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Does the Church Encourage Body Shaming?

Does the Church Encourage Body Shaming?

Nicole Morgan, author of Fat and Faithful: Learning to Love Our Bodies, Our Neighbors, and Ourselves, grew up involved in the church from the time she was born. But the church was actually the main reason for her body shame throughout her teenage and young adult years.

We had a chance to talk with Nicole about her experience in the church growing up, and what leaders in the church should know about body shaming.

RELEVANT: In the intro, you start out by saying, “I grew up fat and loving Jesus.” Could you elaborate on what that was like? Did that change your perspective on the church?

Nicole Morgan: I grew up in a Christian family, we went to a Southern Baptist church. From about the time I was four, I look back at my pictures and was always pretty chubby. Having a larger body has always been my experience for as long as I can remember.

And I always say that most of my body shame started at the church. People would never tell me that I was awful, or something like that. But I heard, lots of times, whether it was from the pastor or the classes advertised in the church, like they would do Bible-based weight loss studies. There was always this message that you needed to lose weight. Or my pastor would say he exercised and ate right because he didn’t want to become a “fat and lazy creature.” And I remember that really stuck with me.

I think no one was overtly mean, or anything like that. People had the best intentions when they talked about body size and weight and faith. But what I heard as a kid was that my fat body was unusable by God. It prevented me to fully live my calling as a Christian because I heard that my fatness itself was a sin. And that really distracted me. I thought it meant I couldn’t be a missionary or a good representation of Jesus because who would believe me when I said Jesus was powerful, but he couldn’t even change my body.

Did this affect your faith or your relationship with Jesus?

I never abandoned my faith because of it, but it was always a struggle. I felt like it was something I couldn’t get a grip on, and that I was failing God because I couldn’t manage to lose weight. It never made me want to stop trying, but it was definitely a force of struggle and pain in that regard.

There was a period of my life when I wasn’t active in the church. It wasn’t solely based on this reason; there were other struggles. But there are specific churches I know I would not attend because they focus a big part of their Christian education on weight-loss Bible studies.

If my current church added it to their list of things, I would want to meet with the pastors and church leaders and really urge them not to offer those classes. And if they persisted, I would probably leave that specific church.

What is something you think people in the church should understand about body shaming people?

I think one of the biggest things for me is the difference between gluttony and fatness. They are not the same thing. Gluttony is about consuming, but consuming in a way that oppresses or harms other people, especially the marginalized. There’s a whole chapter on that in my book where we look at different Bible stories.

So often, we just want to make gluttony and fatness the same thing. And that’s just not true. I think that really hinders our ability to be the Church as a whole. I think the purpose of the Church is to love God and love our neighbors. And we do that best when we’re all functioning as a part of the Body and all dealing with ways that our choices impact or hinder our ability to love our neighbors. And I think naming fatness as a sin instead of actually dealing with what gluttony is and what body image in the image of God is hinders individual’s abilities to live into their calling to love God and their neighbors. It makes the church as a whole ineffective.

During your journey, is there any specific verse you clung to?

My favorite one is Psalm 119:15… It’s, of course, the “you are wonderfully made” verse, but it’s actually the one after that, which says, “My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. I was woven together in the depths of the earth.”

That always served as a reminder to me that the physical shape of my body is part of how God created me and who I am.

What specifically made you want to write this book?

In terms of addressing the issue in general, that moment came very specifically and clearly for me. I was praying at church and was visibly distraught and upset about something that had absolutely nothing to do with my body or my weight. And someone came up with me to the altar, as they do, to pray with me. They started praying out loud, and they prayed for me to be freed from the sin of my weight. And at that moment, I had been exposed to this idea of health and exercise church classes for years.

I was having a moment of brokenness and all this person saw was my body. So I knew I wanted to speak into this issue and talk about what our bodies are and are not, and how God made our bodies.

To someone who is going through the same situation you’re going through, feeling judged and body shamed and all of these things, what’s some advice you would offer?

My first statement is always to give yourself a little grace. We often beat ourselves up for feeling bad about ourselves, and it just becomes a cycle. But just to acknowledge and to know that our world is set up to make it easier to be thin. So wanting that is normal in our culture. Our world was designed to make you want that. So grace for yourself as people who struggle to find a healthier body image.

And then I think it’s just small steps from there. No one is going to dive in and never have any body shame or doubts, but taking small steps is a big deal. Whether you start journaling, and every day you write out the mantra, “My body is made in the image of God.” I’m a big fan of small steps.

It’s such a loaded issue, especially for women, men struggle with it as well. But we can get very wrapped up with how we view our bodies and how others view our bodies. So grace and small steps.

What is one thing you want someone to take away from this book?

It’s simple: God loves you just as you are. You are qualified and capable in the body that you have.

This interview was originally published in 2018.

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