The Big Issue

I’ve preached and blogged on a number of justice-related subjects over the dozen years that I’ve been in ministry. I’ve written about feminism, racism, classism, and homophobia. I’ve written about immigration and war and reproductive freedom and prison reform. I’ve written about religious intolerance and all sorts of types of bigotry. But there’s one issue I’ve always avoided writing about. I used it as a one-sentence illustration of a different issue once, but only, I think, once.

There are some prejudices that most of our society knows are wrong. Most people in our society know that racism is wrong, although there is still plenty of racism out there. And then there are issues that as a society we’re divided on, like homophobia, but where the liberal circles I’m in have a clear understanding that it’s wrong. But there are some prejudices that are still deemed completely acceptable. Those can be hard to write about, harder to speak up about, and hardest to confront when they’re clearly your issue to deal with. For the dozen years I’ve been in ministry, and all the years in the pews before that, I’ve never once heard a sermon on this issue. A Google search on “Unitarian sermon” plus various wordings of this issue turns up nothing. It's mentioned about once on the UUA's website.  I’ve only once (maybe twice) heard a colleague say that they were speaking about this issue. I’ve never read a UU blog post on this issue. And it’s only in the last six months or so that I’ve seen some individual Facebook posts by a handful of people indicating that they’re aware of this issue and sympathetic. And I’ve seen more than that which were outright insulting and negative. I was once told that there were only a handful of “issues” that ministers have that made it difficult for them to get jobs, and this was among them; the others were being transgender and being physically disabled. It’s an issue that’s come up as a complaint about me in almost every church I’ve been the minister at.

So I’m finally coming out of the fat closet today. You knew I was in there, anyway, because I carry this issue on my body. But I don’t talk about it, I don’t do advocacy work about it, and I don’t write about it or preach about it. And I’m starting to change that.

First of all, I want to say this: shaming is bad. It is wrong to shame people. People shame fat people all the time, and they seem to feel good and virtuous about it. The argument is that “Fat is unhealthy. My shaming them will help them to stop this unhealthy behavior.” Without even addressing the “fat is unhealthy” statement, this is wrong on two other levels: shaming does not help people. And even if shaming someone did change that person’s behavior, that does not justify the shaming. The shaming is still wrong. Your fat jokes are not justified by your “concern” for my health. Period.

Don't think fat shaming exists?  Heck, people not only do it, and justify it, they even recommend it.  And the result of all the fat jokes and insults has not been a thinner America.  The result is people who feel hurt, wounded, devalued, and debased.  The result is depression and self-loathing.  And do you know what a major side-effect of depression and self-loathing is?  Weight gain.  Your shame does not help the problem; it compounds it.

Secondly, people stereotype fat people with a lot of other assumptions unfairly. Fat people are considered lazy, first of all, and lacking willpower. Here’s a great example from a University of New Mexico professor who tweeted: “Dear obese PhD applicants: if you didn't have the willpower to stop eating carbs, you won't have the willpower to do a dissertation #truth.”

The science of weight loss is rapidly attacking the “willpower” myth. Fat people do not lack willpower. Lack of willpower is not why we are fat, and, even if it was, it wouldn’t mean that this lack of willpower occurred anywhere else in our life.

As for lazy, there are numerous other explanations for why fat people don’t exercise, when it is true, which it often isn't. Often there are other physical problems that have led to weight gain, and sometimes these also make exercise difficult. In my case, for example, I broke my leg very badly one year and then the next year broke my back. Since these two bad breaks, most forms of exercise became very painful. An hour of an exercise that taxed my back would be followed by two days laying on my back unable to move from back pain. And then as the weight has gone on, those problems have been compounded.  People assume I have trouble walking and with my back because I'm fat.  The fat has not made it easier, but the causality is actually reversed.  I gained weight because I have trouble walking and with my back.

Beyond other existing physical problems, fat people are hampered by the fact that a lot of gym equipment isn’t well-suited for our bodies. And then, there’s the shaming. Yes, it comes back to that again.  Ever been a fat person at a gym? Ever seen one? Did people stare? Did they laugh or snicker? Did people turn their heads in disgust? Were they outright rude? I’ve heard all these things and more from fat friends about their trips to the gym. Do you want to go somewhere where you are laughed at and insulted and made to feel like crap? Would you consider avoiding such a place? Again, people justify their fat shaming as acceptable because a fat person is unhealthy. Yet when a fat person does make an attempt to exercise, the shaming doubles.

And if you think the scorn heaped upon the fat person at the gym is bad, just imagine the fat person who has the nerve to fly on an airplane. 

