An Epidemic of Obesity, a Pandemic of Self-Hate

Obetrol, with amphetamines, a favorite of Andy Warhol

Obetrol, with amphetamines, a favorite of Andy Warhol

America suffers from an epidemic of obesity. Ask anyone.

But America also suffers from a pandemic of body-hate, shame, and self-loathing.

Ask anyone who’s tried to lose weight, or worse, lost it only to regain it.

Why the obesity epidemic? There are so many possible explanations:

  • the wider availability of high-quality food,
  • the end of hunger (though not necessarily malnutrition) in the industrialized world,
  • more sedentary lives,
  • high-fructose corn syrup,
  • video games,
  • a downward cycle of yo-yo dieting, etc.

Why the self-loathing pandemic? There are just as many possible explanations:

  • the sheer fact of our increasing weight
  • media idols held up as impossible ideals
  • relentless messages from media, friends, family

All these play a part, I’m sure. But this is America, and I think we all know the #1 reason we hate our bodies so much. There is a lot of money in selling hate. $60 billion a year, according to Marketdata Enterprises.

As Christians, we realize that all people are the image-bearers of God. That all people are loved by God, loved to the point that he emptied Himself of His glory and power, walked on earth, and even died for us.

You and I are part of “all people.” You and I are loved that much, by that awesome of a God.

So why do we hate ourselves so much?  That hatred does not come from above.

I am hesitant to call things Satanic, but self-loathing is, and those who spread or profit from it for any reason should be ashamed of themselves. Its fires burn in every skeletal anorexic, every compulsive eater, every cutter, every suicide.

What does that mean for our bodies? I think we owe it to ourselves, and maybe even to God, to try to keep ourselves in good health. And that includes not only illness but physical fitness. I have reached a point in my life when I have fallen far short of this goal. I must struggle to strengthen my body, and resist the things that weaken me. Fortunately, it isn’t always hardship.

But the driving force that leads us to care for our bodies should be love. It should not be Hollywood, magazines, or the advertising machine of the diet and weight-loss industry. And our goals should not be to look like Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie. Vanity is no virtue, and envy is a poor motivator.

And most of all, we should learn to see ourselves as God sees us, to love our own bodies as they are, “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14) … not as they will be “after I lose 20 (or 50, or 100) pounds.”

Research shows that those of us who are really heavy will probably never be thin, not for the long term. But most of us can be a lot healthier than we are now.

And all of us can learn to close our ears to the malevolent, avaricious cacophony of advertisers, to gracefully throw off our body-shame, our self-loathing, and to let God’s love flow through our bodies … even if they weigh 350 pounds.

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Man Up … Men, Women, Modesty and Lust Part Two

Roasted Brussels Sprouts by Mcmlxl, Creative Commons

Roasted Brussels Sprouts by Mcmlxl, Creative Commons

This is my second response to In my Emily Maynard’s Prodigal.net article, “Modesty, Lust, and My Responsibility.”   In my first article, I talked about modesty and women.  Now I want to talk about modesty, lust, and men.

Just as women get dehumanized and have their agency stripped away in this debate, becoming dress-up-dolls for our lusts or our self-righteous desires to control the way they dress, so too do men get dehumanized.  Sometimes literally: how many times have you heard someone say that “Men are dogs” or “Men are pigs” or “Men can’t control themselves?”  Even “Men are visual creatures, and are more affected by appearance than women are,” while gentler sounding, and not strictly speaking dehumanizing, still steals agency from men.

Women are not responsible for men’s sexual fantasies.  Men are.  Women are not responsible for men mentally objectifying them, thinking of them only in terms of sexual performance and fantasy.  Men are.  Men are not dogs or pigs.  We are human beings, made in God’s image, just like women are.  And if we are, on average, more visual than women, so be it.  If it causes a problem, it’s our problem.

I think all the men here can think back (maybe not that far) to a time when you either entertained or resisted the temptation to entertain a sexual fantasy about someone who dressed modestly, wearing clothes that were neither revealing nor highly sexualized.  How “modestly” do women need to dress to protect us from our own moral responsibility?  Maybe a burqa would do it, but I don’t think even the strictest anti-feminist wants to go there.

So what’s the take-away from this, not for women, but for men?  We have the power (with God’s help) to control what your mind does.  When we see an unusually attractive woman, especially if she’s dressed in a revealing manner, we usually get a rush of attraction.  But we have the power to decide what we’re going to do with that reaction.

Will we remember that she is a person, made in God’s image, just like we are, or will we reduce her to a sexual object in our imagination?  Will we keep her humanity in mind, or will we put the blame on her for how she looks or how she’s dressed?

That’s the question.  What will we choose to do.  Because this is a choice.  We always have the choice to remember her humanity.

