For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. - Psalm 139:13-14
Image by Jera Vanbeek
Not long ago, I found myself circled up with neighbors in the church parking lot. The conversation quickly turned to how our lives might soon change again. COVID vaccinations were just starting to become more available in our area. We knew we would all be eligible soon and wondered about the loosening of precautions. Could we hug our parents and grandchildren? Would there be backyard BBQs? Might in-person worship and singing be possible? Then, leaning in with a hushed voice one person said, “I’m so not ready to try on my old Sunday clothes.”
There were loud exhales and nods of solidarity. We felt what the research has also indicated. If your body has changed in the last year, you’re not alone. 42% of Americans have gained weight during the pandemic and 18% reported unwanted weight loss. Given the higher levels of stress and massive disruption to our habits and support systems, these kinds of impacts are understandable. In a less broken world, we might simply dwell in gratitude for the God in whom we still “live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:26), giving thanks that our bodies have carried us into another day!
Alas, the systems of shame and body terrorism have not ceased their machinations and will not let us simply love ourselves. At the least, they say our bodies are not good enough. At the worst, they are bad and disposable. The diet culture industries are particularly adept at branding harm as health. Before/after “transformation” posts, ads for fasting apps on TikTok and weight loss products branded as “life-changing”, “holistic” or “psychology-based” all sell us the same lie in different packaging. “Vices have to masquerade as virtues…” to convince us to contort our joy to achieve the ideal weight and health. The obsession with weight loss as a cure-all, even pervades our medical system, where fat-shaming leads to negative quality of care and outcomes.
We want to be healthy, right? Of course we do. But defining health cannot be the sole purview of an empire intent on criminalizing some bodies and idolizing others. Our vision for wellness, must also take into account the Hebrew vision of shalom, in which peace is expressed as mutual flourishing and abundance. Your body will never be my body. Mine will never be yours. Idolatry of the singular perfect aesthetic, disguised as the pursuit of health, destroys shalom.
Our embodied particularities are key to what makes us each uniquely good. Abiding shalom comes from the building of a resilient communal body with many members, all these are activated by one and the same Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:11). Even the psalmist's thanksgiving that we are “wonderfully made”, in the Hebrew context, carries the implication of uniqueness and of being set apart.
“Body shame makes us view bodies in narrow terms like ‘good’ or bad’, or ‘better’ or ‘worse” than our own. Radical self-love invites us to love our own bodies in a way that transforms how we understand and accept the bodies of others.” - Sonya Renee Taylor, The Body is Not An Apology
The good news is that the sins of body shame and terrorism are derivative. They do not have power and unique goodness of their own. They twist and distort that which is meant original and meant for good. So, resisting and disrupting body shame and harm, can begin with learning to celebrate what God calls good, our bodies amidst creation (Genesis 1:31).
That space of conversation with my neighbors was a circle of holy wondering. We asked questions, not devoid of fear, but still grounded in an abiding trust that God shows up in and among us. Where do we fit? How do we show up? What shape will our worship take? It’s true that some of our old clothes may no longer fit, but we are no longer the people we once were either. Our bodies carry our memories, stories of grief and loss, joy and survival. “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?” Let us not erase the contours of our holy temples, for they are the shape of God’s love.
If you are concerned about or health or that of a loved one, contact the National Eating Disorder Helpline online or at 800-931-2237 for support. Take their free online screening to assess your risk level.
Stress in America: One Year Later, A New Wave of Health Concerns, American Psychological Association.
Cornelius Plantinga Jr., Not the Way It's Supposed to Be : A Breviary of Sin , Eerdmans (February 6, 1996).
Sonya Renee Taylor, The Body is Not an Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love; Berrett-Koehler Publishers; 2nd edition (February 9, 2021).