I am sitting at a table filled with my closest church friends. I love these women. They are funny. They are beautiful. They are Christ to me. We are laughing and joking about our husbands and kids, when suddenly the conversation shifts. Someone mentions needing to lose a little weight for a wedding and someone else suggests the latest diet craze. Suddenly, I feel like an outsider. You see, I decided a few years ago that I would no longer participate in conversations like this. They weren’t helpful for me. I would leave them feeling ashamed or less than. I could never measure up. I didn’t want to be at war with my body anymore and I don’t want to encourage anyone else to be either.
I checked out of diet talk, for good and I have never looked back.
As a therapist who works exclusively with eating disorders I spend a lot of time talking about people’s bodies. I expect it at work. However, body talk always catches me off guard a little at church.
Not because this kind of talk isn’t common in churches, but because this is the last place body shame needs to be.
I want to back up and tell you why I am so passionate about this issue. As an eating disorder specialist and a recovered person, I know first hand the need for safe spaces. They are few and far between. A space where food rules aren’t being constantly discussed. A space where body comparison isn’t the norm. A space whereyour worth and value isn’t measured by your clothing size. So often, our churches are not these safe spaces. Diet culture is deeply entrenched in our church community and we are sort of okay with it. Even though it’s not okay.
Which is really weird.
I mean, aren’t we filled with the spirit no matter what size body we live in? Aren’t we equally loved and valued whether we are “healthy” or “unhealthy”? Aren’t we, as Christians, the people who should be spreading this message the loudest?
Yet, it is in the church setting that I find myself constantly bombarded by this talk. I have to believe it’s because we don’t know any better. Which has set me on a mission to speak out against diet talk in our church.
Because … that teenage girl who hears you bash your body is wondering what that says about hers. That young boy who is struggling for his life needs a safe space where he can heal from anorexia. That older woman needs to know she is beautiful and valuable even if her body is not the idealized version it once was or never could be.
I believe we know this truth; we just forget to profess it. Our bodies are just vessels for our souls. The aesthetics are merely a side effect, not the most important thing.
In Matt 23: 13-39 Jesus goes on a well-deserved tirade against the Pharisees and teachers of the law. In theses verses he hits on something that really speaks to me. Although he probably wasn’t talking about our physical bodies I think the message he is trying to communicate applies. He tells the spiritual leaders in verse 25 that they are hypocrites because they wash the outside of a cup while they leave the inside filthy. I believe that this is what we are doing when we send the message that appearance is the most important thing. We pass along this teaching: you can be faithful but it would be better if you were faithful and conventionally attractive (which means thin). We have focused on the outside of the glass for so long, I fear that sometimes we can’t even see the inside anymore.
I was talking with a client the other day, who was really struggling with constant comparisons. She would compare herself to other women, nonstop. I asked her, “How do you know what kind of person that woman is?” It was like she had never even considered this.
I told her a parable.
I was in a restaurant the other day and the waitress came to ask about my drink I responded, “Bring me the best looking cup you have.” When she asked to clarify, I said, “Bring me something really beautiful, hand blown glass, intricate details, whatever you have. Just make sure the glass is beautiful.” She thought it was an odd request, but was happy to accommodate me. When she asked me what I wanted to drink in my stunning glass I said, “Oh! Fill it with toilet water!”
My client chuckled. I was being ridiculous. But the point was made.
We have made the vessel so much more important than what we house inside ourselves.
More important than our souls.
Even in our churches.
I want to place a holy and heartfelt challenge before you, church. Start looking inside the glass. Look for the soul in yourself and in every person you encounter. I promise when you do this, you will see more beauty than you ever thought possible. More Jesus. You will be seeing people the way that Jesus sees you. Not as our sins, our health problems (or lack thereof), or our body size. Thinness is not next to godliness. God knows that and it’s time that we knew it too.
Celeste Smith is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Associate and eating disorder specialist from Tyler, Texas. Celeste and her husband have been in youth ministry for 16 years and currently work for Glenwood Church of Christ. She is passionate about self care, self acceptance, intuitive eating, and the church. Celeste desires to advocate for the church to become a safer space to those experiencing mental health struggles. She loves youth ministry, reading, spending time with her three children, coffee on the porch with her husband, road trips, and backpacking.