Thursday, November 4, 2010

Eating Issues in a (Very) Hungry World

Perhaps its the fact that I wasn't quite as quick on my feet at the Luther Bowl as I've been in past years. Or maybe its due to the gradually increasing numbers in the waistlines in my pants. Maybe it had to do with walking by those hulk-sized mirrors in the entry-way of Brodie Gymnasium at Duke - meant to reassure me that such aspirations of body-type were absurd, yet always managing to remind me of my decidedly non-hulk-itude. Reason tells me I'm just getting old, and as my body decreases the tempo on its metabolic suite, the instrument just doesn't sound the same. But that irrational side of me that is increasingly sensitive to changes in my own corporeal nature can't help but pick up on and ponder two cultural soundings from the past week that bring issues of eating disorder and body perception to the fore.

Earlier today, The Daily Beast ran a head-lining article (which has since disappeared from their main page) about the emergence of "Fat Studies" programs at various colleges across the country. Concerned with the marked scarcity of "plus-sized silhouettes" on the campuses of the nation's top schools, college profs are turning to texts like The Fat Studies Reader to begin investigating not only the phenomena, but also individuals' experience of living with, obesity in the midst of a culture whose deck is stacked in favor of the thin and the glamorous. Issues raised include "How is weight perceived in different countries? What do media depictions of larger sizes say about our social priorities? What if there were a "fat gene," and what if we could test for it prenatally?" The article's author, Eva Binder, a conspicuously thin Yale undergraduate, maps the current debate as to whether such a program is in fact academically rigorous, or whether it merely serves as therapeutic self-help and self-affirmation under a scholarly guise. According to the writer:

Recent studies have shown that body-consciousness can not only hurt academic performance in high school, but can also deter fat students from applying to college, and from receiving adequate help and attention from teachers and college advisors. The exact amount of attrition is impossible to pinpoint, but members of fat academia have noticed the scarcity of plus-size silhouettes on campus—particularly in exclusive private schools, where Fat Studies is most likely to be funded and taught. "The more elite a campus is, the fewer people you will see who are anything but ideal weight," says Dr. Rothblum, explaining that in addition to being daunting to fat students, top-tier schools tend to attract applicants from stronger socioeconomic backgrounds, who are much less likely to be overweight.

Noting this dilemma and countering the academic skepticism about these programs, Binder seems to be taking an advocacy stance herself, attempting to raise awareness for a group she deems increasingly marginalized:

That resistance may eventually fade if Fat Studies takes root on campus. But if that's going to happen, slender students may need to turn up the volume of their support for the subject. "For members of any oppressed group, the ones who are allowed a foot in the door are the ones who look as mainstream as possible," says Dr. Rothblum. If that's the case, then the fat-exclusive movement that Ms. Johnson once faced could be a thing of the past. What fat activism needs now, it seems, are a few small waistlines.

Reaching a much wider audience was last week's episode of television's smash hit high school drama Glee, entitled "The Rocky Horror Glee Show." Overshadowing the episode's main drama, which once more revolved around the vain attempts of Mr Schuster to manipulate and stretch the limits of his position as high school teacher in pursuit of self-fulfillment and happiness, was a surprising sub-plot having to do with male struggles with their bodies. For those not yet addicted, Finn, the vapid high school quarterback, has been cast in a role in the cult drama which requires him to appear in naught but his skinnies on stage before the entire school. His resultant anxiety at his lack of a perfect body, unrelieved by the reassurances of his girlfriend Rachel (portrayed by a Lea Michele who herself looks like she hasn't eaten anything since before they started filming last season's premier...), is deepened by the presence of fellow glee-clubber and friend-rival Sam, who not only sports a chiseled physique, but also spouts about his "ab-ulousness" as he lectures the boys on cutting calories and working out. Sam's wisdom? "There ain't no carpool lane to sexy...if you get up on stage looking like the Pillsbury Dough Boy, there's no way you're staying popular." In a rare profound moment, the show educates its audience through Artie, who declaims that

Personally, I blame the Internet. Once Internet porn was invented, girls could watch without having to make that embarrassing trip to the video store. Internet porn altered the female brain chemistry, making them more like men, and thus more concerned with our bodies.

Whether or not this science is plausible, Glee risks meaningfulness in pointing to the growing numbers of young men who have joined the ranks of an already tragic army of benighted young women who are fighting a losing battle against eating disorders and social pressure.

What is striking to me about both Binder's article and Glee's foray into the prophetic is the marked silence their voices reveal within the theological community in these matters. A quick Google search and parousal of Amazon reveals an alarming paucity of engagement by Christian thinkers with either obesity or eating disorders, the exception being groups like Focus on the Family, who has released several volumes on raising "fit kids," or various biblical counseling publishers who seek to uproot the sin at the heart of struggles with food at both ends of the spectrum. While not meaning to disparage well-intentioned efforts, there is very little in the way of thoughtful theological and pastoral reflection on the implications of obesity for the Christian life, or the devastation wrought upon human life by distorted appetites (or the lack thereof)towards food.

A turn to the web reveals a further striking issue: many websites' that DO address issues of obesity in particular do so in reference to the sin of "gluttony." I found several websites debating whether or not an obese Christian was fit to be ordained, given their continued practice of this deadly sin; one even compared such struggles to homosexuality, and on one facebook page, various detractors claimed there was even a greater biblical warrant to exclude fat people from church than there was practicing homosexual Christians!

I raise these concerns not so that we can all go have a laugh at the poor fundamentalists and their outmoded hermeneutics, but rather, as I argued in a book review on Mark Driscoll, it is a mark of shame for the church and her theologians that such crucial issues that effect so many human lives have been left to the province of gimmicky college programs, American Idol knock-offs, and a slim portion of the Church's rich theological heritage. If we will not look these issues in the face and respond with the Gospel of new creation, others will.

As someone whose own struggles with certain foods is often experienced as a kind of addiction, and who claims the heritage of plus-sized theologians from Augustine to Aquinas to Luther (Calvin was, on the other hand, a bean-pole), I think the Church owes it to herself and her members to build on the recent "green theology" and "agrarian/food" movements to provide an accounting of and a word of Good News to a world that struggles with and calls out for an answer to the powers of obesity and eating disorders. The Church has taken tremendous strides in addressing the starving ones of this world; she cannot afford to forget about the hungry ones as well. Jesus Christ loved to super-size the meals he offered others - but always for the sake of providing for His sheep. Its time for our shepherds to do the same - including myself, which I will in future posts.

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