Tag Archives: unitarian universalism

Body Image from a UU perspective

This is the text of a sermon I did at UUCC of Hendrick County on Sunday, February 28, 2016:

Let’s imagine a hypothetical world: In this world, most people are born with orange skin, and most, but not everyone has some random purple splotches scattered somewhere on their body. A few—say 10%–are born completely purple. Skin color changes changes somewhat over one’s life, and scientists don’t know exactly why. A person might start out mostly orange and develop visible purple splotches as they get older, or they might be born completely purple. Orange people often get more purple as they get older, but not always. Purple people might become more orange, but that usually only happens when purple people get sick. There’s no good way to determine what exact combination of orange and purple someone will be or end up and there is no biological difference between someone who is mostly orange or mostly purple.

If it’s anything like our society, there is a huge, multi-billion dollar industry that is designed to “help” people become less purple and more orange. But the reality is that skin color cannot be changed through any effort. A person’s body is the color that it is. It might change, but it might not. The color a person is and exact combination and change of their colors is a biological process that is not understood.

Imagine you are a purple person. How would you feel in the following situations?

  • Without any prompting or encouragement from you, people told you how they thought you could become more orange?
  • People incessantly talked about eating fewer purple things so that they wouldn’t become purple because the underlying assumption is that “everyone knows being purple is so terrible.”
  • Orange people with some purple splotches are advised to cover those areas because “who wants to see that ugly purple”.
  • In a social situation, folks compare how purple they feel that day, even though they seem completely orange and you can see no visible purple when you look at them.
  • How would you feel if you were objectively more purple than any one of the orange people who said that they “felt purple”?

Does this sound familiar? Isn’t this how we talk about fat and our bodies?

I believe that I, and all fat people, deserve respect and the right to live in our bodies just as they are. I use the word “fat” in its neutral sense as just a descriptor to reclaim it, just like many LGBT people have reclaimed queer and many African-Americans have reclaimed the N-word. You can jump off the diet rollercoaster by using another approach, called “Health at Every Size.” There is actual science that disproves the assumption that losing weight will make you healthier. But that’s not today’s focus. You may not be ready to give up dieting. But you can change the way you think about your body, regardless of what it looks like or what it can or can’t do.

You may be asking, what does body image have to do with being a UU? We are usually more focused on social justice for others. But the way we feel about our own bodies necessarily reflects and illuminates what we really think of other people’s bodies. Essentially, if we want to respect the inherent worth and dignity of all persons we have to start with ourselves. Respecting the inherent worth and dignity of all persons means respecting even the fat ones. Our spaces need to welcome everyone no matter how much of their time and talent they can contribute, who they love, or how much of the pew they take up. We need to ensure that our spaces don’t exclude people even if the exclusion is unconscious.

I hope that the purple/orange imaginary world has started you to think about how some of the things we might think and say about our own bodies—our own body image—how that might be unconsciously creating an atmosphere of stigma that makes our spaces unwelcoming to fat people.

Other religions consider the body just a vessel for the spirit, or consider anything having to do with bodily pleasure sinful. In my opinion, both ways are wrong. We have both minds, or consciousness, which reside in our physical bodies, and we have these physical bodies that require physical things—movement, sleep, food, and water, and a safe place and means to eliminate waste. But the systems—body and mind—are interconnected. I’m sure we’ve all experienced the difficulty in controlling our thoughts and actions when food or sleep has been scarce. I hope we’ve all experienced euphoria after using our bodies for something incredibly physical such as good sex or a long run or walk. And of course, negative experiences to the body such as physical or sexual abuse, or injuries or illnesses that change your body can lead to depression and other mental and emotional issues.

I’ve come to realize that the way my body feels, and chemical signals beyond my awareness both have a strong effect on my mind. It’s more limited the other way around—I can’t “think myself thin” for example, or cure my cancer with my thoughts or prayers. But conscious effort, along with thoughtful external stimuli, can help shape the way I think about my body.

Let’s go back to the orange and purple metaphor. Imagine two purple people. One is born on a completely-purple world, where everyone is purple. The other is born on this purple and orange world. They probably think of themselves differently. The person born on an all-purple world probably thinks that their body is just their body and it’s just purple? Like a black person born in Africa, never seeing white people, that person doesn’t think of themselves as black.
But the other person—born on the purple and orange world—she grows up thinking that being purple is the worst thing anyone can be. She doesn’t ever see a purple person on her version of television, and when she does, they are an object of laughter and ridicule. Everything she sees, advertisements, newspapers, even her relatives—all they talk about is how they don’t ever want to become purple, because being purple is so unhealthy. Relatives tell her that she’ll never find anyone to love her because she’s purple, and when she walks on the street orange people yell rude things out of cars at her because they can see that she’s obviously purple and how dare she leave the house. Remember, the scientists haven’t actually found any biological difference between purple and orange people.