The truth is, fat is a complex issue that we’re only beginning to understand scientifically. Only 15% of diets are successful right now. We’re learning that the body works to put back on weight after it has lost it. Once your body has lost weight, it learns to use calories much more efficiently, in the attempt to put back on the weight. A person who has never dieted can consume more calories to maintain weight than a person who has dieted. We’re also learning that there are dozens of genetic variations associated with body size. We’re learning that our bodies’ response to artificial sweeteners is much more complex than the “zero calories” they were sold to us as being.  The moral here is that even when fat people have been trying to make a healthy switch, it's not always as simple as it seems.  Fat is a complex issue, and dieting is more complex than simply "calories in, calories out."

I think every fat person in this society has felt the pain of thousands of microaggressions.  We get them every time we open a magazine or turn on the television to find another "hilarious" TV show making yet another fat joke.  This is liveable -- we live with it constantly.  But what needs to change is how we respond to individuals in our lives -- our parents, children, siblings, relatives, friends, coworkers.  What needs to change is how we respond in our liberal religious communities as well.  So far, my experience of our response has been that we see fat people among us as an "issue" to be addressed, and the mode for addressing it is to complain or shame.  How could our response be different?

When I was a new minister, a complaint came to my committee on ministry, and the complaint was that I was fat.  I think there were some surrounding words about how this would make the congregation look bad, because there were negative stereotypes about fat people.  "There are positive stereotypes, too," I responded.  "What are they?" I was asked, as I recall.  I talked about how fat people are seen as "jolly" (i.e. Santa), as goddess-like (when female), as friendly and approachable.  Fat people being seen as asexual could even been a benefit in the ministry, arguably.  All of these "positive" stereotypes are still stereotypes and no more real than the negative ones, of course.  But mostly, I said, in seeing a fat minister, other fat people might see themselves as welcomed, as valued, and as acceptable to our community. 

That's the vision I hold out -- fat people could walk into your sanctuary and know instantly that they are welcomed in your church.  What would it take to make that a reality?  What signals might be sending the opposite message?  How can they be addressed?  It's time for more Unitarian Universalists to take up this question -- to preach it, to teach it, and to live it.


Anonymous said…
We are starting to address such issues in our congregation. It is hard - it is still such a difficult issue to talk about. Thank you so much for your bravery and your openness in sharing this and helping move us along in the conversation.
Katie Mulligan said…
An excellent book: The Fat Jesus: Christianity and Body Image by Lisa Isherwood
Unknown said…
Love it! Thank you!
Rev. Theresa Novak
Anonymous said…
Wonderful! Keep preaching it Rev. Cynthia.
I think the part where folks say 'why' they are fat (lesbian, poor, wealthy, disabled) is part of the internalized oppression. It's not the answer that is right or wrong, it's the question. Why someone is fat is not anyone's business unless invited into that conversation. Why is another way to assign judgement to others or to the self. I'd love to hear your take on this. Thanks for your post!
Very reasonable and well stated, as all our conversations on prejudices and personal issues should be. Brava!
Mauren Mureaux said…

Thank you so much for your wonderful, thoughtful post.

Hi, i'm Suzanne. I wandered over because my friend, Karen Quinlan, had linked your post on Facebook.

I'm fat. I've been fat my whole life. I'm dealing with it now at the age of 45 and like most people who are obese, there are several factors involved.

People who are not fat, have no idea the multitude of issues than can lend to us gaining weight. You mentioned your injuries and then there are issues like mine...low thyroid and lymphedema...i'm confident that the list goes on and on. We are just two examples.

While i've never felt discriminated against among my UU Congregation, society has been especially harsh. I have lived through things that have shamed me and led me to overeating, call myself names or no take care of myself properly. The resulting depression is something i have finally learned to cope with.

There were two specific incidents in particular that made me never want to leave the house. One day i was sitting in the lobby of a hospital in the Baltimore area, minding my own business and knitting away while other family members were upstairs visiting. A man and his wife walked into the lobby and not more than 10 feet from me, the man turned to his wife and said, "Damn! Did you see her?" I wanted to badly to yell out to him, "I may be fat, but i'm NOT deaf!" The second event happened right in the drive where i was living at the time. As i walked down the drive and to the mailbox a car speed past and the young man driving yelled out his window, "Holy Shit! Go kill yourself!".

Nice, right? All i wanted to do was hide inside and there did come a time where i wanted to die and i tried.

I'm better now, every day is a new day and a new chance to make wiser choices. I finally have the health care i need to have my health issues addressed properly and am on a journey to being a more healthy person.

I wish more people would learn to have a better understanding of issues that contribute to weight gain. I wish society as whole would learn to be more compassionate toward those of us who do suffer with excess weight. I'm to the point in life where my weapon of choice is to just heap compassion and understanding on other people in the hopes that eventually it will come back to me.

I wish you peace, RevCyn. Blessed Be.

