Guest post by Amanda Dorman
Here is a fun little message I recently got from a guy off Christian Mingle:
“I’m not physically attracted to you… yet. What I see in your pictures is a very beautiful girl who is wearing a suit of armor that she built to protect her heart from the world. It’s something that served a purpose, one that was needed at the time. I can only imagine the pain you must feel, the fear of commitment to someone, and the loneliness you’ve had to endure. I’ve been talking to you because I’ve been drawn to your inner beauty, because of how sincere and genuine you are. And I am able to see beyond to surface to something more… I know what it feels like to let yourself go until you find someone that wants the job of building you back up again.”
He then went on to talk about how he was willing to be that person to “build me back up” and how he knew it was gonna be a tough journey but he wanted me to promise not to give up.
This from a guy who, from his perspective, was being magnanimous. A guy whose intentions were “good”. A guy whose goal was not to hurt me.
Yet he was shocked when I informed him that my size is mostly due to a genetic condition and that I have far from “let myself go”. As soon as he learned that I was not going to change to please him, that was the end of the conversation.
But look at all the things this guy assumed about me from less than five minutes of conversation and a handful of pictures. According to him I feel the need to protect myself from the world, I’m in a lot of pain, I have a fear of commitment, I am super lonely, and I view my outer self as something that needs to change because it doesn’t match my inner self. Don’t even get me started on the idea that I need a man to build me back up.
I can tell you without reservation that none of these things are true.
Should I now write a section where I defend myself and talk about how I eat right and exercise regularly? I don’t really feel the need to. But I will say this: the only time I ever exhibited any of the “let myself go” behavior that people like that Christian Mingle guy often associate with my size is when I let those people get me down. The only time I ever feel bad about myself is when other people tell me that I should, because there is a very small, stupid piece of me that believes it is true. I call that piece Cruella because, unlike the other Disney villains, no matter what light you shine on her story Cruella is always mean, destructive, and terrible. There is no other way to interpret her actions. Cruella just sits around waiting for people to speak fat-shaming words so I can slowly and painfully tear myself down.
Christian Mingle guy was so pompous that I just rolled my eyes and moved on. But there have been many other interactions both on dating sites and in real life that resulted in eating an entire box of Mac and Cheese or skipping a volunteer shift walking dogs at the animal shelter.
It goes by a lot of names. Body shame, fat bias, fat privilege, cow-calling, and I’m sure there is some other slang that I am not cool enough to know. But it’s all the same thing. It’s all about people finding excuses to exclude other people in a misguided attempt to make themselves feel more important in the hierarchy of society. And it’s all related to a larger parent problem called body bias, which most humans have the misfortune to be affected by.
This problem is expressed in two recognizable ways. The first, usually known as fat-shaming, is also known as just plain being mean. It overt and in-your-face and usually ends up with someone crying. Fat-shaming is easy for a normal, decent person to avoid because it’s really hard to walk away from an incident like that without feeling icky. A good example of this is that video posted by Nicole Arbor a few months ago that enraged the internet as a whole and got her kicked off of Youtube for a while. And also it made her a lot of money… I hate the world sometimes.
The second way is just as poisonous and a lot more pervasive in our culture. And most of us are guilty of it. It is called fat bias and it is an unconscious, slimy little piece of sin that likes to burrow into our blind spots. It lives and thrives in the dark and often ends up with someone being hurt and confused. I’ve bundled my own fat bias into a nasty little package along with self-loathing, fear, and personal shame; and I’ve named it Cruella. But most people don’t even recognize it’s there. It’s much easier to live life without recognizing that fat bias is a part of you.
However, God’s church can no longer afford to ignore it.
I am going to say something a little scandalous right now. In my experience, when it comes to dating, Christian men are significantly more inclined towards body bias, especially fat bias, than secular men. I realize this is a generalization and there are many exceptions to the rule. And I think it would be fair to flip it around and say the same of Christian women, but I have less direct knowledge of that.
It has never made sense to me why this particular bit of secular culture has saturated the church so heavily. We are taught to draw our examples from Jesus, yet in this issue Christians are not nearly as separate from the rest of the world as we’d like to think. Did you know that Christian Mingle has a very Tinder-like section in which you swipe left or right based on a picture and an age? It’s one of the more popular features. And it makes no sense as a basis for starting a Godly relationship.
In fact, not only does the church take this cue from secular culture, we have expanded on it and made it our own special brand of bias. How is it that a group with a main message of love and belonging suffers so insidiously from a problem rooted in exclusion and shame?
Two reasons. One, bias in all forms comes easily to humans. In psychology, this is called adaptive bias. It’s based on the idea that humans would rather reduce the cost of cognitive errors than the frequency. Meaning you might be wrong pretty frequently to assume that being fat makes you a bad runner, but when a predator comes bearing down on you the cost of not making that assumption could be very great. So humans adapt biases based on cost instead of truth or rationality. In the Bible, this is called partiality and every time it comes up it’s basically about God telling us to stop being idiots.
“Respect the Lord and make careful decisions, for the Lord our God disapproves of injustice, partiality, and bribery.” - 2 Chronicles 19:7
“These sayings also are from the wise: To show partiality in judgment is terrible” - Proverbs 23:24
“For there is no partiality with God.” - Romans 2:11
The second reason is that the reality of having fat bias ingrained into your being and dating life is not readily apparent. There are quite a few wonderful, intelligent, Godly women who also happen to fit the cultural ideal (skinny, white, and boob-tacular). And maybe that is exactly the person you are supposed to be with. And maybe not, but I’m certainly not qualified to judge that.
