MeritCare Eating Disorder Institutes in Fargo, agrees that there seems to be more pressure on women in terms of appearance.
"There's kind of a double standard, I think, in society," she says.
And she says the obsession with weight loss "really goes hand-in-hand" with eating disorders.
But Lelwica believes there are "increasing pressures on men to shape up and trim down or beef up and trim down" and that our obsession with getting svelte is being exported to other parts of the world.
While Lelwica is critical of weight loss obsession, no one's lobbying for gross obesity.
Dr. Brent Hella of Internal Medicine Associates in Fargo specializes in nonsurgical medical weight loss methods. He says there is research indicating that being overweight is "actually a disease in itself."
But Lelwica says that to "critique culture's idealization of thinness is not the same as promoting obesity."
She says being thin doesn't equal good health and that we should think of "health more broadly including mental, physical and spiritual health." Furthermore, the culture needs to realize that good health "does not look just one way." And Lelwica believes that those in good health can include people with "some meat" on their bones.
A deeper need
While Lelwica doesn't see dieting as the way to find fulfillment, she also doesn't belittle the human drive for things like love, peace and inspiration. She just doesn't see getting skinny as the path to those things.
She says that for some women, getting those needs met may mean digging more deeply into their traditional faiths. Others may need to find other forms of "spiritual nourishment."
"The unfortunate truth is that by placing our hopes on the size of our bodies, we bury the deeper yearnings that are disguised by our anxieties about weight and eating," she writes. "The real problem is not our soft bellies or well-rounded buttocks. We crave more than food."
Read more from Lelwica
"One of the consequences of living in an image-saturated society is that many of us develop a rather superficial, image-oriented relationship with our bodies. Our nearly non-stop exposure to advertisements, TV, films, the Internet, and other media trains us to see, understand, and experience our bodies as 'moving pictures' - that is, as images for others to view rather than as the moving home and ground of our being."