One of the viral things going around lately is this Washington Post op-ed called “Fat. Single. Christian. In church, being overweight and dating feels like a sin.” It’s by a Christian woman who is approaching middle age without ever having been married. She’s saying something important about how a cataclysmic demographic shift is starting to impact individual Christians’ lives.
The post’s author, Joy Beth Smith, starts off with this salvo:
Dating is not easy. Dating as an overweight woman can be more difficult. Dating as an overweight conservative Christian woman seems impossible.
My heart went out to her, even though I wasn’t all that surprised to hear she’s having this experience. What she describes isn’t new. She’s just one of the first Christians I’ve seen recently who has actually managed to get some traction in the discussion about the trouble so many Christians are having with their search for marriage partners. The problem isn’t about anyone’s weight so much as it is about a religion that is selling mixed messages and hugely unhelpful beliefs and teachings to its overly-trusting adherents.
And that’s becoming a big problem, no pun intended.
Joy Beth Smith is describing the same narrative that I did a while ago in “The Curious Case of the Undesired Virgin.” There’s a distinct life script that women in her religion must follow or else face disapproval from her peers and leaders. She is trying to follow the script, but the husband it promises to faithful Christian women isn’t materializing. She describes her search for a mate as “an exhausting process” that is leaving her very frustrated because she has “only experienced rejection from men in the church.”
The patently false ideas she’s absorbed from and about her tribe are bumping up against the simple reality of her experiences. She’s clearly been taught her whole life that Christians should be way above all that physical stuff because appearances aren’t as important as personality, that her people care about spiritual things and not physical things, and that someone’s heart is what really matters.
The real picture looks very different, as many Christians–including her–are discovering now that they’re coming of age in that environment. As this group of Calvinist-leaning Christians make clear in discussing Ms. Smith’s op-ed, appearances matter quite a lot in their religion, especially for women–a group that otherwise doesn’t have a lot of power in their culture. There, men must desire a woman, but she must never, ever allow them to touch her–except in certain situations that are allowable, notably marriage–and even then often in only particular ways. (No wonder so many Christians think the rest of us are just as obsessed with sex as they are.)
Christian culture puts a huge premium on marriage and children (as we’re going to discuss soon with that apologetics book we’re covering lately), but it’s getting harder and harder for Christians to find a good match.
A “Buyer’s Market.”
An older or overweight woman already plays the dating game on hard mode. But Christianity is getting both older and heavier. Both of these situations have only gotten more pronounced since I left the religion. More importantly, as time goes on, women in church groups are becoming far more numerous than men, causing congregations to skew extremely female. Not only does this demographic shift have a profound impact on the religion as a whole, it has even an even stronger effect on the singles scene in every individual church in the country. Nothing about this paragraph is news, either; Christians have been talking for years about how hard it is for women to find equally fervent mates. It’s just coming to a head now that the religion’s loss of membership is reaching critical mass.
Ms. Smith grimly describes the current view from her church pew:
For men, it’s a buyer’s market. With the surplus of godly, talented, accomplished Christian women, men can afford to be pickier, holding tightly to standards of physical attraction, sense of humor, similar interests, all the way to taste in coffee. Women, on the other hand, have narrowed down their lists primarily to non-negotiables: growing in the Lord, bathing regularly. That’s it.
Indeed, one men’s website proclaims (emphasis theirs) in great distress that “You’re not just imagining it. Christianity is short on men” before laying out their statistics: all age categories from children to elders face a serious gender gap to the tune of 61% female, 39% male. A quarter of the married women attending church do so without their own husbands–and they are surrounded by women for the most part, since women also represent the majority of worshipers. Increasingly, church is an experience ruled by men, but funded, attended, and staffed by women–many of them competing for an ever-shrinking percentage of single men.
The problem is, the tiny list of requirements that Ms. Smith outlines for potential husbands (“growing in the Lord, bathing regularly”) doesn’t appear to be what women in her religion are actually seeking in their future mates. Despite the religion’s gender disparity, Christian men seem to be having about as much trouble finding a mate as Christian women do; they just don’t get the same sort of attention. Men in the religion have problems that might differ sometimes from the ones faced by women, but they’re clearly not automatically pairing off as soon as they hit the age of majority. A Christian man who has only church attendance and decent hygiene to recommend himself may find that he is just as lonely as a woman who faces the obstacles of age and overweight, as the comments on that WaPo piece reveal.
Despite these difficulties, other Christians will blame the individual people who ultimately fail in the all-encompassing quest to be wed before they will ever critically examine the failed system that has produced this gender disparity and teaches so many erroneous things about relationships in general. The message, as always, is perfect.
(There’s also this: if it’s this hard to find a mate for a cisgender, hetero Christian… how hard do you suppose it is for someone who doesn’t fit into those categories?)
Looking for Boaz. (Dammit, Boaz, Are You Lost Again? Get Your Shit Together.)
There’s no shortage of Christians suggesting solutions to this marriage crisis. Most of them center around chiding Christian women for asking too much of their godly church brothers (because “growing in the Lord” and “bathing regularly” are apparently not the beginning and end of the list of requirements for most women after all). Other sites stick their heads in the sand and teach women that if they are totally faithful and obedient to “Jesus,” then they’ll “find their Boaz” by, presumably, magic.
If you just went “wait, what? Boaz?” then you’re not alone.
Somehow in the last couple of decades, this idea crept into fundagelical minds that women should be seeking “their Boaz,” while men are supposed to be looking for “their Ruth” (as in the Bible myth). The first time I heard this phrasing, it was from a character on one of those “shit Christians say” videos who proclaimed that she was “just ready for her Boaz,” and later that “God has your Boaz coming.” The idea baffled me at first, but now I see half a million hits on the search term “looking for boaz” and this Biblical character is being upheld as a totally ideal husband for young Christian women.
