New Book by STH Lecturer, and Alum, Calls Out Christianity for Stigmatizing Fat People
In Fat Church, Claiming a Gospel of Fat Liberation, Anastasia Kidd denounces what she calls diet myths
“If you care about systemic oppression, you need to start caring about fat people.”
Anastasia Kidd (STH’04,’18) issues that challenge in her newly published book, Fat Church: Claiming a Gospel of Fat Liberation (Pilgrim Press, 2023). Kidd, a minister in the United Church of Christ and a lecturer and director of contextual education at the BU School of Theology, declares war on popular notions about people who are fat, a word she embraces (and that Bostonia therefore uses in this interview).
”The supermajority of fat people will remain fat people their whole lives,” she writes. “Eighty years of research shows that employing restrictive diets and exercise regimens for sustained weight loss works for only the tiniest fraction of people.” As for religion, she continues, ”Fat activists specifically name the Christian church as an institution unyielding in its denigration of bodily appetites of all sorts, which makes it a happy bedfellow with diet culture.” Kidd shares her own journey towards “eschewing the fear of death that has hung over my fat body.”
Established medical opinion says obesity (which Kidd types with an asterisk replacing the “e”—“ob*sity”—because she considers the word, its Latin origin meaning to overeat, a slur) is a risk factor for ailments such as hypertension, heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Kidd relies on contrarian research, in publications from Scientific American to the International Journal of Epidemiology, asserting that fat correlates with, but doesn’t cause, unhealthiness.
With studies suggesting fat people face workplace discrimination, Massachusetts and other states are considering bans on size discrimination in employment. Kidd says Christianity must do its part, embracing “fat liberation” as it does the cause of other marginalized people.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
With Anastasia Kidd
Bostonia: People might think that dieters fail at “sustained weight loss” because they ultimately forsake dieting and exercise. What does research say about that?
Anastasia Kidd: Studies since the 1950s show that restrictive food diets and exercise alone are not enough for sustained weight loss of more than a couple of years. By year three, approximately 95 to 98 percent of dieters will have gained all their weight back, plus some. This is called “weight cycling,” which research suggests can cause all the same things society typically attributes to fatness itself—things like insulin resistance and cardiovascular problems. Weight cycling isn’t a failure of willpower so much as it is the body trying to regulate itself through a starvation response.
Research on why people regain weight after diets shows that our metabolisms slow considerably even after a small amount of weight loss, causing a whole-body SOS, including increased hunger hormones and the body holding more tightly to its fat stores. It all boils down to the fact that body size is not a mutable trait without life-altering interventions, including dangerous surgeries or lifelong dependence on weight loss drugs. The American Medical Association declared fatness itself a disease, against the recommendation of its own working group. They know what the research says, but they still use all their tools to stigmatize fatness so they can sell diets and pills and programs and surgeries because it’s hugely lucrative to do so.
Bostonia: You write that being fat doesn’t hurt health, but rather that social stigma drives fat people to harmful pathologies. Can you give some examples?
Anastasia Kidd: Anti-fat bias, also known as sizeism, keeps many medical professionals from providing holistic care for fat people, choosing instead to focus first on weight loss above all or refusing to see patients above a certain size altogether. This leads to fat people being diagnosed at later stages of diseases than if they had been given dignified care from the start. Weight stigma causes insurance companies not to cover people beyond a certain size, monetarily blocking the largest fat people from access to health care altogether. Weight stigma causes all sorts of societal biases and discrimination—for example, in terms of housing and employment—and even overt discrimination against fat people in these areas is legal in all but a few states.
Social determinants of health are the conditions that surround a person and contribute to their overall health—things like where they work, their level of education, their financial stability, and where they live. Many fat people, especially the largest, do not enjoy the same level of access to these things as thin people do. And even those of us with steady jobs, decent housing, and plenty of education deal daily with the stress of weight stigma, experienced through media, strangers’ gazes, and even family or friends. Studies show that the consistent stress of discrimination itself raises one’s cortisol hormone, which can lead to all sorts of physical issues.
Bostonia: To be clear, you believe in the benefits of exercise and eating fruits and veggies, as opposed to Doritos, for people both thin and fat?
