As I previously mentioned I was given the opportunity to speak to my church family at Glenwood Church of Christ about mental health and eating disorders. It was wonderful to begin the dialogue that needs to happen in our churches. It’s important for the church, individually and corporately, to learn about eating disorders and to learn how to respond and how to help those who are struggling. Because the issues of eating disorders affects everyone. EVERYONE, from young children to elderly men and women.
FIRST, it’s important to know that there are clinical eating disorders (such as anorexia nervosa, binge eating disorder, bulimia nervosa, etc), but there is also disordered eating. Disordered eating identifies sub-clinical problematic thoughts, emotions, and behaviors around food (such as food rules, restriction, exercising as punishment, etc). Disordered eating often leads to a clinical eating disorder. Think of the person that says “Oh I can’t control myself around X” or only eats certain foods or must exercise to burn off food that they ate. So when I speak about eating disorders, I’m talking about a spectrum, from clinical eating disorders to disordered eating. Yes, there is a difference between the two and there’s great variance in each area, but in this post, I’ll refer to them both as “eating disorders”.
SECOND, let’s talk about what an eating disorder is and is not. When you read or hear eating disorder, typically a specific image is conjured up. Most often people think of someone who is severely emaciated from lack of nourishment and/or someone who purges through self-induced vomiting- this would be examples of clinical eating disorders. I also often get people that laugh and rub their stomach and say “oh, I have an eating disorder”- this literally makes my eye twitch because, no. The truth is we can’t look at someone’s body and know whether or not they have an eating disorder. People with ALL body types and weights can have an eating disorder. Most people with an eating disorder are normal weight or overweight. Eating disorders are not a black and white choice. Someone with an eating disorder cannot simply “eat a hamburger” and be free from their eating disorder. Eating disorders are not specific to race, gender, socioeconomic status, or age. Disordered eating is completely normalized in our society because of the diet culture we live in. So the person that makes the poor joke and rubs their belly is honestly telling me something (they just may not be meaning to!) because while they may not meet criteria for a clinical eating disorder, there are most likely some serious disordered eating patterns/thoughts happening.
What is diet culture? Diet culture is the world around us that says we must diet in order to be healthy enough, thin enough, happy enough. It’s the culture around us that says “You are not good enough unless you fit “X” ideal”. This culture used to be overtly weight loss focused and scream, “Thin! You have to be thin to be happy, to be worthy, to be good!” Now diet culture has shifted from overtly weight loss focused to subtly weight loss focused by telling us our health is at stake if we’re overweight. We’ve become fat phobic in the quest for physical health and obsessed with weight which leads to obsession with food. The problem is that weight isn’t a good predictor of health. There are many variables other than weight and nutrition that predict and determine whether or not we are healthy. So diet culture strikes again, but this time it uses the language of “lifestyle change” instead of “diet”. Because of this we often don’t realize we’re participating in diet culture- again. We’ve become totally engaged in this idea that nutrition is the most powerful determinant of health and therefore we must manipulate and control our food intake to maintain our physical health. This isn’t a bad thing, I’m all for physical health! I’m all for making choices that fuel our bodies well. But here’s what we forget: our mental, emotional, and spiritual health are factors as well. On many levels, the behaviors that we are told will help us lose weight in order to be healthy: food rules (aka restriction, starvation), compensatory behaviors (excessive exercise, over-exercise, obsessive exercise, self-induced vomiting, diet pills, laxatives), cheat days (more restriction typically followed by binges), and binge episodes are detrimental to all areas of health. That doesn’t step into the realm of the nature of obsessive thinking about food, body image, and exercise that accompanies such behaviors, nor does it touch the myriad of emotions that tend to rule when we’re in the diet culture trenches. Diet culture also says that food is either good or bad. Food choices, food restriction, exercise- they are not moral issues. They are not indicators of our moral worth or moral values. But diet culture has convinced us to believe that our morality is somehow tied to our food choices, our exercise regimen, and our body makeup.
When I gave a description of disordered eating or described diet culture, it may have stepped on your own toes or immediately made you think of someone close to you, right? That’s why this is such an important issue and truly affects us all! We can’t turn a blind eye. (Side note, studies show that dieting increases the risk of developing an eating disorder – I’m working on another post about this, coming soon!)
What should the church be doing to help people with eating disorders in our congregations and in this community?
- We have to talk OPENLY about our own mental health issues and about eating disorders because this combats shame. Shame drives the belief that we are flawed and everyone around us is whole and happy and perfect. Shame is what tells us to keep quiet because if they knew- they’d walk away, they’d see the hypocrisy, they’d know I’m an imposter, I’m flawed, I’m bad. And shame thrives in secrecy. When we talk candidly about mental health issues of our own or just name mental issues, we normalize the experience- and this begins the process of breaking down the shame barrier. For the church this means individually we need to share with the safe people in our congregations our struggles. Ask for prayers for your own struggles, struggles of a loved one (with their permission), or generalized prayer requests for those who are struggling. For the corporate church it means discussing mental health issues from the pulpit, in sermons, in classes, in devotionals, in Bible studies, in prayer. We are called to be the light of the world, so let us be the light. Let us shed light into some of the darkest places on earth. Because mental illness, eating disorders, will truly take you into the darkest places on earth.
We have to STOP participating in diet culture by thin praising and fat shaming. Thin praising is when you see someone who has lost weight and we say “you look so good”. Thin praising is when we talk about how good so-and-so looks to our friends and family. Thin praising is when we tell ourselves that so-and-so must be happier or feel more confident or have a better marriage or even that God loves them more because they are thin or have recently lost weight. Thin praising is telling others they are “being good” by their food restriction, food choices, or exercise regimen. Fat shaming is buying into the belief that fat means we are bad, that someone else is bad, that someone else must be unhappy, lazy, or complacent about their health. Fat shaming is believing and reinforcing that fat means we’re unhealthy. Fat shaming can be spoken comments about people gaining weight- either to their face or behind their back. Fat shaming is fat jokes. Fat shaming is prejudice against fat people that they must be less worthy or cared for by God. These are the opposite sides of the same token and the church and its individual members must stop participating. Because here’s the thing- you have NO IDEA how that person lost weight or gained weight or what that exercise or food choice or food restriction means to that person. They give you an answer but eating disorders (remember I’m talking about the spectrum) are insidious and sneaky and shame driven. So people with eating disorders often don’t see their eating disorder, won’t admit that they have an eating disorder, or feel like they can’t tell you the truth. People with sub-clinical disordered eating issues don’t know or believe they have an eating/food problem. Therefore, as the church and ambassadors of God’s love, we must stop unintentionally reinforcing thin praising, fat shaming, and food rules.
John 10:10 has become my anthem for this blog because it speaks to the prison described by so many of my clients, a prison I have felt and lived in for years, a prison that the Lord did NOT design us for, a prison that Satan uses against us and a prison that Jesus Christ has set us free from.
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Diet culture steals. Diet culture kills. Diet culture destroys. Jesus came to give life and give it to the FULL. Brothers and sisters, let us mirror His Love and help ourselves, our family members, our friends, our community, our churches find the life that He promises- FREE from the shackles of eating disorders and diet culture. Let us show kindness and tenderness by being open to engaging in a world outside of diet culture. By supporting our brothers and sisters by focusing on things other than our bodies, food, and health. By encouraging each other to focus on our true worth, which resides in the Lord’s love and care for each of us through salvation, regardless of what happens, what things we have, what our health is or is not while we’re here.