(This is the video in question, and the phrasing is 00:34 in. I didn’t know many girls who talked like this when I was Christian, for what it’s worth.)
I don’t know of a better way to describe the focus that Christians have on narratives when they are literally seeking a partner who is the embodiment of a mythic character who probably didn’t even really exist. I mean, I might joke about having married Captain Mal, but I didn’t deliberately set out to find a man who was just like a fictional character. Worse yet, the narrative I’m seeing these sites describe doesn’t look a whole lot like the actual myth in the first place. Whoops. (Not that Christians hesitate to invent whatever they like about the Bible.)
One site earnestly advises Christian women to stop seeking men who already have a good income and prospects, because that’s just asking too much. The author also blasts women who filter their selfies, wear push-up bras, and adorn themselves with “layers of stuff that make it impossible to see who you really are,” accusing women who go to all that effort of being “lazy with not much follow-through!” (?!?) Women are “waiting for KalEl [sic] from planet Krypton . . . when they should look at Clark Kent from Planet Earth.” The solution, as always, is for women to date men that they normally wouldn’t consider viable options as mates and to stop being so darned shallow.
The editorial writer herself usually writes for a
sexist travesty Focus on the Family festival of misogyny blog and propaganda machine called Boundless, where we can find a (male) writer advising women to “take a second look next time, maybe even a third” at men who might otherwise not be appealing at first because “you never know what you might otherwise be missing.” He’s just one more example of a young Christian man who has been married only a short time but nonetheless thinks he’s got this whole MARRIAGE stuff all figured out and is in a position to be offering credible, useful, and valid advice to people in markedly different circumstances than he is. But he sure didn’t rush right out and marry a woman who was anything less than the picture of conventional beauty in his culture. Nor does he look like the sort of fellow himself who’d need a dose of his own smug-sounding advice.
I truly do not know what Ms. Smith’s requirements for a husband really are, if she buys into this bizarre ideology about marriage, what her community’s population looks like, or what she’s done so far to find that mate, but I do know that she probably isn’t getting a lot of useful advice from anyone standing inside the fold. There’s plenty of well-meaning attempts to offer solutions, yes, but it all seems like it serves more to reinforce Christians’ cultural beliefs than it does to solve actual problems–much like one could describe apologetics itself, really.
Ruth would have a much tougher time in today’s churches than she did in her mythology, it seems.
What Ms. Smith describes is a time-bomb that is going off in almost every church in the country. I can read enough between the lines to see that this author might not be the perfect person to bear this message (and reading other stuff she’s written has definitely driven that impression home), but the message itself is something that her entire tribe needs to hear–maybe even more so because its bearer isn’t perfect.
The effects of her culture’s teachings are stark and undoubtedly devastating to her. She describes the heartbreak of discovering that in her religion, her appearance matters just as much as it does anywhere else. Christian men who like her personality are turned off by her “pants size.” She considers these men “superficial” and gets upset that “markers of spiritual maturity” do not matter more to them than her weight does. She endures the concern–and lectures–of her loved ones. And she listens to the sermons of pastors railing against the sin of gluttony and faces the censure of her community for having a body that, to them, denotes a certain laxity of character and unworthiness. I’ve been there, and I’ve seen that sometimes secular culture isn’t a whole lot different.
But secular culture doesn’t tend to make the same demand that all people get married at all costs, so these shows of disapproval and criticism have a different impact on a Christian than they might on a non-believer.
Christianity–especially the more extreme flavors of it–keeps stressing that one’s fervor and personality matter more than anything else in the search for a mate, and that “Jesus” often puts people together who don’t seem like much of a good fit.
Yet when we survey what’s actually happening in churches, we see that people there get together about the same way they do outside of church: they seek mates they have chemistry with, who they are attracted to, who they feel romantic love toward, and whose life goals and personalities align with their own. That’s why Angelina Jolie married Brad Pitt and not Jason Alexander (or for that matter the cashier at your local big-box grocery store), and why Robert Downey, Jr., never returns my calls. If Christians are having a lot of trouble finding a partner, then their options are exactly the same as those available to non-Christians: they can make the necessary changes to become what their desired partners want, expand their search parameters, or forego having a partner at all.
Little wonder that Christian women are starting to turn their eyes to “worldly” men if they want to get married, resulting in a rapidly-rising number of mixed-faith marriages. As shocking as the idea is to Christian leaders, as much as they might condemn the idea and preach against it, it’s simple demographics at this point. If a woman is anything less than conventionally attractive, she’s going to have a tough time competing for a mate regardless of how many gauzy fantasies she believes about relationships or how she thinks things should work. When indoctrination meets reality, reality always wins. It’s up to us to recognize that reality just trumped our beliefs and take action from there.
It is unlikely that an editorial is going to persuade anyone to start dating someone they aren’t attracted to. And that’s nobody’s fault. People want what they want. But maybe this one can at least get Christians thinking about the ways that their religion’s narrative simply isn’t achievable or realistic. Joy Beth Smith’s struggle to find true love may well lead her to realizing that her religion’s ideas about marriage are erroneous and unworkable, which may well lead her to start questioning other beliefs Christianity teaches about life, love, and–ultimately–reality itself.
After all, a very similar confrontation with the reality of relationships is a big part of what eventually woke me up.
We’re going to be talking about marriage and celibacy next, and I’ll see you then!
Tick, tock. (If I have to have this damn thing stuck in my head today, so should everyone else.)