I will never forget the day my wife and I were sitting in our marriage counselor’s office on the fourth floor of our church’s main building when we started discussing exercise. My wife reached down and took hold of my wrist, pulling my arm forward to show the therapist the underside of my forearm.
“Do you see the veins starting to pop out? His calves look the same way. It’s just gross.”
Given that our counselor was himself a marathon runner, he tried to dial down the body shame inherent in her honest expression of visceral disgust. But his theological loyalties constrained him, keeping his response tepid at best. For the next few months of our marriage, I slept in long-sleeve shirts so that she wouldn’t be grossed out by my hardening muscular body.
A couple of years earlier I had started dieting and working out more diligently because doing so helped stave off the creeping malaise of approaching midlife. I had gotten up to 225 lbs, which for a man of my height was nearly 50 lbs overweight. Given that I have high blood pressure and a family history of heart disease, diet and exercise were a much needed life improvement at the time.
But evidently I had taken it too far. I soon learned it’s only okay to lose weight as long as you don’t get into too good a shape. That makes God unhappy, it would seem, because it gives people dirty thoughts.
Except not at home. I found that the better shape I got into, the less my wife really wanted to touch me. Evidently I was getting “too tight, too hard” for her to enjoy touching me. All the bumps and bulges emerging at various points around my physique were unwelcome changes, and I found myself feeling less and less attractive the better my health became. A self-improvement plan designed to light a fire in my lover’s loins turned out to have exactly the opposite effect from what I had hoped.
Talk about confusing. I thought “tighter” and “harder” were good things. Whether you care for it or not, it’s what you’re going to get if you start to diet and exercise the way I did. Over a period of about two years I lost 50 pounds and dropped several inches off my waist line. I felt really, really good. But not to her, unfortunately.
Speaking for myself, I had grown sick and tired of seeing my own face in the mirror spreading wider and wider every year. There was just too much face…on my face. I felt like it wasn’t all me. It was like I was still there, but hidden under a lot of extra padding. I wanted the padding gone so I could see my own face again, and I was beyond tired of my clothes cutting into my gut.
I didn’t like looking at myself when I was overweight, but now that I had dropped the pounds I was experiencing an opposite kind of body shame. I was being shamed for being in too good a shape. I suppose you could call this “fit shaming,” and whether you’ve encountered it before or not, it’s a common thing wherever Christian fundamentalism informs your worldview.
Times They Are a-Changin’
Women have been putting up with body shame and objectification for centuries. At this point, it practically defines the female experience. It almost feels sketchy for me to say that men, too, can feel body shame given the disproportionate way it has afflicted women over the course of history.
For the most part, men have not had to bear the weight of society’s relentless perfectionism about their physical appearance. Historically, men have not had to make their way in a world which reduces their value to the way they look in a swimsuit, as if their sole function in life is to serve as either objects of lust or implements of reproduction. A man with gray hairs can still play the lead romantic role in a Hollywood production, while world-class actresses are discarded at the first appearance of crow’s feet. I’ve lost count of how many sitcoms star alluring, curvy bombshells inexplicably wedded to pasty underachieving nitwits who are nevertheless quite proud of their own “dad bods.” The double standard has been undeniable for most of my life.
But times are definitely changing. To see what I mean, compare the sights of George Reeves and Adam West to Henry Cavill and Christian Bale (or Ben Affleck, if you’ll have him). Gone are the days when you could look like Mick Jagger and still top the charts or sell out a stadium. Nowadays, you have to not only be immensely talented at what you do, but you also have to be pretty to look at if you want to keep advancing in your field. Of course, that’s nothing new for women—what’s new about this is that the visual appetites of the general public have increasingly become as discerning among women as it historically has been among men. Men like Chris Evans and Ryan Reynolds have raised the bar for all of us.
Now imagine finding yourself caught between a culture increasingly obsessed with bulging muscles and washboard abs and a religious environment which guilts you for caring too much about the size of your own waistline. You cannot possibly satisfy both of them at the same moment, and after internalizing the impossible standards of each, you will most likely never be satisfied with yourself.
It’s a perfect storm of self-loathing and body shame, complete with mutually exclusive demands and a never-ending supply of impossible standards to live up to: You must be fit but not too fit. You must be healthy but not too healthy. And wherever you are in your physical condition, you will never be completely happy because you’re not living up to the expectations of at least one person whose approval you simply cannot live without: Your own.
Do You Exercise Like an Atheist?
All of these feelings came rushing back to me this past week when a friend looking to vent shared an article from Reformed darling John Piper‘s website. And yes, I know I shouldn’t be reading stuff like that, but the title caught my attention (“Do You Exercise Like a Nonbeliever?“) and it spoke to an issue about which I have a bit of personal history, so I gave it a read.
Countless unbelievers experience and consciously enjoy the gift of exercise, but they do not adore Jesus or have the Holy Spirit. Should there be anything distinct about how a Christian exercises? How do we experience God’s natural gift of exercise in such a way that we benefit spiritually?