  • How does she feel about Brussels sprouts? (EVERYONE has an opinion about Brussels Sprouts)
  • What’s her favorite band, her favorite sport, her favorite movie?
  • What about the last good book she read?  Does she prefer paper books or e-readers?
  • Does she like Farmville, or would she rather take you on in Call of Duty or Super Smash Brothers?

Sexual-fantasy-girl won’t be able to answer these questions, of course, because she isn’t real.  But the actual woman, the one who looked so hot on TV, on campus, or at the mall, can answer those questions.

Humanity.  That’s what it’s about.  Not wardrobe.

…On the Other Hand, America Isn’t Righteous Now (part 1)

I always heard it was okay to talk to yourself, that you should only really get worried when you start arguing with yourself.  Well, here goes…

Over the last three days, I’ve taken my shots at the idea that America was once a righteous nation, and that we’re now in a deep moral decline.  You can read the details here, here, and here.  And I still believe that’s true: we have the lowest violent crime rate in 40 years and the lowest abortion rate in 20 years.  Our violent crime rate’s been decreasing almost every single year for the last 20 years, even through the Great Recession.  Hatred and discrimination are fading like cancer markers after a round of chemotherapy.

That said, I would be a liar and a hypocrite if I didn’t point out the counterarguments.  Don’t get me wrong, there is absolutely no time period in American history where “righteous” even comes close to fitting.  To be “righteous,” a man or nation cannot be blemished by hatred or greed or arrogance or corruption.  Tell me there was one minute since America’s founding where these did not apply.  Righteousness requires nothing less than perfection, otherwise it’s just filthy rags.

But it is also true that twenty-first century America has some real issues and problems that twentieth-century America didn’t.  I already mentioned easy access to pornography.  This danger can’t be overstated.

Filmed pornography is a powerful social evil not only because of its corrosive effect on its viewers, but because of the sometimes awful conditions its performers work under, as Chris Hedges highlights here.  Too many (though of course not all) porn performers have suffered sexual abuse in childhood or adolescence.  Many struggle with addiction to painkillers, which often have to be taken because of the … difficult and uncomfortable … feats they are called on to perform.  Some of the shiftier, “amateur” productions even use trafficked women as “performers.”

The commoditization of sexuality has seeped into our culture, almost subconsciously.  Just as women are achieving professional equality, and even exceeding men in college enrollment, objectification takes an ugly turn.  The motive may be profit, but the effect of making films of violent, rough group sex is to put women back in their place, not as equals, but as “sluts” and “whores.”

And I don’t think it’s just visual pornography that’s damaging.  Fifty Shades of Gray may be famous, but it’s just one example of a massively profitable written erotica business, aimed mostly at women.  While it’s true that no actors were harmed in the making of this novel, that doesn’t mean it isn’t spiritually dangerous to the readers.  Sadomasochistic elements aside, can there be any benefit from turning our sexual imaginations away from intimacy and toward spectacle, performance, and anatomical dimensions?

I wandered into this genre thanks to Laurel K. Hamilton.  Her Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series began as paranormal noir, featuring a strong female character who was actually celibate.  Anita had been burned by her ex-fiance, and had decided to wait to have sex until she was really married.  That, combined with an interesting love triangle, provided an unusual and fascinating emotional backdrop for the supernatural crimes she investigated.

There were no sex scenes in the first five books.  The sixth had one relatively short scene, which was unremarkable for the noir genre.  Then, things changed.  Each book became more and more explicit, adding in elements of bondage, sadomasochism, group sex, etc. until the genre had utterly switched to erotica.  Not even paranormal romance, but erotica.

And more than a few of her long-term readers were left shaking our heads, wondering if anyone got the number of the bus that hit us.

I’m not saying this to condemn Ms. Hamilton: she can write what she wants.  Clearly, the market agrees.  Her sales numbers have not fallen off.  But I’ve read this stuff, and I know that for me, at least, it’s not healthy.  It’s not okay.  I’d wager that St. Paul would not call it  profitable or beneficial.

It’s also an example of how, as Pamela Paul wrote, “it is easier to get pornography than avoid it.”  I started reading a series with no sex scenes, no indication that there would even be explicit sex scenes, and after I’d gotten attached to the characters, things changed.

Not that I needed a book to swerve me.  After all, my Spam Folder is full of things I wouldn’t dare repeat here.  The hardest of the hardcore is just a Google Search away.  And, as the pornification of America progresses, “mainstream” movies and tv shows begin to push – not pornography itself, but a sex-as-commodity mindset that is the most damaging part of porn.

And how do we shelter our kids from this?  I have no idea.  I have a feeling our  computers will grow passwords and monitoring software before our (as yet unborn) child figures out how to turn them on.  That’s not a 100% solution, not even close.  Kids can get access at other peoples’ houses.  But I’m not sure there’s any way to prepare children for something like this.

