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Book Review: Fat and Faithful

Fat and Faithful book cover
image courtesy of Fortress Press

My youngest daughter loves my “fluffy tummy.” Let me see it, Mommy, she begs; lifts up my shirt; buries her head in my belly. You’re so soft, she says.

Tell me why it’s so fluffy, she asks. She knows the answer: because I grew three big, beautiful babies in my body. But she wants to hear, again, that my belly is tangible proof that she was once a part of me.

She loves my soft, squishy, fluffy tummy so much that I can’t bear to tell her my truth:

I hate it.

To me, my belly fat doesn’t represent three pregnancies that happened alongside a PhD, a cross-country move, a new job, so many good and hard things in my life. Instead, it represents failure. Lack of discipline and self-control.

My belly betrays that I’d rather sleep than pry myself out of bed and hit the gym. It reveals that I think chocolate tastes better than skinny feels. It shows how much I enjoy eating the bread that I love baking.

The jiggle in my thighs proves that I cannot bring my mind to bear over matter. That I have failed to discipline my genetic predisposition to squishiness into lean muscle.

What my daughter sees as physical evidence of love and comfort and connection I see as failure of the will.

And so I found Nicole Morgan’s new book, Fat and Faithful, incredibly challenging. In her book, Morgan makes a strong case for recognizing the image of God in every body, regardless of how far that body strays from our cultural ideas of a “good” body.

From this starting point, Morgan strongly criticizes the Christian diet industry, and indeed our modern-day understanding of the sin of gluttony. She argues that our association of skinniness with holiness is not only cultural but damaging as it devalues the personhood of those who do not, or cannot, achieve a “good” body.

Although the book is not a memoir, Morgan uses her own experiences as a fat woman in the church to illustrate the heartbreaking pressure and dehumanizing assumptions she faced and, at times, internalized. As a young woman, she believed that her large body negated her words, that no one would come to Christ through her because she lacked the faith and discipline to lose weight.

Morgan is absolutely right that the church, like the rest of the culture, prizes thinness — and she drives home the necessary point that the church does great damage when it equates fatness with sinfulness.

I also appreciate her point that an obsession with how and what we eat — calorie counting, labeling foods “good” and “bad,” berating ourselves for cheating — gets in the way of joyful communal tables. I’ve agonized myself over how people might perceive my own food choices at communal meals, and that internal agony does nothing to enhance community.

Morgan makes good and important points about loving and accepting our bodies, and about how the church has failed to honor the image of God in bodies that exist outside cultural ideals of beauty and goodness.

But I still struggle with the idea of fat acceptance, especially for myself. I find myself able to extend grace and acceptance to others that I just can’t seem to apply to myself.

I know that I’m not as disciplined with my eating and exercising as I could be. I eat far too much sugar and too many carbs. I don’t exercise as much as I should. I ended one gym membership when I moved this spring, and I haven’t managed to actually sign up at the new gym I’ve chosen.

I want to be healthy — that’s part of my motivation, and not bad — but I also want to be closer to my pre-pregnancy body. Maybe even my pre-PhD-exams body. I’ve never loved my body, but I now regret not loving it more when I was far closer to social ideals.

And after years of living as a woman in America, it’s incredibly hard for me to disentangle “healthy” from “thin.” I want to bike with my kids. Physical activity lifts my mood. I feel crappy when I eat too much sugar. But when I swap fresh fruit for ice cream and a brisk walk for a Netflix binge and I don’t lose weight, I wonder if it’s worth the effort. I let my scale tell me whether or not I should feel good.

I don’t know how to love this body that I live in. I’m not even convinced in my heart of hearts that I should love it, at least not until I manage to remake it into something else, something disciplined, something skinny, something perfect. Something impossible.

So Fat and Faithful challenges me on a personal level. Can I love my body even in its imperfections? Can I love my body enough to care for it rather than punish it into compliance? Can I love my body as God does, as part of God’s good creation?

I can’t do it right now. It seems impossible that I will ever love my fluffy tummy the way my daughter does.

But I can start by accepting that she loves it rather than telling her that she should feel differently.