Loving the Imago Dei (No Matter What It Looks Like)

My beloved readers,

I was reading my Entertainment Weekly this morning, on my favorite porcelain chair, when I came across an article on Melissa McCarthy. For anyone who doesn’t know, Melissa McCarthy is one of the hilarious actresses in the movies Bridesmaids and The Heat. She’s exceptionally talented, as both an actress and a writer. However, this article wasn’t addressing her talent. It was addressing the fact that no discussion of Melissa McCarthy’s talent can happen without a simultaneous conversation taking place about her weight.

The article continued by pointing out that any number of male actors are celebrated for their talent, regardless of their physical appearance. Only women seem to be subject to fat shaming in the public sphere. It made me angry, to say the least, and I immediately began thinking of all the things I’d like to say on the subject.

“If only,” I thought, “I had a dedicated space to express my thoughts and feelings on a variety of topics, with an audience who has proven receptive to what I have to say.”

And, here we are. My initial thoughts on writing about this topic were hesitation; this blog has always dedicated itself to theological topics, not random thoughts on cultural issues. Then, I thought about it, and I realized that body image is far more than a cultural issue – it is a spiritual issue. If human people are created in the Image of God, then any attempt to distort or shame that image falls under the purview of theology. Thus, this blog post is born.

My first thought on the issue of fat shaming, whether it be on social media or traditional media, is completely reactionary. Why is it anyone’s business? Yet, it feels like this is the last bastion of criticism that’s socially acceptable. We’ve learned, over time, that we shouldn’t shame developmentally disabled people, mentally ill people, physically handicapped people, any number of people – but it’s still open season on fat people. (I’m going to use the word “fat”, because I’m tired of the euphemisms of “heavy”, “plump” or “stocky.” No offense is intended.) Celebrities get it the worst: God forbid that a female celebrity have a baby without immediately losing all the pregnancy weight. Even worse is if a  female celebrity suddenly goes through an illness or a life change that causes weight gain.

But, it’s also all over social media. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a picture shared that pokes fun at people who are fat. Sometimes, I’ve laughed (because it’s wonderful to know that there are people fatter than me.) Sometimes, I’ve justified my disdain with concerns for the persons health. In either case, I’ve realized that I’m being a raging hypocrite. I don’t butt into other people’s lives with any other concern about their health (with the rare exception of alcohol or drug abuse.) The fact of the matter is this: I make fun of and criticize fat people because it makes me feel better about myself.

When I left Initial Entry Training in the Army (back in 2005), I weighed 185 pounds… I was mostly skin and bone, with some lean muscle attached. After 13 months in Iraq, carrying 100+ pounds of gear on 5-6 mile patrols every day, I bulked up to around 215 pounds, with lots of bulky muscle in my chest, shoulders, arms and legs. I felt amazing about myself, because I was what most people think of as “buff”. I had conformed successfully to what a soldier and man was supposed to look like.

Then came the heavy drinking, the anti-depressants, the mood stabilizers, the anti-psychotics, the sleep medications, the sleep apnea, the constant eating because I’m not sleeping…. suddenly, I’m at 280 pounds. I’m the biggest I’ve ever been in my life. The thing is, I’m still exceptionally healthy: my blood pressure and heart rate look like I’m 10 years younger than I am, my cholesterol is low, my blood sugar is stable… I have all the markers of a very healthy 31-year-old man.

Yet, I can’t be happy when I look in the mirror. In fact, I do something that I’m sure most people who are “overweight” do: I avoid taking my clothes off in front of a mirror. I don’t look at myself when I get in the shower. I wear clothes that are entirely too big for me, in order to hide the appearance of fat. I’ve made resolutions nearly every day: to run, to lift, to swim, to do something to lose the weight. Sometimes, I have done those things. Most times, I get entirely too discouraged by how much harder it is to exercise than it used to be.

I’ve read the statistics, the ones that talk about how statistically unlikely it is to lose and keep off a significant amount of weight (http://www.cracked.com/quick-fixes/fat-officially-incurable-according-to-science/). I know how hard it has been for me to lose more than 2 or 3 pounds for any length of time. I have friends and family who have struggled their entire lives with issues of weight and self-image. It’s difficult to live in a society where your entire self-worth is tied up in how much you weigh, what your BMI is, what your clothing size is. It’s tough to enjoy your life when you’re constantly worried about what you’ll look like in pictures, or what the people around you will think if you order a soda instead of water, or a burger instead of salad.

Media makes it worse. Fat people in television and movies are always either A) the funny, crass best friend or B) the main character’s challenge to re-make in a series of weight-loss, diet and exercise montages.  No where do you see a confident, self-assured fat person, who is reacted to in a normal way by his or her colleagues and peers. No where do you see fat people having a salad or drinking water for any other reason than, “I’m watching my figure.” Fat people are slobs. Fat people are lazy. Fat people don’t care about their appearance. Fat people are disgusting.

I heard this rhetoric for the last 4 years or so that I was in the Army, unable to keep my weight below 235 pounds, no matter how much PT I did, no matter how much I restricted my calories. I watched good, hard-working people get held back for promotion and awards by regulations that were designed specifically to discriminate against fat people. Not unhealthy people. Not people who couldn’t do their jobs. We’re talking about officially sanctioned fat-shaming.
Here’s the part where I tell you why this is a spiritual problem. First, and most obviously, it’s a spiritual problem for the fat shamers. There’s something in a book somewhere about “judge not, lest ye also be judged” that Christian people are supposed to be reading. It goes on to talk about “by the same measure you judge”, so unless you plan on never, ever gaining weight, I strongly recommend that you be careful with your criticisms. It’s also difficult to maintain a Christian mindset if you’re constantly making other children of God feel like they’re somehow less worthy, less special, less treasured in the eyes of God because of extra pounds or fat cells.

This carries over to my fat brothers and sisters: don’t you know that you’re made in the Image of God, the Imago Dei? Even with your rolls, your paunch or pooch, your thunder thighs, your honky-tonk badonkadonk… all those things are part of your image, the image that you carry to the world, the image of God. “Be not conformed to the image of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” Too many people – too many Christians – are convinced that the image that the world has given us as a paradigm is the image we need to conform to. But, nothing in the Sacred Scriptures, nothing that Jesus ever said leads me to believe that your clothing size determines your worth before Almighty God. “Man looks upon the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” So, on the contrary, it truly is a person’s “inner beauty”, their spirit, their empathy, their compassion that determines how they stand before God.

Fat-shaming won’t stop. We’re obsessed, as a culture, with a body-image. I can’t change the culture. But, what I hope that I can change, is one person’s idea of what they’re worth. Your fat cells, your cortisol levels, your weight… none of those things can change what you are: a child of the Most High, redeemed by the Messiah, indwelt by the Holy Spirit.

Here’s a video that I like. My love to you, wherever you are,