It feels like things should be different in the church. Markers of spiritual maturity, like depth of character or willingness to serve, should trump my above-average BMI, but rarely is that the case. I see it in the faces of guys I’m meeting for the first time after being matched on eHarmony, even though we’ve exchanged weeks of witty banter and embarrassing confessions. I hear it in the concerned tones of mentors and parents who repeat phrases such as, “You’ve got such a pretty face,” and “I know you want to be married someday. Do you think losing weight would help?”
Every ounce of my being cringes, because they’re probably right. And I hate that. I am talented and opinionated and passionate and valuable. I am good at writing and making jokes and cleaning. I would make a wonderful wife. I would love to pass my days maneuvering a minivan full of foster kids to soccer games and recitals and tutoring. None of these things would be diminished because of my size, yet none of them seem to matter because of my size.
This problem only seems to be magnified by another byproduct of conservative Christian culture: the pressure to be married. As a single woman, I have often felt like an outlier in the church. The natural assumption is that I want to be married, so to still be single at 27 makes me the object of pity, scrutiny, or, at worse, apathy. While I do dream of marriage, I feel helpless in pursuing it when I’ve only experienced rejection from men in the church. People assume I should be actively working toward finding a husband, an exhausting process that leaves me feeling rejected and judged as a result of my weight, or I should be working to lose weight in order to make myself a more appealing option. I’ve had Christians justify this pressure by dismissing unrealistic beauty standards with a simple, “Well, men are visual creatures after all.”
While I cannot speak for all women, I can say that being overweight has diminished (and most often completely erased) any interest from men. I once had a close friend confide in me that a boy I liked told her he could never date me, despite being “attracted to my personality,” because of my weight, because he was embarrassed by me. It was my worst nightmare come true — that my personality does not offer enough redemption for my looks. That my body is a great concession that a man would have to make. That everything that makes me lovable cannot outweigh my weight.
Part of this has to do with basic demographics of the church today: For men, it’s a buyer’s market. With the surplus of godly, talented, accomplished Christian women, men can afford to be pickier, holding tightly to standards of physical attraction, sense of humor, similar interests, all the way to taste in coffee. Women, on the other hand, have narrowed down their lists primarily to non-negotiables: growing in the Lord, bathing regularly. That’s it.
And if you are overweight, you can’t remain that way. When getting to know a guy, I like to hint at my weight loss journey (truly a lifelong battle — I remember being on a self-induced diet when I was only 8), because it seems the only kind of tolerable fat person is the one who’s not okay being fat, the one who despises it as much, if not more, than everyone else.
I’m sure much of what I’m writing will feel familiar to others struggling with weight, regardless of their faith walk. But what’s particular to more traditional believers is the conviction that my weight reveals some evidence of spiritual trouble.
Gluttony, after all, is the sin that you can see. Therefore, to be fat is a sin because many believe to be fat is to be a living, breathing testament to overindulgence or lack of self-restraint. To be fat is to be a bad witness for Christ — or so I’ve heard some pastors preach. How can God redeem and save my life if he’s not even able to help me maintain a healthy weight? Somehow, my body is sizable enough to undermine the power of the Gospel.
I’ve received plenty of lectures armed with cherry-picked verses. A Christian’s body is the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19). We, as believers, must show self-control in all things (2 Timothy 1:7). Gluttony, one of the seven deadly sins, is clearly rebuked in Scripture (Proverbs 23:20-21).
I’ve been told that my weight is a poor reflection of the stewardship God demands of me in all things, because, after all, we are “to offer our bodies as living sacrifices” (Romans 12:1). And, yes, I do believe people in the church feel more freedom to address these issues because we have a command, as Christians, to “love one another to good works” (Hebrews 10:24-25) and to bring forward any sin we may see. Fellow Christians have a biblical mandate to call out the sin in my life, and with that action they can also work toward eliminating an unsightly blemish on the church roster.
Gluttony, however, only seems to be a problem when it results in displeasing physical appearances. Only with those who consume three slices of pizza at Bible study and weigh significantly more than a chart demands can we assume gluttony is the secret sin.
But at the end of the day, being fat isn’t a sin. Overindulgence is. A lack of self-control certainly is. Eating excessive amounts to fill an emotional void, while not necessarily sinful, is not indicative of a healthy spiritual life. But being overweight can be caused by a whole host of things (plummeting metabolisms, hormone imbalance, thyroid problems, bad genes or even socioeconomic considerations). And yet these factors are rarely considered when a well-meaning friend sends me a link to the latest fad diet or a man avoids my eye as he announces to the waitress that no, we won’t be needing dessert.
Often I think others identify me by three adjectives, and always in this order: fat, single, Christian. The fat explains the single, and both of these make me less of a Christian — or at least that’s the way it feels when a pastor tries to convince me of the spiritual and relational merits of losing weight. And, unfortunately, unrealistic body expectations are just one way that we diminish and derail the value of women in the church. My weight does not determine my worth. Only by ignoring the shame and embarrassment I feel in writing a post like this can we begin a healthy discussion, acknowledging the detrimental effects of our preoccupation with physical beauty.
In my limited dating experience, I can testify that love isn’t given a chance to grow without attraction. While I can’t fault a man for not being attracted to me, I can find fault in a church that seeks to blame me for his lack of attraction. When it seems that godliness is equated with an average BMI, I feel like I’ve lost this game before I even got a chance to play. Dating is hard enough without having to navigate body issues and the spiritual deficits that come in the pockets of my size 16 jeans.
So as I’m covertly hiding the Snickers in my cart and contritely loading up my diet shakes, I take peace in remembering that God sees the heart. God cares so much more about my prayer life than my calorie intake. He expects me to love my neighbors, of all shapes and sizes, and He welcomes me at the foot of the cross where there’s enough room for all, even those of us with sizable hips.
Joy Beth Smith is the editor of Boundless, a blog for young adults run by Focus on the Family. A version of this essay originally ran on Boundless.