Unknown said…
When I was in seminary at SKSM, Sally Hamlin did a chapel service with the title , I think of "A sizable Issue. I wrote the following poem for the service

Taking up Space
Theresa Novak
September 2004

I am a large woman
And I need some space.
The world is not big enough
Sharp elbows jutting, jabbing
The smaller people
Push by with impatience.
Their looks of disgust
Try to cut me down to size.
I don’t feel crowded
By other fat people,
Even in a small space.
Our round bodies bump
Pleasantly together
With a jiggling, Jello-pudding ease.
Earth mother goddess,
Welcoming, warm, and wise.
Funny how someone so big
Can feel so invisible.
Yes, EXTRA large
Is way too small.
I don’t want to feel small
Simply because I am
What someone else thinks is
Way too big.
I am a large woman
And I need some space.
I want to grow larger still
Spirit filling my body - and more
Flowing out, around.
Divine spirit,
Larger than all imagination,
Teach us how to bump more gently
Into one another.
May our spirits flow
Around the sharp edges,
Around the rude elbows
That jab us apart.
We are large souls
And we need some space
To be
afrekete said…
Thank you for this! As a fat Unitarian Universalist and a fat activist, I really appreciate this and agree with almost every word you wrote here! I do want to say, as a fat athlete, that though people make the assumption that fat people dont exercise, many of us do. I am in the gym much more than almost all the thin people I know. I accept the fact that my fat body makes me an outlaw in the gym and the hatred you get from people who are there because they dont want you to be like you is quite real as you described it. But I am still there so I hope that people know that fat does not equal not exercising. Thanks!
revmermaid said…
Right on! I love your vision about wanting your congregation to be a place where fat people know they are welcome.
Kate R said…
Like your column. I did preach on it. It's called "God is a Fat Lady". It was very well received, actually. I know that I have been passed over for lots of ministry jobs specifically for being fat -- they didn't tell me but my references did. Of course I go back to the days when they would reject me to my face for being female --- they wanted a nice young, married (not gay), man they told me. One odd thing is that even fat people are prejudiced against one another.
Kate R -- thank you for preaching on it!

RevMermaid - Thanks!

afrekete - I completely agree. I was addressing the reasons some people don't exercise or don't do it at a gym, but plenty of fat people do!

Theresa -- Beautiful!!! Thank you so much for sharing!

Scattered Gemini -- Thank you so much for sharing your story, and for spreading more compassion and understanding in the world.

JAVS - Thank you.

Lori - I agree with you completely.

Katie - Thank you for the reference.

Dawn - Thank you for spreading the conversation, both via Facebook and in your congregation.
Anonymous said…
I too have had congregants complain about my weight, even suggest that they should mandate a walking routine with members supervising- as if that would help!

I did once have a colleague tell me that I should never lose weight because then I would become too threatening to wives...which scared me on so many levels.

I have addressed this in sermons but not often enough, but as I watch my colleague a brown, gay man struggle with how he can and should preach on racism and marriage equality I realize that like you I have struggled with being able to speak about fat oppression because it is my own issue. Thanks for speaking truth.
Anonymous said…
Suz--what those people said to you is SO not okay. My experience has been that when people say f*cked up stuff to me about my body they're usually dealing with their own shame, and the terrible fear that while their bodies may be socially acceptable now, they will one day find themselves with unacceptable bodies. That doesn't make it any better though. <3
Anonymous said…
Rev. Cynthia,
I thank you for this comprehensive, thoughtful and well-informed discussion of stigma and body size. Health behavior science tells us that willpower has virtually nothing to do with weight, and biological science is gradually beginning to shed more light on the mechanisms that determine our metabolisms--it's not so easy as energy in/energy out! Our lifestyles today are so far removed from how we evolved to live and eat, and society's standards of appearance (which are bombarding us daily via the omnipresent media) are so unrealistic and so not-body-positive, that this sets up a very unhealthy climate (both physically & psychologically).
I am a candidate for ministry, and I am very fat. I have gotten no overt red lights about fat in my ministry, but I know that they are there...hidden, for example, in recommendations to attend to my physical health.

It's sosososo hard to preach on our own issues, as a previous commenter said, and harder still when shame and oppression is framed as being "for our own good"....grrrr.

