Home » Commentary » Sin, Food, Fat, and Guilt: How Faith Shapes Definitions of Obesity for Women
Flickr photo by Tanvir Alam

Sin, Food, Fat, and Guilt: How Faith Shapes Definitions of Obesity for Women


By Kelly Rae Mathews

Recently it was announced that 40 percent of American women are obese, according to a study appearing in the Journal of American Medical Association. This is nearly half of American women.

It is shocking that in a nation where everyone is being sold fitness in magazines and in advertising, and everyone’s looks and health are under a microscope, that there is an obesity epidemic at all.

It is time to step back and look at the language defining who is considered fat, obese, and therefore unhealthy, and how our scientific knowledge is often shaped by cultural knowledge of faith. Around the world, and in America as well, narrative discourses on what constitutes a “sinful” body which often extends to being a “bad” person vs being a “good” or “healthy” person have science and faith in bed together in ways that are not often helpful to the person trapped between the two in a vicious cycle.

Health officials use comparable language to religion in describing maladies of the body similar to how religion describes maladies of the spirit because of the inherent sinfulness of the body from religion to religion.

When looking through the various articles decrying the state of our health regarding women’s rise in obesity on the Internet, the headlines are overwhelming in their Draconian and profit-driven cruelty. Their tone is the voice of the playground bully, or mean girl or boy in high school telling you you’ll never be attractive or desirable because you are just fat and ugly. Telling you that you’re diseased and should be exiled from society and from friendship. In their eyes, you are worthless and sinful, slovenly, gluttonous, lacking in self-discipline, an addict and diseased.

As an adult woman, I’ve had complete strangers tell me in public what I should and shouldn’t eat. This began dating back to when I was a young girl at 14 years old and weighed 115 pounds. I was told I could always stand to lose a few. It is as though instead of preaching the gospel of the savior, people are preaching the gospel of thinness. At my undisclosed adult weight, looking at these articles, I feel my agency as an individual who can contribute to society and care for my children being taken away because of these cultural beliefs and prejudices for the aesthetic of thin that go beyond the health concerns.

Yes, obesity presents health risks. But the BMI is based on science that has been criticized repeatedly, in regards to race and a number of other factors.

The prejudice that just because someone is thin they are strong spiritually, cool, calm and collected, not driven by their emotions and sensuality, because they are self-disciplined, is the status quo. Faiths have played no small part in convincing people of these prejudices. Any person of faith who is for social justice, who has changed their language to stop the shaming and prejudice of others, needs to stop the language that shames people who aren’t thin as being sinful, unclean, slovenly, and gluttonous, without self-control, and so on.

What faiths need to do, is think about how we use language to describe our relationship to sin and our bodies. Faiths need to start calling people in to love and delight and take joy in their bodies instead of targeting people with shame.

I am a good person, regardless of my weight.

Let us consider again, the following words and their impact; Guilt, Deliciousness, Taste, Greed, Sloth, Temptation, Lust, Seduction, Sugar, Fat, Disease, Self-control, Cleanliness, Health.

These words are loaded with meaning imbued not just through secular means of defining health through a purely objective lens, as might be thought, but through a perspective deeply rooted in  culture associated with various faith’s definitions of what it means to be a good person or a bad one.

Going forward, it’s time to address how faith redefines our relationships to our bodies in a positive, loving, affirming way. It has been proven time and again, that a happy person, who feels love and loves, is the healthiest person. So, let’s find new ways, new words, to talk about our health, and our food so we take joy in both and celebrate life.


Kelly Rae Mathews

About Kelly Rae Mathews

Kelly Rae Mathews grew up in culturally and faith diverse San Diego, Calif. during the 70s and 80s before moving to Spokane in 2004. Growing up in a such a diverse environment with amazing people, led Mathews to be very empathetic and open to the insights of many different faiths, she said. She loves science fiction and this also significantly contributed to and influenced her own journey and understanding of faith and values. She agrees with and takes seriously the Vulcan motto, when it comes to faith and life, "Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations." Therefore, it is no surprise she has a degree in anthropology as well as English. She has studied the anthropology of religion and is knowledgeable about many faiths.

She completed an anthropological research project on poets of the Inland Northwest, interviewing over two dozen poets, their audiences, friends, family members, and local business community who supported the poetry performances. Mathews gave a presentation on How Poets Build Community: Reclaiming Intimacy from the Modern World at the Northwest Anthropological Conference, at the Eastern Washington University Creative Symposium, the Eastern Washington University Women's Center and the Literary Lunch Symposium put on by Reference Librarian and Poet Jonathan Potter at the Riverfront Campus.

She was a volunteer minister in San Diego for about 10 years while attending college and working in various editorial positions.

Her articles, poems and short stories have appeared in Fickle Muse, The Kolob Canyon Review, Falling Star Magazine, Acorn, The Coyote Express, The Outpost and Southern Utah University News.

View All Posts

Check Also

Ask A Jew: Ashrei Prayer

This is a line from the Ashrei prayer. Ashrei is a prayer typically recited three times a day by observant Jews.