I don’t actually have a solution.

One thing I can definitely try to do is be a part of whatever solution does exist, rather than part of the problem.  I will do my best to avoid even semi-pornographic material and to purge every vestige of sex-as-commodity thinking that has seeped into my brain.  That’s the first step.

Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dotted Burqa (Modesty Part 1)

In my Weekend Wows post,  I mentioned Emily Maynard’s post “Modesty, Lust, and My Responsibility”  I urge you to follow the link and read what she has to say for yourselves.

For those of you who didn’t, she’s saying three basic things: 1) being sexually attracted to someone isn’t a sin, but fantasizing, lusting, dwelling in that is; 2) lust is about control (in the sexual fantasy, the object of lust does whatever the lust-er wants), and 3) men aren’t filthy animals who have no control over their own moral agency.  They can resist lustful fantasies just like women can.

A lot of people have replied saying that it is so important that women dress modestly so as to not tempt men to the sin of lust.  As a man who’s struggled with “the lust of the eye” (though I have thankfully been spared from participating in promiscuity, infidelity, etc.), I have a few thoughts about this myself.

First, the idea that women’s dress and physical self-image should effectively exist for the benefit of men is a profoundly worldly idea.  It’s the Kodachrome negative of the frat boy “she’d be okay if she lost a little weight” and “I’d do her.”  Worse, it veers into blaming the object of the unwanted sexual attention for the actions of the other.  “She was askin’ for it, dressed like that.”  Seriously.  Think about it.  If women are to blame for men’s lustful thoughts, aren’t they to blame for men’s lustful actions?  Do we really want to go back to that age?

Do we really want to dehumanize both men and women, taking away both of their moral agency?  I know men are visual creatures.  I AM ONE.  I know men have a tendency to think lustful thoughts.  ME TOO.  I also know that men are responsible for their own sins, including lust.  It doesn’t matter if I just saw the hottest, sexiest woman I ever saw walking by in a low-cut top and barely-there skirt, looking like something that just stepped out of a Prince song, I am responsible for what I do in my mind just as I am responsible for what I do in my body.

Am I saying that Christian women should wear thigh-high platform boots, micro-skirts, and corset tops to the mall?  Of course not.  Christian women should take responsibility for their mode of dress based upon their own relationships with God.  They have souls and minds, too, and we don’t have the right to play God, telling them what God does and doesn’t want them to wear.  A woman’s salvation and sanctification come from God, through Christ, not through any other person.

Besides, there will always be plenty of non-Christian women who dress provocatively.  We men better learn to control ourselves, or we’ll be sunk in a pit of lustful thoughts all day long.  And let me tell you, as a man who remembers what it was like to be in the grip of hormones, constantly battling a lustful eye, it is absolutely possible to lustfully deconstruct somebody who is modestly dressed. Long sleeves, long pants or dress, not too tight?  It doesn’t matter.  Lust will find a way, unless it is controlled by the person doing the lusting.

There’s another problem with this scenario.   “Dressing modestly” is a moving target, culturally constructed and not even consistent within a single culture.  When asked what “modest dress” was, nobody in the comments section (myself included) could come up with a solid, widely-agreeable definition.  In fact, The Rebelution Modesty Survey spent months, created an interactive website, and surveyed thousands of teens and young adults, to get … a series of questions with answers based on the percentages of their respondents who agreed or disagreed.  In other words, they got a fascinating, and maybe even useful, cultural snapshot of early 21st century, predominantly Christian, youth.  And they started a good conversation.  But they ddn’t get a definitive answer.

So what does it mean to dress modestly?  What does it mean to you?  Tank top?  Jogging shorts?  Cap sleeves?  Skirt to your knees?  Long sleeves?  Skirt to your ankles?  Head covered?  Face veiled?  Burqa?

You think that “Burqa” comment was a smartaleck remark?  Sarcasm?  A joke?  It’s not.  When powerful men decide that women must be controlled, they usually start with modesty.  They start by “protecting” women from the lustful nature of men.  Soon they’re protecting them from going to college and learning difficult, even un-godly things.  They say it’s better for women to stay home and learn to be good homemakers for their husbands.

The woman exists for the man’s benefit, whether to gratify his lusts or support him and his children, depending upon whether you ask a libertine or a hyper-conservative.

The Burqa is where this ends: the symbol of total male domination of women, shrouded from view, her sex, even her humanity, hidden behind thick layers of cloth.  Her life is no longer her own, to give in service to God if she is willing and faithful, but belongs to a man.

If we let men start determining how women dress, women become effectively dress-up dolls, to be remade in either a sexualized or a conservative modesty model.  In other words, we take away their agency and dehumanize them … just like we do when we entertain sexual fantasies about them.