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Looking at body positivity through a Catholic lens
Despite being well into 2021 now, the advertisements for gym memberships, weight loss supplements and new diets are still circulating on billboards and social media feeds. All that reflects the “eating disorder” that plagues American culture, said Amanda Martinez Beck, a self-described “fat activist” who writes on matters of food and weight from a Catholic perspective and hosts the “Fat and Faithful” podcast.
Beck, 36, is the author of “Lovely: How I Learned to Embrace the Body God Gave Me” (OSV, $14.95). “In my book, I set out the Catholic case for the goodness of all bodies, based on the Catechism, how we have to understand the purpose of our body if we’re going to judge whether a body is good or not. The purpose of our body is relationsip with God, ourselves and our neighbors; not thinness, or perfection or health.”
She spoke with Our Sunday Visitor about overcoming an eating disorder, how the culture warps our understanding of food and personal virtue, and how becoming Catholic in 2015 radically changed her insights into food, the body and God’s unconditional love for his creation.
Our Sunday Visitor: Your Twitter bio describes you as “a fat activist.” What does that mean?
Amanda Martinez Beck: Personally, I am a fat woman. The way that I look at fatness is an accessibility issue, not just a feeling in our society. A lot of people feel like they’re fat, but it’s usually a word to describe something like bloating or they’ve outgrown their clothing. In my activism, for example, I look at ways people are able to access seating. If you go into a public place, do you require seating without arms? Have you been prevented from participating in a public event because of space? Also, access to clothing; people of size face challenges dressing professionally and for leisure because … major stores had only recently added larger selections of clothing, and that only usually goes up until size 18. People in sizes 20 to 30 and beyond have to visit specialty stores or order online, which creates a difficulty because you can’t try on clothes.
I advocate for a framework of health called “Health at Every Size.” The idea is that every person deserves medical care with dignity, and that weight is not a reliable indicator of health, that it is on the health care system to change the way it treats people in large bodies.
I also advocate for Church leaders to change the way they speak about bodies and the morality about body size.
Our Sunday Visitor: In Church circles, fatness has often been seen in the context of gluttony, spiritual discipline and caring for the Temple of the Holy Spirit. What do you think of that framing?
Beck: The way we have to frame our lives is after what Jesus said about loving God with all we are and loving our neighbors as ourselves. When we talk about things like the seven deadly sins, we need to look at that within the context of neighbor love. My podcast co-creator has a definition for gluttony that I think completely transforms the way that we think of it. She says that gluttony is over-consumption that harms our neighbor. That actually removes the question of how much should one person eat, because of the diversity of bodies and the reasons that we eat.
Our Sunday Visitor: How does Scripture inform your view of matters regarding food?
Beck: In Acts [10:9-16], Peter receives a vision before Cornelius comes. Jesus presents to Peter that there is no unclean food, and right after that, Cornelius shows up. Peter takes the vision about food and realizes that God is also talking about people, that the food that we eat does not make us unclean, and it’s the way that we talk about food that ends up translating to how we talk about people. If you say you’re “eating clean,” then people who are eating “unclean” have a lesser stand in your eyes, and it becomes a moral judgement, just like Peter originally would have judged Cornelius as being unworthy of his time.
In Colossians 2, Paul talks about how Christ has taken the requirements of the Law and nailed them to the cross, that he has disarmed the principalities and powers, these rules, these expectations of the Law, and made a public spectacle of them. Paul goes on to write [in verses 16-23], “Let no one then, pass judgement on you in matters of food and drink. … If you died with Christ to the elemental powers of the world, why do you submit to regulations as if you were still living in the world? ‘Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!’ These are all things destined to perish with use; they accord with human precepts and teachings. While they have a semblance of wisdom in rigor of devotion and self-abasement and severity to the body, they are of no value against gratification of the flesh.”
How we eat and how we keep rules does not help us tame our drive of self-preservation at all costs. We’re often told that it does; that’s when we’re presented with self-control, as opposed to self-control being something like not letting our desire for self-preservation at all costs overcome how we care for our neighbors.
Our Sunday Visitor: What do you think the fitness ads that dominate advertising in the first months of the year say about our society and culture?
Beck: I think it points to our longing for a fresh start. A lot of the language used in the diet industry parallels religious language. Even going back to clean vs. unclean, we yearn to be washed clean on a fundamental human level. The language plays on our insecurities.
It’s really twofold. One is a measure of control over our circumstances; if we feel like our life is not where we want it to be, food and exercise is one way of articulating a control over your circumstances, which is also connected to eating disorders.
Also, the language is a works-based righteousness, that we have to change ourselves in order to be pleasing to God. You’ll hear me talk a lot about my “today body”; not where I was in high school, not where I will be when I finish this diet or this religiously motivated fast that is also appealing for diet purposes. The message of Jesus is that you may come as you are. He will take you and live with you and in you.
So to believe that we have to change our physical appearance or even our health creates a hierarchy within the Church that is just wrong, especially when we consider lack of access to health care for the poor and the middle class, honestly, and how ableism can really harm people in our churches and the people we are reaching out to.
Our Sunday Visitor: You’ve written about overcoming an eating disorder. How difficult was that?
Beck: It was really difficult, and it’s an ongoing process, because food is not something you can just forget about. Being placed on a diet as a child causes trauma. My parents were motivated by health because my dad’s a physician and my mom’s a nurse.
American culture has an eating disorder. We are sold that a woman, in order to lose weight, should eat 1,200 calories a day. That’s the caloric intake that a toddler needs. The thing that’s really revolutionary for me in my process in healing from disordered eating is freedom. If you say you’re not going to eat bread, all you can think about is bread. You’re sabotaged by your body’s response to scarcity. Evolutionarily, we’re wired to preserve our lives, so if we recognize there’s going to be a bread shortage, we’re going to stack the bread on as much as possible because our body senses a shortage coming.
I have found freedom using the “10 Principles of Intuitive Eating.” One of the principles is you have permission to eat whatever you want, however much you want, whenever you want it. By taking off the rules and the boundaries that are placed around food, it allows food to take its proper place in our lives. Eventually, as you practice that and work through uncategorizing food as “good and bad” and recognizing that its purpose is so much more than fuel, you’re actually able to make it a natural and rightly ordered part of your life. That has been widely impacting for me.
Our Sunday Visitor: What role has your Catholic faith played in your healing journey?
Beck: I became Catholic in 2015. Before that, my husband and I were at a Reformed church. In Reformed theology, a lot of the focus is on the fall of Adam and Eve, the resulting devastation and how humans are hopelessly awful. I understand that view, and yet when I read the opening sections of the Catechism, God in his infinite goodness created the world and the humans that inhabit it. The goodness of that is overpowering. When God creates humans, he says it is very good. Instead of viewing my body journey as a hamster [on a wheel] where I’m always trying to make it better to please God, I realize that is a fruitless endeavor, because he’s already pleased with his creation. Even the fact that Jesus took on flesh forever. He is a human forever, and we never hear about Jesus’ pursuit of health in the Gospels. So that’s really where it becomes important to have a way I think about my body as a good part of creation, because its purpose is relationship. That is all in the first couple of sections of the Catechism. It takes off the fear of screwing up.
Brian Fraga is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.