Reprinted from Eating Disorders Review
March/April 2001 Volume 12, Number 2
©2001 Gürze Books
During the last decade, there has been a surge in religious—especially Christian—weight loss and fitness programs. Thousands of churches across the country have sponsored such programs as Gwen Shamblin’s Weigh Down Workshop, First Place (whose curriculum is published by the Southern Baptist Convention in Dallas), and 3D (for Diet, Discipline, and Discipleship).
As R. Marie Griffith of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University has noted, these groups have taken the model of support groups from Weight Watchers and Overeaters Anonymous and have added their own strong dose of spiritual discipline and uplift. Meetings generally include Bible study, prayer, and sometimes devotional music, as well as the usual instruction and therapeutic check-in times with group members. First Place offers workshops and rallies. Another, and decidedly unique, group, the Temple Remodelers, meets only on the Internet, and uses virtual reality tools, such as a virtual ocean cruise on the “S.S. Slim 4 Him,” to promote health and weight loss.
The use of religion to promote weight loss is not new, according to Dr. Griffith. In 1957, a well-known Presbyterian minister and writer published his book Pray Your Weight Away. Many other authors followed this trend in the 1960s and 1970s, resulting in books such as I Prayed Myself Slim, Devotions for Dieters, God’s Answer to Fat, Slim for Him, and (perhaps the most evocative title of all) More of Jesus, Less of Me. Some of these books sold more than a million copies worldwide and spawned mid-sized industries of diet products, exercise videos, and low-calorie cookbooks. Authors and purveyors of these products agreed that, as one insisted, God “wants us aware that sloppy fat, hanging all over the place (or even well girdled) is not a good Christian witness.”
That message persisted into the 1980s and 1990s, attracting thousands of new adherents to the gospel of diet with the claim that authentic religious faith would result in the “promised land” of a thin body. One former bulimic, Stormie Omartian, showed somewhat more caution by urging readers to love their bodies no matter what shape they were in; ironically, her own perfectly chiseled body on the cover of her books and exercise videos set an unrealistically skinny standard. Today’s most popular Christian diet guru, Gwen Shamblin, a registered dietitian, teaches that thinness is a matter of religious obedience, so that even five extra pounds upon an otherwise lean body is a sign of sin.
The Weight Down Diet
Shamblin’s 1997 book, The Weigh Down Diet (published by Doubleday) sold well over a million copies within a year and is still found in larger bookstores across the country. Shamblin, a charismatic speaker, travels across the country giving seminars that urge Christians to lose weight for God. In her new book, Rise Above: God Can Set You Free from Your Weight Problems Forever, Shamblin promises to deliver readers from the “bondage” of food with motivation and heart-changing cultivation. Her message that fat equals sin is reaching a very receptive audience. In a typical convention held in Nashville last July, scores of formerly obese women and men lined the stage to witness tearfully to the pounds Shamblin’s program had helped them lose, while audience members of all body types sat enraptured by those testimonies.
Some critics have noted that the second book goes over familiar territory, but has new and harsher doctrines as well. One troubling necessity promoted by the book is submission, particularly wifely surrender to a husband, as well as employees’ submission to their employers.
Dr. Griffith points out that while programs such as Shamblin’s may have some success in helping the obese to reach and maintain healthier body weights, the impact upon women who may already be prone to body obsessions and eating disorders seems mixed at best and dangerous at worst. Because the most successful religious diet programs are fundamentalist or evangelical, they maintain strict norms of right and wrong that can be highly conducive to guilt and shame. Especially since the 1980s, thinness has been a crucial element of “true Christian womanhood” in that religious culture, which is part of the explanation for the growing popularity of these self-designated Biblical diet programs.