Fat, Health and Society – A Pagan Approach

I have a strong opinion that those who point out problems have an obligation to offer solutions. Perhaps professional journalists can be exempted, but for anyone else – and that includes politicians, editorialists, bloggers, teachers and religious leaders – if you’re going to complain then also say what you think would make the situation better. Otherwise you’re not fully engaging the problem – you’re just whining.

On Tuesday I told my story of weight and fat and health and the pressure to have a body that conforms to unrealistic standards. I ended with series of questions – goals I think we need to address individually, as co-religionists, and as a society. I don’t have answers to those questions, but I want to engage them a little more fully and at least move the conversation in the right direction.

The mainstream standards of attractiveness have little to do with health. In general, poor health isn’t caused by fat. But the same things that make you fat – poor nutrition and inactivity – also make you unhealthy. So do the things that make you ultrathin – poor nutrition and smoking.

A lot of people make a lot of money convincing people they’re unhealthy and then selling weight loss programs. They attack the symptoms and not the cause; they have a few spectacular successes and many, many failures and they do very little to improve health. Different people have different body types and your body is supposed to have some fat on it. It is just as possible to be fat and fit as it is to be thin and out of shape.

If it’s not health, where do our standards of attractiveness come from? A portion comes from our evolutionary past – we size up potential mates with an eye toward good genes to pass on to our offspring. We also look for clues toward status and prestige.

In a Google+ post a couple weeks ago, the always-insightful Cara Schulz said “Fashion trends are dictated by the poor, not the rich.” Fashion (including standards of attractiveness) are created by the rich to differentiate themselves from the poor.

When poorer folks worked outside and needed every calorie, which meant they were thin and tan, it became fashionable for wealthy persons to be pale as possible and a bit plump. It was a way that richer folks could separate themselves from lower classes. Then in the 50’s that began to reverse as poorer classes worked inside and had greater access to increasingly cheap and shitty food. The tanning has curtailed due to skin cancer, but that didn’t happen until the 90’s. Now that 1/3 of Americans are overweight, being dangerously thin is fashionable.

Much of the prejudice against fat is because a disproportionate percentage of fat people are poor. I’m sure there are psychological factors as to why that is, but the bottom line is that while calories are cheap, good, fresh, nutritious food is not. It costs more money to buy and it takes more time to prepare. Exercise takes time and a safe location – if you live in a dangerous neighborhood “just go walk!” isn’t a practical suggestion.

We put being fat in the same category as living in a trailer, driving a rusted out car (or worse, having no car) or being unemployed. We know those conditions don’t make someone a bad person, but the Puritan idea that material success is a sign of virtue and God’s favor and that poverty is a sign of vice is still deeply engrained in our culture.

And regardless of the value judgments involved, none of us want to be poor and we don’t want people to look at us and think we’re poor. In order to remove the stigma of being fat, we have to decouple fat and poverty.

All of these value judgments are understandable, but understanding them doesn’t make them morally right or practically helpful. One of the purposes of religion is to help us make conscious decisions in alignment with our highest values. Our Pagan religion can help here.

A religion that acknowledges the Divine in everyone and that recognizes our common evolutionary roots should move us to reduce poverty in the first place. On an individual level we can contribute our time and money to shelters and food banks (meeting emergency needs) and to educational and mentoring programs (addressing long term needs). You’ve probably got other ideas that are just as helpful.

How to truly eliminate poverty is beyond the scope of this essay and apparently beyond the willpower of our deeply individualistic society.

Efforts to push the poor toward healthier foods have met with opposition from the political right and from the poor themselves. One helpful action would be to end government subsidies for large-scale agriculture and instead subsidize local farmers’ markets. This would raise the price of cheap calories and make fresh food more affordable.

On a personal level, those of us who are heavier than the mainstream society deems attractive can decouple fat and poverty by not dressing like we’re homeless. Do you really believe there is beauty in all body types? Then be beautiful! That doesn’t require an expensive wardrobe or the latest fashions. It just requires caring that you look as good as you can.

I know – I’m a guy, and it’s harder for women. I know – attractive clothes in larger sizes can be hard to find. I know – shopping at 5-9 209 is a lot easier than shopping at 5-8 300.

But I also know the temptation to say “it doesn’t matter – why bother?” and throw on some sweats. Which is fine if you’re relaxing at home. If you’re going out, it does matter – if not for yourself, then for all the other people who are trying to end the assumption that if you’re fat it’s because you’re poor or lazy or stupid or whatever.

The Divine is within us all – dress like it!

Paganism is a Nature religion and I frequently encourage people to get outside and walk. Our bodies are meant for movement. Not the repetitive motion of an assembly line but the varied movements of creatures who came down from the trees, who searched and scavenged for food, who made tools and pursued game across the plains. Walk, run, bike, swim. Lift weights, lift books, lift your kids. Some of us have conditions that limit our mobility, but we can all do something.

We also need to adjust our expectation for ourselves. Mainstream society tell us if we work hard enough and diet hard enough then we’ll be thin and everyone will love us. Even if we’re able to do that, unless we also have the right genes, we won’t lose weight. Or we’ll lose some weight, but not enough.

If we’re after the approval of the mainstream culture, it will never be enough.

We’re Pagans. We follow different gods and goddesses and we have different values. If we do the right things then good results will follow. Maybe not the results we had in mind, but good results nonetheless.

Eat healthy food. Exercise. Rest. Meditate. And remember to show the world that beauty comes in all sizes, including yours.

I’ll probably never weigh 160 and wear 33 pants again. I may never weigh 190 again. But I’ll be healthier and happier and in a better place to do the work I was put here to do.

I don’t think they care what size I am
"The word Pagan comes from the Latin paganus, meaning "country dweller"... with a colloquial meaning ..."