So where is the bad? Why am I advocating for a change in the church when, from an individual perspective, there is no incentive? Why am I even saying it’s wrong for Christians to have physical biases like Christian Mingle guy did?
Let’s ask my 8th grade self, whose response to every single church question was “What Would Jesus Do?”.
Now I am not opening that can of worms about Jesus’ personal relationship with dating. But if He were giving you advice, what are the factors He would tell you to take into consideration? What criteria would He give in pursuit of your happiness? And as Christians, do we need any reason to change our behavior other than “because Jesus said so”? Sure we usually like more reason, but blind faith is kind of a large part of this deal.
Although, if history has anything to say about this type of issue, the blind part of faith is pretty dependent on how soon we choose to open our eyes. It wasn’t too long ago in American culture that you couldn’t have a neighbor with a different skin color. And then you could be neighbors but not friends. And then friends were fine, but you couldn’t date. And though racism is still a real struggle for many people (and by no means do I intend for this to detract from that very painful and on-going problem), the majority of our culture now realizes how absurd it is to base any sort of decision on skin color, except maybe how much sunscreen to use.
And, what a surprise, the church lands on the wrong side of the history when it comes to racism, especially in America. Though of course there are many inspiring exceptions, the majority of Christians during that time were preaching racism right from the pulpit. A few still do. All throughout the fight for racial equality God was telling His church to change their behavior and many people didn’t understand why, most weren't even listening. There were even some semi-rational reasons put forth as to why equality would be bad, at least they seemed rational to those looking to rationalize. But God told us to change anyway. It was blind faith then, but now we look back and think how dumb our ancestors were for keeping their eyes closed to the Truth around them. And though there are many differences between the fat privilege struggle and the race struggle, in this aspect they look identical. Romantic relationships are always the last bricks to fall when tearing down these types of walls. And the fact that most of my and many of my voluptuous friends’ dating interactions resemble that with Christian Mingle guy in one way or another is pretty decent evidence that there is still a long way to go.
History also tells us that God tends to drag the church kicking and screaming towards progress. So it’s not all that surprising that fat shaming and absurd false assumptions about fat people are a problem in the church as much or even more so than the secular world. But we always get there eventually. This time though, maybe we could just let God carry us toward the light without fighting Him the whole way. Maybe some of us could even walk a few steps on our own.
Eliminating fat bias isn’t easy, but it is simple.
1. Recognize Bias
The first step, as it is with so many other things, is just to recognize that there is a problem. This is a bias we all have no matter who we are or what we look like. Cruella may be hardest on me, but she doesn’t exactly keep her mouth shut when another fat person walks by.
2. Understand the origins.
Secondly I must thoroughly understand who I am and where my bias comes from. I am fat. But I am not broken any more so than the rest of my brothers and sisters stumbling along after Jesus. I am not damaged, I am not in pain, I am not lazy, and I don’t think I’m unattractive. I believe in God and I love His very flawed, very messed up church. And my bias comes from Cruella, who is in fact me. There is an unspoken idea clenched tightly in Cruella’s fist that if I can find some reason to exclude other people, my own exclusion will be less likely.This idea exists wordlessly as bias because as soon as it is put into words it becomes harder to believe. The right words make ugly ideas look ugly. That’s all fat bias is, a growing pit of ugly fueled by fear and shame. And in an effort to avoid facing our own personal fear and shame we form rationalizations and excuses to support the validity of bias. It spreads from person to person, like a virus, a bias virus. And the more people that validate each rationalization, the greater the divide between how stupid an idea is and how stupid it seems.
3. Eliminate rationalizations and excuses
Step three is tough because it requires an awful lot of harsh truths within ourselves and with those around us. We must destroy those harmful and fallacious rationalizations and excuses, poke holes in them until they are gone. And this must be done in real time, during real life. In what could be a constant and annoying interruption, we have to actually say words, fightin’ words. We have to highlight assumptions that often get incorrectly paired with fat people, tag them as fallacious. Realize that fat people are just as varied and complicated as any other random group of people. Question our motives for our judgments. Do we really care that much about a stranger’s personal health or is that just the new rationalization? Am I really avoiding talking to that person because we lack attraction? Or is that just an excuse and I haven’t allowed room for the possibility of attraction to grow?
There is a reason movements like these take so long to achieve anything. There is a reason why racism, fat bias, homophobia, and prejudice in general are still a thing when seriously--especially in the Church--they should be dead by now. Because this step in practice can be ridiculously difficult and painful. It’s hard enough to do all of that within ourselves, but to then do so in conversation with others? In relationships? That directly flies in the face of the need for belonging that motivates biases in the first place. It invites fear and shame over for movie night and they will eat all of our popcorn.
But it’s time for us to suck it up, not in. Let’s be proud of who we are, beautiful and worthy in the eyes of the Lord. Stop equating our best angle in pictures with our skinniest angle. Stop letting the Cruellas tear us down. And stop allowing rationalizations or excuses create a space for fear and shame to exist. God is trying to drag us toward enlightenment. I’m not fighting Him anymore. I’m taking His hand and we are moving forward. You’re invited, too.
Originally published at FatinChurch.com in May 2016.