According to the CDC, 20% of American children are, by medical definition, obese. Recently, to combat this growing epidemic, the American Academy of Pediatrics released new guidelines that recommended behavioral and nutritional therapy for children as early as six years old and weight loss medications or even surgery for children as young as 13.
The new guidelines drew fire from two opposite directions. Some have referred to the guidelines as another example of the healthcare industry attempting to fix every physical problem with a medical solution rather than encouraging broader personal and social changes in lifestyle and food production. A very different (but just as strong) reaction came from advocates of what is called the “Fat Positivity” movement. Obesity, they argued, should not be stigmatized at all. Some advocates even claim that just acknowledging the behavioral factors behind obesity or the medical risks associated with being overweight is “fat-phobic” or “fat-shaming.”
Christians should immediately reject the ever-changing cultural standards of beauty that so often function as moral imperatives. We reject all cultural messages, whether implicit or explicit, that dehumanize those who are deemed rightly or wrongly as overweight. A Christian worldview unequivocally affirms that every human being, no matter their appearance, bears the image of God and therefore possesses an inherent and eternal dignity. The last several decades of Western culture, dominated by a consumerism that treats people as commodified means to an end, have been particularly dehumanizing in this regard. The unrealistic and unhealthy expectations that have been hoisted, especially on women, have caused great harm. Recent and more careful efforts in media and elsewhere to represent people with diverse physical characteristics have been important and helpful changes.
At the same time, reducing people down to culturally contingent physical standards is not fixed by different culturally contingent objectification. For example, many commentators called it a “win” when the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue featured a plus-size model wearing hardly any clothing on its cover. It is not “progress” to objectify more people.
Neither is it progress to dismiss the reality of bodies altogether, shown increasingly within various aspects of our culture and in the more common fallacy of the “Fat Positivity” movement. In reaction to the American Academy of Pediatrics’ new guidelines, one opinion writer for The New York Times accused health officials of waging a “war” against “kids in larger bodies.”
Notice that choice of language: “kids in larger bodies,” as if kids are something separate from their bodies. According to the new gnosticism assumed in this choice of words, the “real us” is how we feel. Our bodies are just a heap of matter that we inhabit, to be ignored or manipulated or harmed in service of our “self-expression.”
The same gnostic impulse animates the transgender movement. We’re watching in real time how dangerous this ideology is when medicalized. After the new obesity guidelines dropped, high-profile medical officials criticized the recommendations as running too fast toward “invasive” medical procedures, like weight-loss surgeries for young kids, when we don’t have enough data on the long-term effects of these treatments. An NYU bioethicist called this strategy a “Band-Aid” that would only mask the real issues underlying childhood obesity. If only the same logic were applied to so-called “transgender medicine.”
Medicalized gnosticism is, in any form, dangerous, because gnosticism is a heresy. Humans are not souls who happen to have bodies. God formed humans out of the dust of the ground and breathed into them the breath of life. Humans became living souls. To be human is to be physical and spiritual. And, of course, Jesus Christ came to the world embodied, rose from the dead bodily, and will be known in the age to come from the scars on His body.
The “Fat Positivity” movement risks sending the message that we can be “healthy at any size” as long as we identify as healthy and that “mental health” should take priority over “physical health,” as if mental health is unrelated to physical health. We need not deny reality to affirm that every person and therefore every body possesses dignity and deserves respect and kindness.
The Apostle Paul told the Romans that “He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to [our] mortal bodies.” Our bodies aren’t perfect yet. We shouldn’t pretend they are nor shame anyone because they are not.
This Breakpoint was co-authored by Maria Baer. For more resources to live like a Christian in this cultural moment, go to colsoncenter.org.
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