Maybe the reason it seems unhealthy to be purple in that world is not because it’s objectively unhealthy to be purple, but because the society has so much stigma against purple people. The stress of constantly being rejected, told that she shouldn’t have been seen in public, that purple people couldn’t do a particular job, hearing that no one could ever love a purple person, and seeing that everyone she knows never wants to be like her and is willing to take extreme measures like dangerous surgeries so that they will never become purple or so that the purple parts can be excised—wouldn’t that constant stress take a toll on her health? Is that purple person going to grow up thinking well of her purple body, love it, and take care of it?

Obviously, being fat in our world is equivalent to being purple. So how do we change our focus when all we’ve learned is that fat is bad and we should do anything to avoid becoming fat?
Earlier, I said that our mind and thoughtful external stimuli can change the way we think about our bodies. I think we change our minds by first becoming conscious of and opening our eyes to the fabric of fat stigma in our world. Only when we are aware, and we recognize that what we say, and see how it affects others, so that we can avoid perpetuating that stigma, can we begin. Then we have to surround ourselves with images of people of all sizes, colors, shapes, and ages, and learn to appreciate our bodies no matter what they look like or what they can or can’t do. That is how we change our minds.

It’s hard work, especially with the brainwashing we voluntarily undertake when we watch TV or other media. Ragen Chastain, a fat acceptance warrior, with the blog Dances with Fat, suggests the first thing is to deliberately notice what’s beautiful in other people.

I’ve done that sometimes, walking around in the office or in the elevator—I try to change my inner dialogue when I come into contact with other people. Instead of thinking “wow, she’s so beautiful, I could never be that pretty” or “I’m glad I’m not that fat”—stop comparing! I try to notice something beautiful about every person I see, and just appreciate it for what it is—the unique beauty of every person. For some people, they have a pleasing, rich skin tone, great hair, kind eyes, broad shoulders, symmetrical form. You can appreciate at least one thing about every person you meet, and it changes your perspective from always being critical of yourself and comparing yourself to others to noticing the beauty in everyone.

Then expand that appreciation to yourself. I always love the way my wrist curves when my hand is sitting on the steering wheel, so I appreciate that. I love the fact that I have defined calf muscles and I never had to do anything to get them. Those muscular calves are as much a part of my genetic inheritance as my belly and jiggly upper arms and thighs are. All of my parts deserve appreciation. My eyes are three different colors of brown and gold. I love that! Many of you know that I had a bilateral-both sides—mastectomy over ten years ago. I had reconstruction, where the surgeon took muscles from my back, brought them around to the front, and inserted implants. They’re not my old breasts, nothing ever will be. But I love my reconstructed breasts anyway because I am still amazed at the skill and artistry it took to create them—where I once had no breasts at all, the surgeon created some that even have cleavage!

If you’ve really been brainwashed and have a hard time finding just one thing you can appreciate about your own body, you can still get there. I’ve learned a lot about body acceptance from differently-abled speakers and writers. A recent podcast of On Being is with Dr. BJ Miller, who is director of a zen hospice in San Francisco, who lost both legs below the knee and an arm below the forearm to an accident his sophomore year of college. He talks here about his evolution of “coming out” as a disabled person and how he sees his legs.

The whole podcast is worth listening to, but specifically, start at about 18:00 and listen through about 24:18.

Doesn’t that change your perspective on your own body?

Another thing you can do to change the way you think about your body is to think about everything your body does for you every day, all the time, and be grateful for it. Those of us who are able-bodied, that condition is temporary. For now, our bodies breathe without thinking about it, pump gallons and gallons of blood every day, allow us to experience the beauty in the world that we can see, smell, taste, hear, and touch. Without our bodies, we wouldn’t experience a lot of the things that bring us joy.

On another On Being, Benedictine Monk Brother David Steindle-Rast said “Spirituality is aliveness on all levels. It must start with our bodily aliveness. ..if you really are grateful, come alive with your smell. Start smelling, not sightseeing, but smell-smelling, and it is wonderful. … And all this coming alive, that is spirituality. Science has discovered that when people are grateful, they come alive.”

Hundreds of years ago, it was hard for Galileo to maintain his beliefs in what he knew about the earth, despite prison and the fact that his entire society “knew” that the earth was flat. Today, we know now how wrong everyone else was about the shape of the world. The idea that we can control our body shape and size by dieting or “lifestyle changes” is what “everyone knows” today. Science has told us that things aren’t as simple as calories in/ calories out, that there are biological processes we don’t understand and can’t control by conscious effort. But capitalism and the media have a vested interest in people being unsatisfied with their bodies. It is a brave and radical act to just love our bodies as they are without trying to change them.

And this gets us to the place where we can do things for the world. Because while we’re focused on changing something that is unchangeable, we don’t have the energy or time to fight things that are more important—like gun violence, poverty, lack of good water, and all kinds of inequality. As UUs, we have an obligation to respect the inherent worth and dignity of every person. One’s body image is so ingrained with our sense of self that I think the best way to get to a world where all people of all body shapes, sizes, colors and abilities are respected and granted the dignity they deserve is to start with ourselves.