Fat phobia is everywhere in our culture. From the numerous expensive dieting pills, plans and weight loss aids to the lack of plus size clothing and the attitude of many internet trolls who feel obliged to use ‘fat’ as an insult. But one place you wouldn’t expect to find fat phobia and bullying is within the Church.
A nineteen-year-old girl, Jenna, recently shared footage on Facebook and Twitter of a member of her church telling her that she can’t wear denim shorts because she is too fat.
Wait a minute, what?!
Jenna, who sings in the church worship band, went into the bathroom following the service to check on any updates about a family member currently in hospital. Church leader, Bonnie Sue Bihary, followed her and began berating her for wearing shorts. Bihary began her argument with references to Jenna’s weight and size, framing the discussion as to whether she should wear shorts around her judgement that Jenna was too fat to do so.
“She cornered me in the bathroom to say that I was too fat… she was telling everyone that this was my fault and that I will never get back up on stage to sing again. Is this what Christians are doing these days? God loves everyone no matter who they are!”
She also later shared pictures of the outfit she wore to her church meeting:
Swansboro United Methodist Church, where Jenna is a regular member, wrote a letter to its congregation addressing the incident:
“One of the main principles of Christianity and Methodists in particular is to do no harm.
It has come to our attention that great harm has been done in an incident that occurred this past Sunday where a faithful and very gifted young lady and worship leader was body shamed for her appearance.”
The pastor of Swansboro United Methodist Church has also informed Jenna that Bonnie Sue Bihary will no longer be representing the church at conferences.
Is Fat Phobia Really a Problem?
The incident reveals the extent of fat shaming in society. Eating disorders like Anorexia and Bulimia are increasing in the West as young girls are bombarded with media images of stick thin models and air-brushed women in bikinis. Combining this with experiences of abuse like Jenna’s story, it is easy to see how fat shaming and fat phobia completely immerse people in cultures that target their insecurities and undermine their confidence, rather than striving to create a more accepting and welcoming society.
It continues to baffle me that people feel they have a right to judge someone based on their outward appearance and even have the guts and gall to approach people in public or online to condemn them for being overweight.
And the symptoms of a society that devalues people because of their body size aren’t even that far removed from ourselves.
For instance, the word ‘fat’ is almost exclusively used as an insult in similar way to how ‘gay’ used to be used as a derogatory term (and still is in some groups) despite the very obvious fact that, much like your weight, your sexuality does not make you a good or bad person! Get with the times people! Let’s start showing some pretty basic love and respect!
The more that we normalize these behaviors, the more body shaming will continue to destroy peoples’ self-esteem. Indeed, many people believe the whole fat shaming thing is okay simply because being overweight is equal to being unhealthy. This is deeply ironic given that many people who have been bullied about being overweight feel so self-conscious exercising because of the abuse, that they might choose to avoid it all together.
Are Fat People Always Unhealthy?
Not to mention, we all know thin people who never do any exercise! Some people are overweight due to medical conditions like hypothyroidism and Cushing’s Disease, but may lead very active lifestyles and have excellent cardiovascular health. The issue is not as cut and dry as so-called “health journalism” makes out!
So, I dearly hope that we can work together to start tackling fat phobia for good. We need to think about how we talk about weight and it’s implications for our mental and emotional well-being, our sense of self-esteem and acceptance. We don’t need more toxic body positivity that just tells us to ‘love yourself’. Instead, we need to challenge the socially accepted norms like having certain standards of beauty that make it okay for others to dictate what we can and cannot wear given our body size or shape.