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Read this Book: The Religion of Thinness by Michelle M. Lelwica

March 17, 2013

The Religion of Thinness: Satisfying the Spiritual Hungers Behind Women’s Obsession with Food and Weight describes a crisis of spirituality for American women. Author Michelle M. Lelwica asserts that spirituality is not the same as religion, although religion has been a way that traditionally spiritual needs have been met. She discuss patriarchy in the Christian church as one way that even women who are religious have had their spirituality stifled. She argues that many women have turned instead to the Religion of Thinness to get their spiritual needs met. I think her thesis is debatable, but  its very interesting framework from which to consider our cultural obsession with weight, and how striving for a beauty deal may be masking our other needs.

Let’s consider how Lelwica defines our spiritual needs, and the way striving for thinness and beauty can be used to (temporarily and insufficiently!) fulfill these needs. The Religion of Thinness:

1. Gives us what some theologians refer to as an ultimate concern or an ultimate purpose.
2. Gives us a set of myths to believe in regarding the rewards of thinness.
3. Presents us with iconographic imagery to which we can aspire.
4. Offers rituals by which to organize our daily lives.
5. Creates a set of moral rules and vocabulary by which we can judge ourselves and others.
6. Includes us in a community of women who are all trying to achieve the same objectives.
7. Promises salvation.

Reading the book I was continually reminded of my own personal experience with weight loss and with one of the early articles I read that got me interested in Happy Bodies as a project: The Fantasy of Being Thin by Kate Harding.

Because, you see, the Fantasy of Being Thin is not just about becoming small enough to be perceived as more acceptable. It is about becoming an entirely different person – one with far more courage, confidence, and luck than the fat you has. It’s not just, “When I’m thin, I’ll look good in a bathing suit”; it’s “When I’m thin, I will be the kind of person who struts down the beach in a bikini, making men weep.”

Overcoming The Fantasy of Being Thin might be the hardest part of making it all the way into fat acceptance-land. And that might just be why I’d pushed that part of the process out of my memory: it fucking sucked. Because I didn’t just have to accept the size of my thighs; I had to accept who I am, rather than continuing to wait until I magically became the person I’d always imagined being. Ouch.

I think The Religion of Thinness correlates well with the “Fantasy of Being Thin”. Harding pushes the question, ‘When I’m fantasizing about being thin, what type of person am I fantasizing about becoming, and why can’t I do that now?’ Lelwica encourages you to ask, ‘When I am overcome with the desire to lose weight, what is the real need that’s not being met in my life?’ Her book both explains her hypothesis about the Religion of Thinnessand gives the reader tangible steps to fulfilling spiritual needs without falling into this trap. She emphasize acceptance, meditation and thoughtfulness about your body,  as well as engaging in cultural criticism, as methods to change the paradigm and create a positive relationship with your body.

So go ahead and pick up the Religion of Thinness! It’s a fantastic read.

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