Thank you for this post. Keep on keepin'on. I'd love to be in touch sometimes. I know I need the support if other fat ministers, and I'd love to offer what I have, as well.
Anonymous said…
I don’t think the solution lies in fat acceptance—the stakes are too high! Our culture wholeheartedly supports, nurtures, and pushes addiction and addictive behaviors through the advertising and promotion of substances it calls ‘food’; which benefits the corporations that produce them & not the people who do (or don't) eat them. We need to challenge the “truths” of the food, pharmaceutical and advertising industries.
I used to think being fat was about my personal failure but understand it now as a response of the body to trauma. Candace Pert in “Molecules of Emotion” says, when trauma is experienced the body increases its endorphin receptors & when cells divide they carry the increased # of receptors so the body has an increased need for endorphins. If you're traumatized you become a likely candidate for addiction & overeating is an addiction.
The food industry actively cultivates properties in food that create physical addiction. Michael Moss explains in, "Salt, Sugar, Fat" that foods are tested to achieve just the right level of snap, salt, and sweetness to make people crave them.
The "you deserve a break today" ad campaign by McDonalds created the attitude that food is a reward that we are entitled to, which is pervasive! the is constant. We're bombarded by an onslaught of food advertising, by designer foods & snacks & live with the belief that food is a lifestyle choice-a way to have instant gratification and make life easier. We’ve relied on & become addicted to the adrenaline rush from sugar, salt & caffeine. Being assaulted by highly flavored foods, causes our taste buds lose the ability to discriminate between the subtleness of unflavored fresh fruits & vegetables & we lose interest in eating them. They can't compete, and we resent anyone telling us what we should eat, and feel guilty for eating what we want, and eat more of it which turns into a vicious cycle & leads to too many calories flooding our systems while the fundamental building blocks of nutrition are missing. We've collectively misunderstood the purpose of food. A building made with poor materials will fall apart. So it is with us. This isn't about morality, it's cause & effect.
Physicians don't advocate for improved nutrition in response to illness. They routinely promote pharmaceutical or surgical solutions; treating us as machines to be fixed rather than as dynamic beings to partnered with in healing.
Functional medicine says every bite has the power to hurt or to heal us and every choice we make can be one that supports good health! Framing our health and our weight as a social justice issue means we do not have to passively accept cultural misdirects. We CAN wake up and stop putting up with this nonsense.
Catherine -- I'm happy to get together and talk with candidates, if that would be helpful.

Anon -- I appreciate your passion, but I think you're missing the point. The point was not about "fat acceptance." I'm talking about treating people as if they are welcomed and acceptable, as all people are--children of God, worthy of love, having inherent worth and dignity. I'm not talking about how people lose weight or whether or not they should -- I'm talking about how we should treat all people, and focusing on including fat people in that category of all people, with kindness, which is something this culture doesn't do. has some really great articles about this issue!
Anonymous said…
I'm late in reading this, and yet it is timely, also. I just recently returned from visiting a friend whose daughter is a candidate for ordination and she is feeling so sad for her daughter. The daughter has been ministering at a small church where the congregants love her and she has many praises for her sermons that "keep me awake". Thus, congregational support and good sermon delivery are not the issue with her not becoming ordained. The "powers that be" have passed her by for ordination so far with comments like "needs to be a better role model" and "needs to follow a healthier life style". She is not a UU, but is a Protestant Christian. UU's don't have a monopoly on shaming and prejudice, that is for sure. Cynthia - I know that this must have been the most difficult of all your blogs to write. However, it may very well be your best for that reason alone. As the comments have shown, you are reaching out to many people who suffer the consequences of this prejudice, and even if you don't get to those who do the shaming, at least you are ministering to those in need. And maybe, just maybe, a few ears will be opened to hear the message. Godde (not a typo) bless you.
Kari said…
Thanks for this beautiful post and for your beautiful online ministry. I no longer work for a church, but I know that when the congregation I served was looking at furnishing a new building, there was an effort to be explicitly welcoming to people of all sizes by having chairs without arms, and good seating options that would accommodate people using scooters, who needed ample room and other mindful space considerations. It didn't all happen because of money, like so many things in our cash strapped congregations, but it was good to be mindful and to at least make a start. I wonder what else congregations can do to be welcoming to people of all sizes?
Anonymous said…
Wow. Thanks for this post. You know, when I went for my career assessment, the woman who interviewed me was OBSESSED with my being overweight. The first sentence of her evaluation (which was ultimately positive) included my weight in pounds! She asked me how I could present "the face of God" as a minister (which people would project onto me) as an overweight person. I've never had congregants give me a hard time about my weight, ever. But I do my own self-shaming at times, saying self-deprecating things about my weight. Maybe that's my way of stopping others from criticizing me... Thanks for this post.
Deb Lemire said…
Great article! I am a fat UU and activist. The biggest barrier we run into is the discrimination and stigmatization worn as "concern" for our health." And for all the reasons many commenters have already mentioned, we know that it is really more about people's discomfort with a body that does not conform to current culturally conditioned norms. There is a strong movement among health activist professionals for The Health At Every Size Mode. I urge you to look into it. I am past president of ASDAH (The Associate for Size Diversity and Health) and would be glad to connect anyone here to resources.

I struggle in my own congregation with many who are just "trying to help." So I have initiated some talks and workshops with mixed success.
Unknown said…
Being fat is not nearly so bad or control-able problem as being mean.

Popular posts from this blog

Garrison Keillor Is no "Companion" for Unitarian Universalists

Blessing the Backpacks -- Backpack Charm Craft Instructions