Paganism Is More Than Belief
"This is a very well written piece, with many good points. I would like to ..."

Paganism Is More Than Belief
"Illegal means nothing to a criminal, nor for those that walk about policing and do-gooding ..."

Do You Really Want A Homophobe ..."
"I know I'm a little late to the game on this, but this is a ..."

The Supreme Court is Wrong and ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • John, I found myself agreeing with most of what you've stated. One of my favorite topics to study is the intersection of green living (especially when it comes to raw, organic eating), socioeconomic status, and health. In my own small, Appalachian town, and from my experience working two years as a cashier at the only grocery store in city limits, it was easy to see the correlation between the amount of money in one's pocket with the quality of food in one's cart. There are certainly ways to have a diet that tastes good, fuels your body, and meets nutritional needs and also doesn't break the bank – but those skills take time to learn, ample kitchen space, proper kitchen tools, and time to prepare meals. You are right to point that that the answer to these problems is not and never has been clean-cut.

    I did, however, take issue with the ideas you brought up here:

    "But I also know the temptation to say “it doesn’t matter – why bother?” and throw on some sweats. Which is fine if you’re relaxing at home. If you’re going out, it does matter – if not for yourself, then for all the other people who are trying to end the assumption that if you’re fat it’s because you’re poor or lazy or stupid or whatever.

    The Divine is within us all – dress like it!"

    I've bolded what I feel is especially important in your assertion.

    As someone who is medically labeled obese (a 5'10" female-bodied individual carrying 265ish on my frame), I should be able to wear sweats in public without people making judgments on my socioeconomic status (as though it's shameful to be poor), my intelligence (I was accepted at three Ivy League schools for undergrad), or my work ethic. These judgments will surely occur anyway – just as I am judged for my female body, my sexual orientation, my gender identity and presentation, my religion, my politics. If someone does not confront me with these judgments and keeps them in their head, there is nothing I can say to defend myself.

    But the point is I do not need to defend myself from false and unfair judgments, anymore than I need to present more feminine and hide my gender orientation (which is decidedly not female) from those who would look unkindly at those choices. Someone else's prejudices are their own burden, and if I am hurt by them, it is not my fault, but theirs.

    That said, I do agree wholeheartedly for a movement that calls for us all to embrace our bodies as beautiful, beloved reflections of the divine. Venus of Willendorf was no size zero. And in my experience, some – though certainly not all – of my disinclination for "dressing nice" has stemmed from depression, self-revulsion, and dysphoria. Addressing these illnesses, along with unhealthy factors such as poor eating and a sedentary lifestyle, should be the focus of concern, rather than attempting to demonize obesity and obese people.


  • Danny, thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences.

    I totally agree you should be able to wear sweats in public without people making judgments and I unfortunately agree they will do so anyway. My point was that anything we can do to decouple fat from other attributes society deems undesirable helps destigmatize it and reduces the pressure to conform to an unrealistic standard of attractiveness.

    Does that reinforce the unhelpful idea that the mainstream culture determines what is and isn't attractive? Probably.

    On the whole, I think the benefits of dressing well in public even when you'd rather not outweigh the detriments, but I see how some people would think otherwise.

    Thanks for reading and commenting!

  • My point was that anything we can do to decouple fat from other attributes society deems undesirable helps destigmatize it and reduces the pressure to conform to an unrealistic standard of attractiveness.

    Yes, but isn't this the same as throwing our brethren under the proverbial bus?

    You see the same thing happen with queer movements, where adoption of the idea that queer people are all just like heterosexual and cisgender folk continually erases and invalidates those of us who aren't like heterosexual, cisgender folk, and furthermore, don't want to be.

    Or when queer movements continually drop the B and T from the LG, and put forward the idea that gay and lesbian folks are great, it's just those nasty bisexuals and trans folk you have to watch out for.

    In my opinion if we're putting out the message "Look, we're fat, but at least we're not poor!" then we're no better than those who demonize poor or fat people.

    Not to mention, everyone's definition of "dressing well" is different, and for most fat people there's not even a point in dressing well to impress the ruling classes. For example, if I'm presenting as male and I bind and pack but decide to put on a dress because I want to, people aren't going to think I'm dressing well. I may think I'm dressing well, but by and large people are going to label me a freak, a queer, a f*g. If I lived in any place less liberal, I would probably face the possibility of violence.

    Scratch that, the risk of violence is everywhere for queer folk.

    If I put on a push-up bra, and some expensive clothes, and actually shave my legs and put on heels and make-up, I still get insults hurled at me from passing cars. With the added benefit of guys trying to grope me, which happens far less often when I'm in sweats, or if my boobs are less-existent.

    So, no, I don't think it's that simple. Overall I think your blog post is great, but I really can't get behind the idea that we should try to destigmatize fat by going "Look, we're just like rich! We're not poor and lazy!" because not only is it just not true — some of us are very poor, and I for one am proud to be a lazy sod — it perpetuates the idea that poor = bad = lazy = subhuman.


  • I find it interesting that the portion of the post where John says to be (basically) clean, neat, and presentable in public is the part people are commenting on.

    People judge you not just by your words, but by your actions. (I tend to ignore peoples' words and look at their actions. People can lie with words, they have a much harder time lying with their actions) If you say all bodies are beautiful and are expressions of the divine but don't care for your body – then it's empty lip service.

    So yes, take care of your body as best you can. And take care of the appearance of your body as best you can in a way that is authentic to who you are. This doesn't mean heels and lipstick, but go for clean, neat, and presentable.

  • Morag, you seem to be saying you can't support action to destigmatize some people unless it destigmatizes all people. I respect that position, but I'll take incremental improvement where ever I can get it.

    Calla – exactly! Thank you.