During the holiday season we’re bombarded constantly with contradictory messages about how we ought to take care of our bodies this time of year. Over the early winter months there is a collective expectation and even glorification of indulging in all kinds of ways–eating, drinking, spending money, etc. But if we dare enjoy ourselves a bit, we’re then on the receiving end of the diet and fitness culture propaganda that capitalizes on our time of indulging by telling us we need to clean up our eating and get (back) to the gym–assuring us that 2018 will be the year when we finally achieve our “dream bodies.”
Oftentimes the coded language of “wellness,“ “clean eating,” and even “health” is rooted in the same problematic framework that toxic diet and fitness culture espouses: your best self is your thinnest self. Strict binary language used to describe food–processed foods high in fat or sugar are “bad” while fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are “good”–attributes moral weight to what we eat. Beneath this is the myth that our health outcomes and the way that our bodies look are completely within our control. If we simply commit to “healthy” habits, we can become “good” (thin).
Our cultural emphasis on health centers primarily on individual success stories. Despite the research that says diets don’t work, we are obsessed with the personal weight loss journeys of celebrities and participants in shows like The Biggest Loser. They convince us that despite what the science and data say, we too can find a way to rise above and to become another exception to the rule if we only try hard enough.
These stories distract us from the economic realities that shape our access to health. Instead our focus ought to be on systemic injustices that prevent those who are poor from accessing grocery stores stocked with affordable, high-quality produce; safe green spaces to enjoy the outdoors; and quality health care services. Public assistance programs, like SNAP, for those who are food insecure often do not cover the full cost family’s monthly food budget. This is especially difficult for parents of young children who are forced to make tough decisions about how they spend their benefits. Often this meaning that they buy what is least expensive and most palatable to their young children, like shelf-stable processed foods that lack the proper nutrients needed for a well-balanced diet.
Through initiatives like food banks and free hot meals, many faith communities are able to help fill these food gaps that individuals and families living in poverty experience. But in some instances religious communities are actually culpable in reinforcing problematic diet and fitness culture, and a few of them even benefit monetarily from their participation in it.
The Daniel Plan, created by evangelical pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church and The Purpose-Driven Life, is based on a passage from the book of Daniel in which Daniel is said to have resisted the king’s rich food and wine and instead ate only vegetables and water. After ten days of this vegetarian diet, Daniel is purported to have looked healthier than the other young men who ate the royal food. (Note that the emphasis is on his appearance, not the state of his health.)
At its essence the Daniel Plan diet is nearly identical to practically every other diet–eat less food, move your body more–but with the addition of “relying on God’s power” throughout the process. If you fail to lose weight on the Daniel Plan, then you’ve not only let yourself down. You have also disappointed God. What faith communities ought to be doing is challenging the narrative that our health is completely within our control and that we can be “good” (thin) if we only work hard enough and trust God enough. We ought to be working towards systemic change that will make the pursuit of health accessible to all, regardless of income.
This topic was the focus of our latest episode of the Kindreds podcast entitled “Bodies, Health, and Wellness.” You can listen on our website or find us on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, or anywhere else you listen to podcasts.
Katey Zeh, M.Div is a strategist, writer, and speaker who inspires communities to create amore just, compassionate world. She has written for outlets including Huffington Post, Sojourners, Religion Dispatches, Response magazine, the Good Mother Project, and the Journal for Feminist Studies in Religion. She is the co-host of Kindreds, a podcast for soul sisters. Her book Women Rise Up will be published by the FAR Press in March of 2018. Find her on Twitter at @kateyzeh or on her website kateyzeh.com.