The Idol of Thinness
Rarely have I heard people talk about the idol of thinness. Last fall I did a bible study called Identity Theft: Reclaiming the Truth of our Identity in Christ and it got me thinking about how things that aren’t necessarily unhealthy can become idols for some. In the study, Melissa Kruger put it like this, “Idolatry takes something potentially good and makes it too important. That means some things we idolize —even beauty and external appearance— can be good and healthy in themselves. But when they take over our hearts and minds, they quickly fill the space only God is supposed to occupy.”
Since being a good steward of our bodies doesn’t guarantee thinness, at what point does one’s pursuit of a body size turn into an idol? Is it ever okay to pursue a certain body size? Is there a way to pursue a particular body size in a way that glorifies God? These are questions I think each person has to ask themselves. But teasing apart what our appearance-focused culture says vs. what God says about this topic can be complicated, since simply being in the world will leave us with a thinness-glorifying babble that daily pollutes our ears and then our thoughts. An issue definitely arises when one thinks pursuing thinness is not only healthy, but godly.
For someone with an eating disorder present or past (myself, included here), I would argue there is never an appropriate time to purse a particular body size. I instead agree with an approach to health that focuses on healthful behaviors rather than one that focuses on achieving a particular aesthetic or weight. I’m not against thinness, as some people end up thin when they care for themselves (just as some people end up with more fat on their body), but I am for calling out idols our culture has created. Idols that don’t enrich your life, but rather keep you distracted, depressed, lonely, and striving towards something that will make you physically and mentally less of yourself, typically at the sacrifice of something that wasn’t meant to be sacrificed.
How does the idol of thinness take hold? As Powlison put it in Idols of the Heart and Vanity Fair, “many of the nuances of our idolatries are socially shaped by the opportunities and values that surround us…we tend to be blind to the things that move us.” Our appearance-focused culture can take what may have begun as a legitimate God-given desire (i.e. Paul says in 1 Timothy 4:8, “physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come”) and metastasize and mutate it into something resembling self-absorption and idolatry. Powlison goes on to say that, “We are lied to in 10,000 ways by messages that elicit and pander to our lusts and fears. The world variously bullies and seduces us, which births sin, which reaps death.”
In the book Natural Causes, a reporter from New York Times’ was quoted saying, “What Goop (and acolytes like Moon Juice) sell is the notion that it’s not only excusable but worthy for a person to spend hours a day focused on her tiniest mood shifts, food choices, beauty rituals, exercise habits, bathing routines and sleep schedule. What they sell is self-absorption as the ultimate luxury product.” Which leads me to wonder, what happens if we become image bearer of a societal standard that isn’t rooted in godliness, health or wholeness, but it rooted in self-obsession* and achieving a particular aesthetic? 2 Kings 17:15 puts it rather straight-forward with, “They followed worthless idols and become worthless themselves.”
I’ll wrap up with 3 lies concerning eating and outward appearance that, if believed, can cause great damage:
Lie 1: The amount of space you take up determines how valuable you are.
Hatred of fat is born from our culture, not Christ. I really don’t think God cares much about our body sizes, yet our appearance and wellness preoccupied culture have us believe otherwise. A podcast I listen to occasionally (Knowing Faith) stated that, “since there’s nothing you could do to make God love you less, there’s nothing you can do to make God love you more.” That is so hard for me to grasp, so even if we choose to continue pursing thinness, there is nothing you could do to make God love you less. Period. Yet, I think it’s hard to have a relationship with Christ and sense the Holy Spirit if your thoughts and actions are preoccupied with body dissatisfaction and controlling food and exercise in a severely rigid way. That was my experience, but perhaps you see it differently? In Susie Davis’ book Dear Daughters she suggests that perhaps, “your soul can’t settle in peaceful with a body you hate.” If we’re preoccupied with something God doesn’t seem to care much about, we may be missing out on something lovely.
Lie 2: How you interact with food is at the top of God’s priority list.
John Piper says, “My guess is that when it comes to eating this food or that, we are in greater spiritual danger of judging people where we shouldn’t than we are in physical danger of eating what we shouldn’t.”**
Our appearance-frenzied culture has put how we interact with food so high up on our priority list that we forget there are far more important matters to attend to than what we put into our bodies. If food is complicated and breaks your connection to Christ in some way, food is probably something worth trying to de-complicate so you don’t have to torture yourself concerning whether to eat the brownie or not. Assessing your eating and drinking and pondering on if it’s done in a way that glorifies God is worth doing. Whether a fast-food burger or a veggie-heavy Meatless Monday entree, depending on your situation, either can be consumed rooted in a motive that you’re able to identify as pleasing to God.
Lie 3: Disordered eating or following a diet simplifies life to a set of rules and I need to simplify my life.
For many with disordered eating and eating disorders, we are craving a way to simplify the hurts in our lives. Something that allows us an escape from the pain of ________. Something else that can simplify is the Spirit and the Word, which can make our lives fruitful and less complicated.
Actionable step to move forward
Not having our culture’s ideal body size is a great practice for finding your worth from something that isn’t your body. Tolerating the discomfort of being in a body size you don’t fully want forces you to find your worth in something less temporary. Daily we decide if we’ll serve God or any of a shifting multitude of idols encouraged by the media we consume, our spouse, our self, or another loud source that’s in our life.
RESOURCES USED FOR THIS ARTICLE: The Bible, Identity Theft: Reclaiming the Truth of our Identity in Christ, Revisiting Idols of the Heart and Vanity Fair, Persuasion podcast, 5 years experience working / training in eating disorders
(*when someone has been disconnected from their hunger and fullness cues from years due to chronic dieting and/or an eating disorder, there is a level of hyperawareness of our God-given body cues that one must lean into to become an intuitive eater and make food and body image less complicated. I don’t view that as self-obsession. I’m all for increasing interoceptive awareness so you can care for yourself and not harm yourself with dieting or the eating disorder anymore. Most people describe it like when you’re learning to drive a car you have to be hyper-vigilant as you put the car in reverse, check you mirrors, etc., but overtime this process becomes automatic and driving doesn’t require such a large amount of your focus. Same with listening to your body cues. At first it seems a bit all consuming (and it is), but overtime it becomes less so and assumes the proper percentage of your thoughts.)
(**I push back against this quote a bit. I don’t agree with the idea that we can’t judge anything as bad in itself. We should make distinctions in life as necessary, but we should do this without condemning any person, as only God probes human hearts and can see other’s motives/intentions and can be the ultimate judge.)