I saw this quote on instagram the other day and it made me think about the moralizing of food within our culture, specifically within our churches.
“If we categorize food as good and bad we’re easily categorizing ourselves as good or bad for eating them.”
We have allowed food and food behaviors to take on moral implications.
“Man I was really bad today…I ate a donut for breakfast.”
“Isn’t this chocolate cake absolutely sinful?”
“Fried foods are of the devil.”
Why does this matter to the church?
Because we are good. God created us and said “this is good.” Yet, we all feel so bad. If you are fat or have fat you have failed. You are bad. If you eat certain foods you are being bad. Think about these words used to describe food:
How long can we talk like this before we truly start to believe that people are clean or unclean based on what they eat? Which sounds like a system that Jesus died to defeat. It sounds like a system that was beginning to separate people that could never live up to the impossible moral standard set forth by others. Either they couldn’t afford to or their bodies were betraying them and keeping them outside of the group. They couldn’t pay the price. So they were out.
The religious elite would exploit the poor or sick so that they would always stand on the outside of the system meant to bring them closer to God. It angered Jesus. It angers me.
Imagine a poor mother who can only feed her child the canned green beans given out at the food pantry that you deem “unclean.” There you are eating your “clean” kale and she is feeling on the outside of a system she can’t possibly even begin to live in.
Imagine that person who struggles with an eating disorder ate some cake and she hears you sitting around talking about how “sinful,” “bad,” and “awful” it is. She will do whatever it takes to get it out of her body. Exercise to the point of injury. Not eat all day tomorrow. Purge. Because who wants to be bad, evil, and awful?
Imagine that child who is starting to question his changing body shape and the doctor he admires from church explains he needs to eat “good” foods like fruits and veggies. Suddenly he feels like he has been given the answer to why he has been feeling so down on himself, so he begins to restrict his calories so he can be “good” again.
Imagine that woman in your pew that has battled her body her entire life. She can never diet enough. Never be thin enough. Never quite attain this illusive ideal set forth by current cultural standards. She is out. You talk about how much weight you gained over the holidays (side note: holidays don’t make you gain weight, dieting does) and how “bad” you’ve been. Now she has confirmation, she has been bad all her life. That must be the problem. She dedicates herself to doing better the next day and lives the rest of her life hating her body and hating herself. Never once living the full life that Jesus calls her to.
I could go on.
We are good. We are good. We are worthy because our Father in heaven says that we are. We don’t have to punish ourselves and we don’t have to feel guilty about food.
Yet, in my work as an eating disorder therapist, I spend most of my day listening to all the ways society has made it impossible to recover from an eating disorder.
I often hear, “I ate [insert any type of food because one thing I have learned is diet culture is an inconsistent beast that chooses a different food to demonize at will] and now I just feel so guilty.”
The typical response is, “Yes, I know I shouldn’t have eaten that.”
“Should” is always shame, friends. Shame is always about our worthiness.
This is when I usually get very serious and say, “Did you steal that food from a starving child?”
“No, of course not.”
“Oh! Then you robbed a grocery store?”
“Then you stole it from a friend’s house and it was the very last one ever created so there is no way you can possibly ever replace it?”
Ridiculousness is sometimes my favorite therapeutic intervention.
Shame has no place alongside food. It’s angering that we use the same language to discuss a food that we use to talk about committing a crime.
God created us for the enjoyment of food. Our taste buds attest to that.
Food is not meant to be a source of guilt, and our churches aren’t either.
I can’t tell you how many clients I have sent off to camp, doing well in recovery, and they return deep in their eating disorder because of a comment someone made in a Bible class, during a sermon, or their youth minister was on some new fad diet they wouldn’t stop talking about.
This is why I am determined to speak out against this in our church. To end it.
A culture that supports weight loss as its primary goal is a culture that perpetuates eating disorders.
A church that puts food into categories, puts the people who eat it in those categories.
I am looking at you, church. I can’t send my clients to hear your fat-shaming Sunday sermons. Your diet talks over Sunday lunch. Your little comments passing in the hall about how weight loss “looks soooo good.”
So stop. Stop moralizing food. Stop idolizing thinness. Stop being just as sick as the rest of the culture my clients encounter.
Because they need you to be better. I need you to be better.
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.