Anastasia Kidd: I had to laugh and roll my eyes [at] this question, because it’s rooted in so much misinformation, simplistic thinking, and health-ist bias. But it’s one that folks ask fat activists a lot. Do I believe all humans should have access to delicious and holistic nutrition? Sure. But that would mean changing access to food through the end of racialized redlining of supermarkets that leads to the creation of food deserts. It would mean subsidies to undermine poverty and provide living wages for all. It would mean growing and shopping more locally. It’s a lot easier to just blame Doritos rather than actually addressing the systemic changes needed to feed everyone in our society in a just way. And yet conversations around “health and wellness” in our country almost always emphasize the personal responsibility of the individual rather than societal change.
Do I think that the problems with health and wellness in society are because of Doritos? Hell no. And it’s incredibly reductive to say otherwise.
Bostonia: Has Christianity failed to embrace fat people or participated in their stigmatization? Are there contrary examples of support for fat people, from Christian tradition and scripture?
Anastasia Kidd: Christianity certainly has participated in the stigmatization of fat people. Early Christian writers like Augustine warned of the body’s sinful potential and invited Christians to favor “soul” and/or “mind” over the desires of the body—a philosophy called “dualism.” Like sex and sensuality, eating certain types of food was considered a gateway for sin. Women’s bodies were, in particular, held suspect, and their behaviors policed by the church through the pall of patriarchy, which lasts today.
Looking to more modern times, we can point to Christian colonialism, which was led by white, Protestant, and primarily Anglo-Saxon people. Sabrina Strings’ Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fatphobia is the seminal work on how anti-fatness grew in the United States during the 18th and 19th centuries, as white colonists encountered bodies unlike their own because of the transatlantic slave trade and immigrant waves from southern Europe and elsewhere. The racist and xenophobic fears of differently shaped bodies, different languages, different foods, different cultures, and different religious traditions threatened the ruling class, and rose within them a eugenic fear of keeping white bloodlines “pure.” The ideal body type became the thin, tall, lithe form of northern European culture, and this imagery spread worldwide through colonial conquests.
Control of women’s bodies for breeding “good Anglo-Saxon stock” materialized in the form of diet and exercise regimens mixed with Christian piety. It’s all part of a larger Christian purity culture that holds as suspect anything but the most narrow definitions of holy behavior. And since fatness is assumed to be a behavioral issue rather than a genetic trait, fatness has often been considered sinful and treated as such in the church. There’s no way to disentangle Christian purity culture, structural anti-fatness, and white supremacy in this country. They all came up together.
The book was written to help people who’ve never known anything but body shame understand that the way we feel as a society is not about “truth” about fatness, but about the monied narrative power that’s shared by the media, beauty and diet industries, and a white colonial–Christian ethic of tightly controlling our bodies as a way to be morally superior. There have been narratives through the Christian tradition that emphasize the goodness of bodies instead of the tight control of them, as well as spiritual practices that foster somatic connections with the holy. Often these arose in female-led, queer, indigenous, and/or non-white Christian spaces and were thus marginalized voices, drowned out by the church’s louder narratives of bodily control and fear of sinful appetites of all sorts.
Bostonia: Other religions consider gluttony a sin. Why is that belief so widespread?
Anastasia Kidd: In some cultures, what one might call gluttony is a ritual of religious celebration. Different cultures throughout history and worldwide have different ways of thinking about food consumption and body size. The fact that some cultures hold fatness as a desirable trait and some consider it abject has everything to do with cultural norms, not some overarching truth about the goodness or badness of fat. Which itself proves the point of fat activists, that the way we feel about fatness in society is not based in truth, but in cultural beliefs and biases. A culture of anti-fatness exists in this country that back-ends to structural oppression for fat people. That can change if our culture changes to understand fatness not as a disease, but as a neutral body shape, the way we might say one is “tall.”
Bostonia: Was it difficult writing about your own weight and your shame about it earlier in life?
Anastasia Kidd: Yes, even as a fat activist, I have had to undo much of my own internalized anti-fatness along the way, and am still doing so. It is dang near impossible to grow up, especially as a woman, in this society and not imagine the fat on one’s body to be a symbol of failure, even if it’s literally always been there. Though I have always been very, very fat, I tried to ignore this fact, promising myself I’d be thin one day as soon as I found that miracle diet.
In fact, I started researching fat in an attempt to lose weight for good—to scare myself into willpower for the last time. But what I found was so surprising. I learned about “the obesity paradox” and weight stigma, and structural anti-fatness in the medical industry. And I got really angry. Fat people are used to turning their anger inward at our own “failure” to become thin. Once I turned my anger outward, toward the anti-fatness that had so affected my life, I lost my shame and embraced my fatness as a permanent and unapologetic identity marker. Because one doesn’t have to love everything about one’s own body to fight like hell against that which oppresses it.