You see, exercise makes fundamentalists nervous. It makes them uncomfortable because you’re not supposed to care too much about your body. I mean, sure, there is a minimum requirement maintained by all of them since they are taught that our bodies are property belonging to someone other than ourselves.
“You were bought with a price,” the apostle Paul says, borrowing from the language of slavery to remind us that in his world you don’t get to enjoy bodily autonomy or self-ownership. You’re supposed to keep your body in proper working order, not for yourself or your own enjoyment, but in order that you may remain a functioning instrument of the divine will, serving God heartily for as long as you can remain ambulatory.
Receiving exercise, and its joys, with thanksgiving begins with recognizing it as a divine gift and receiving it with gratitude. And gratitude is directed toward a Giver.
Evangelical Christianity teaches you to view even the things that you yourself do as “gifts” from God to be received with thanksgiving. You must never take credit yourself for the things that you accomplish because that will lead to pride, and God hates pride. Beneath all Christian thinking lies the belief that you cannot do life well, so you must call upon a higher power to deliver you from your own inadequacies. Everything they teach aims to remind you of this essential dynamic, and anything which undermines that feeling of neediness is wicked.
The author reminds us that the faithful Christian is supposed to care more about God than about anything else in the world, including his or her own personal health and well-being (ever read Jesus talking about “taking up your cross” or “hating your own life?”). In his world, anything which challenges the central importance of worship becomes “an idol,” a concept which you’ll find is remarkably elastic once you learn to invoke it. Thanks to the notion of “idolatry,” you can take anything good in the world and call it bad because you’re not supposed to enjoy it too much. That makes God jealous.
Who knew the Creator of all things was so insecure?
After giving an obligatory nod to the relative usefulness of staying healthy in order to remain an instrument of someone else’s will, the author circles the runway and finally begins to approach the real reason for writing this article:
Our exercise and exertions will not be holy if we think about our bodies in ways that are not true, in subtle and overt lies not in accord with what God has revealed (and our society is teeming with them today).
The author won’t come out and say it, but he’s trying to say that you need to watch out or you’ll end up enjoying your sexuality too much. You might even wind up having unauthorized sex, and nothing scares a fundamentalist more than that.
He knows that human sexuality is central to our happiness, and that it’s wired into the deepest recesses of our psyches. Our sexual drives come from the most primal parts of our brains, like a bedrock layer to our personalities, and that makes sex a perpetual rival to our religious priorities.
In order to situate exercise within an acceptably controlled religious framework, the author offers a prayer you should pray before each time you work out so that you can remind yourself not to enjoy your own body too much:
Father, guard me from valuing bodily training more than godliness. Rather, make these efforts holy, through my acting in faith, so that this exercise serves my holiness, instead of competing with it.
To you, this quirky, coerced mentality may seem at best quaint or at worst pathetic, but to me it’s actually a little bit triggering. I’ve been on the receiving end of the judgment that falls on a person too interested in optimizing his own physical fitness. Even though I never poured myself into exercise to the point of running a marathon (or even half of one), I still got shamed for trying to hit the gym multiple times in a single week. It seems a true lover of God just cannot put that much of himself into his own physical fitness without somehow robbing God of the devotion that should belong solely to him.
This is one among many reasons I could never return to Christianity. At bottom, it is scared to death of human beings becoming comfortable in their own skins. It is fundamentally anti-humanistic, because humanism teaches you to enjoy being alive now—whereas Christianity needs you to seek escape from the world to get to a better place. You cannot want both with an equal passion. Either one or the other will take supremacy for you, and writers like this one know that all too well.
Looking back at the story I shared above, I can see how the more interested in my own physical fitness I became, the less my wife respected or desired me. It’s been offered before that when spouses resent our getting in shape it stems from personal insecurity, and I’m sure that factors into it somewhere. But I don’t think it’s right to pin this entirely on them. I think that shifts the blame for an unhealthy culture onto the victims who never had a say in creating it.
My former religion devalued exercise because it was a threat. If you get into too good a shape, you might end up enjoying this life too much, and to make matters worse you’ll incite people to think dirty thoughts about you. Those are unacceptable outcomes. So the author enjoins his readers not to care too much about their own physiques:
As Christians, our final aim in bodily exertion is not weight-loss or maximal long-term health — and definitely not mere physical appearance. Rather, we aim at greater joy in God, and greater love for neighbor. What makes exercise holy, and loving, is the prayer that our expenditures of energy will lead to our increased readiness to expend ourselves in sacrifice for others.
I would argue that holiness is merely an alternative form of self-interest, shrouded though it may be in the language of service to others. But perhaps I’ll save that talk for another time.
“Fit shaming” can be just as psychologically destructive as fat shaming in my book. It’s rarely about the needs of other people; it’s usually more about the person offering the criticism, or at least it reveals an insecurity woven into the fabric of the culture in which he or she lives. But neither one is healthy.
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