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Miniblog #173: American Women and Michelle Lelwica’s ‘The Religion of Thinness’

by Carson T. Clark on January 26, 2013

Our society is transitioning into a Post-Christian, pluralistic, and increasingly secular period. Some celebrate this. Others mourn it. Still others are largely apathetic about the whole thing. Regardless of one’s response, it remains the well-known reality in which we live. Against that backdrop, one thing I find endlessly intriguing is the stubborn, lingering felt need for religious expression. Specifically, there’s a growing recognition among scholars that people are increasingly looking for a whole host of other things to fulfill the role that religion once played. Enter Michelle Lelwica’s book, The Religion of Thinness: Satisfying the Spiritual Hungers Behind Women’s Obsession with Food and Weight.11.She’s holds graduate degrees from Harvard Divinity and is a professor of religion at Concordia College in Moorhead, MN. From a psychological and sociological perspective, I think fascinating this idea that Americans–and American women in particular–are increasingly looking for the pursuit of thinness to (implicitly) play a spiritual role in their lives. Though I’ve not read the book, I can easily imagine where she might be connecting the dots. Looking carefully at the humanistic dieting crazed and body image conscious culture around me, the religious themes are clearly evident.22.I see myths and images, value systems and a sense of identity, communities and sects, ritual acts and sacred teachings, corporate gatherings and personal piety, disciplines and service, confession and encouragement, forgiveness and renewal, etc. In trying to take a step back and look at our culture from an anthropological perspective, clearly for many in our society it’s more than just plain health; thinness has taken on an almost salvific role of transcendence, fulfillment, and ultimate meaning. And even for those who aren’t thinness “converts” as such, there’s still this pervasive religious, cultural milieu much like conservative Protestantism in the American South, Catholicism in Ireland, Orthodoxy in Russia, or the Wahhabi expression of Sunni Islam in Saudi Arabia. All of which I find fascinating.

  • Binks Webelf

    Food is always a spiritual issue; and even when the rules for fasting were wimped away in the 60’s, that doesn’t mean that our meanings & longings and food-issues changed one whit. Now, you can talk about fat people as “sinners” to be punished by possibly reduced healthcare, even whilst gluttony (over or under eating, finickyness, etc.) is not taken seriously as bad for the soul, or damaging to our right relationship with God & neighbour. If there’s no ‘soul’ you can still do something to shape the flesh.. hence the obsession with diets, surgery, tattoos, exercise, and the delights of mercilessly judging the ugly or unhealthy or overweight.

  • Solomon Kleinsmith

    Those arent religious themes. Those are the way that human beings are wired to react to something they take deeply seriously. I dont see it as being necessarily any better or worse that the obsession is over being thin, or some mythical being. All that matters is how that obsession plays out in day to day life, ala how it effects their interactions with other people and the world at large.

    • Carson T. Clark

      Clearly we have a different worldview.

  • Derek Rishmawy

    Looks like a specialized study in idolatry. But seriously, I used to work at gyms and I live in Orange County, CA, so I’m kind of at one of cultural-religious centers for this reality. Everybody pays homage to some degree here.

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