A friend of mine had to renew her driver’s license on her birthday this year, and the new photo made her look overweight. The photo devastated her for days beyond her birthday. While making regular Sunday announcements, a former councilor in my Relief Society presidency often alluded to the constant struggle she waged with sweets. I often hear women, regardless of their faith tradition, say “I was bad,” referring to the fact that they bought themselves a doughnut or a cupcake. In fact, I hear women calling themselves bad all the time not because they’ve cheated, injured children, or exploited the poor, but because of what they’ve eaten. I want to shake them. I want to hug them. I want to yell.
So I suppose this post is my yawp. I know this is not a problem specific to Mormons or women. Change and fluctuation have characterized American food attitudes over the past hundred years. Sometimes we celebrated industrialized food products, sometimes we didn’t, and sometimes, like now, we loved and hated them at the same time. But wherever we have been on this spectrum, we have cared about how food impacts our bodies both in terms of health and in terms of appearance. We particularly have cared about the shape of women’s bodies. Although influences from Photoshop-ed images to photo-ready mobile phones present today’s populace with more images of ideal bodies than ever, women and men have long felt pressured to meet an idealized form. I first thought of myself as overweight when I read how Laura Ingalls Wilder’s dad enjoyed bragging that he had enclosed his wife’s waist within his two hands when they were newly married (Wilder was born in 1867). In 1982, I didn’t think any man had big enough hands to enclose my normal 10-year-old waist. Thoughout my teens I spent an inordinate amount of time worried over this, trying and failing to fix it, and feeling unhappy about the whole endeavor.
Marie Griffith’s extensive study of American attitudes toward the body (Born Again Bodies 2004) includes an examination of contemporary evangelical diet culture, in which a slim body can function as evidence of a saved soul because Jesus can help with weight control. In a recent inspection of Mormon diet cookbooks and programs, I saw a trace of that belief. Joyce Williams wrote in her The HCG Diet for Latter-day Saints, “I determined that my food crutch needed to be voluntarily sacrificed on His altar. I had to completely trust the Savior, and I had to be willing to accept the more glorious and profound alternative to my food crutch which was a deeper relationship with my Heavenly Father” (136). Williams felt she was emotionally over-dependent on excessive quantities of food and she found that Jesus helped her to overcome that dependency.
Most Mormon diet books focus on improved health as the main dieting goal. They quote Alma 38:12 about bridling passions, and they praise the Word of Wisdom for its sage eating advice. These books are all right. They are moderate and they generally focus on health instead of appearance as a reason to lose weight. But still, losing weight seems a daunting enterprise. Too many women’s lives are consumed by it. In cases where people’s body mass index (BMI) qualifies as obese and they want to change that, I am glad they have these helpful and friendly books to help them return to a healthier state. But I wish people not in these categories or who do not want to lose weight could forget the whole business.
For people without eating disorders, I believe in a celebratory approach to eating. I call it happy eating. This is the vision I hope those WITH disorders eventually will live. Eat when you are hungry. Don’t eat fast, and stop when you begin to feel full. Avoid processed foods. Eat what tastes good.
I am neither skinny nor obese and there is certainly more to the world than lies in my philosophy. But I have a lot of faith in those guidelines. I frequently want a slice of chocolate cake, but never five slices. Not really. I almost always want well-prepared vegetables. Sometimes I really want a hamburger, or tofu, or chicken, or a smoothie. When I listen to my body (not my emotions) and eat what I want, I feel good. I really don’t think you can enter the “obese” category eating this way. I believe diets and social pressure are responsible for most obesity and disorders. Diets make us obese, and they make us suffer over food. I like Michael Pollan’s Food Rules (2009). I like the verses in Doctrine and Covenants section 59:
Yea, all things which come of the earth, in the season thereof, are made for the benefit and the use of [wo]man, both to please the eye and to gladden the heart; Yea, for food and for raiment, for taste and for smell, to strengthen the body and to enliven the soul. (18-19)
I want for all of us to have good food in the proper amounts that will please our eyes, gladded our hearts, enliven our senses and our souls. I am not only a practicing Latter-day Saint, but a believing one. I believe in God and I believe in Satan. I don’t spend much time thinking about the latter guy, but it occurred to me recently that if it’s his job to ruin our lives, having someone spend a lot of time feeling bad about weight loss is an effective step in that direction. I think God wants us to be able to enjoy the pleasure of good wholesome food.
After exploring Mormon diet cookbooks and manuals, I wondered what Church leaders had to say about weight. I found that Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland used more strident language than I had, bless his soul,
You are bombarded in movies, television, fashion magazines, and advertisements with the message that looks are everything! . . .In too many cases too much is being done to the human body to meet just such a fictional (to say nothing of superficial) standard. . .In terms of preoccupation with self and a fixation on the physical, this is more than social insanity; it is spiritually destructive, and it accounts for much of the unhappiness women, including young women, face in the modern world. And if adults are preoccupied with appearance–tucking and nipping and implanting and remodeling everything that can be remodeled–those pressures and anxieties will certainly seep through to children.” (October 2005 General Conference)
Melvin J. Ballard identified a reason obsession with weight can be particularly pernicious “Popular culture today often makes women look silly, inconsequential, mindless, and powerless. It objectifies them and disrespects them and then suggests that they are able to leave their mark on mankind only by seduction—easily the most pervasively dangerous message the adversary sends to women about themselves.”(“Mothers and Daughters,” Ensign, May 2010.) I interpret these words as a reminder that a fixation with weight doesn’t just waste time and promote unhappiness, it significantly undermines women’s power. At the April 27, 2012 BYU Women’s Conference, Sister Mary N. Cook said,
The current climate of the world is filled with [media] that bombard women with messages that looks are what matter most. They encourage women to focus on the things they aren’t, rather than all that they are. It may seem an insurmountable task to stop this profusion of propaganda, but we can turn away from it, and we can focus our attention and the eyes of our young women to those who are doing good, rather than those who are looking good.
I wonder whether this might also be a solution to the weight problem. In doing good, can we achieve a level of wellness that dissuades us from eating to a point that endangers our health? Can we learn to let go of these cares about the shape of our body and find strength in what we are?