Christian Rhetoric in Food Policing

When people claim we are a secular society, I always laugh, because I don’t really know how else to respond. Christian attitudes and worldviews are very much wrapped up in Western thought, and they’re impossible to evade, whether you’re talking about ‘atoning’ for a mistake or exclaiming ‘oh my G-d’ when something shocking happens. Christianity is woven into the very way people express themselves in English, and once you’re conscious of it and start looking out for it, you see it everywhere, and realise how tangled in it you are, even when you’re an atheist and live in a nation that proudly advertises itself as secular[1. This despite the stranglehold that Christian conservatives have on US politics, the fact that G-d is on our money, and the discrimination against people of other faiths and atheists that runs rampant in the United States.].

These attitudes manifest themselves in a particularly striking way when it comes to the way people talk about food. Here in the United States, people have a deeply conflicted relationship with food. They want to love it, to be nourished by it, to enjoy its deliciousness, but they also want to hate it, to identify it as a wrongness. Food is bad because it is fattening, you know, but it runs deeper than that: People very directly connect food with sin and they mean that in a very clear Christian sense. Food is sinful because eating food and enjoying it is gluttonous, and people who are fat are a living emblem of that sin[2. Because of course we all know that the only reason people become fat is because they eat too much and can’t control themselves.].

I see it in the way people advertise food. It’s ‘sinfully delicious.’ You should ‘indulge yourself.’ These advertisements position food as somewhat naughty, and suggest that it’s okay if you just have a little bit, but only if you keep the fact that it’s sinful and wrong to eat and enjoy food in mind. This marketing is particularly common in advertisements for sweets aimed at women. You see women being told that eating ice cream is sinful but they can indulge in a bit if they’re especially good, while men are told that Hungry Man dinners are sufficiently rugged and masculine that they can safely eat them without undermining their manliness.

Women have historically been the targets of heavily loaded language about sinning, and they continue to be the ones who are policed. Look at the way Christian conservatives in the United States restrict women’s rights with language that is very, very reminiscent of the way people talk about sin; women are sluts and whores for wanting to use family planning to decide the size and timing of their families. Likewise, women should be returning to the kitchen to cook rather than exhibiting the sin of pride and thinking they belong in the workplace and could contribute equally to society.

But food, always food, these conversations make food out to be something bad and horrific. With this constant messaging that food is sinful and something to be ashamed of, it is not surprising that many women feel so awkward around food. Because they have been taught to be. Enjoying food is wrong because it’s a sin, and by extension, fat people themselves are wrong because they’re a reminder of the consequences of sin. They must be gluttonous and slothful, and that’s how they wound up that way, to become an object lesson.

Much like the gruesome woodcuts used to warn people of the wages of sin, headless fatties appear in the news as a reminder to society that food is sinful, food is bad, and people shouldn’t eat it. Or, if they do, they should eat pure, sanctioned, holy foods; they should consume low-fat foods and should keep themselves on diets, they should scourge themselves to avoid the sins of the flesh. If they do decide to enjoy food and ‘indulge’ a little, to ‘treat’ themselves, they should do so in extreme moderation, because there is only so much indulgence to be bought; you must pay for your indulgence whether in coin or in body. Trading favours to be forgiven for sins is nothing new; as you may recall, it led to a massive schism in the Christian church.

I think about this laden language when I look at the way people talk about food on an interpersonal level, and also in the ‘anti-obesity campaigns’ that are growing so popular in a number of nations, where people are shamed for being fat. People wrap this in a veneer of concern about health or the costs to the health care system, in direct defiance of scientific evidence, but there’s also a healthy helping of Christian ideology, too, the idea that sinners should be singled out and publicly ordered to repent, that sinners should be made to feel guilty, that they must atone for daring to commit such crimes.

If you are fat, the underlying message goes, you owe society something. As a sinner, you must attend confession[3. Visit the doctor.], make amends[4. Pledge to adopt a ‘healthy diet and exercise plan.’ Try harder. Fat’s as simple as calories in, calories out.], and be forgiven[5. Lose the weight and become socially acceptable.]. If you refuse to play by the rules, you are suspect, because you are defying this narrative. You are now not just a sinner, you are lapsed, separating from the church, you are dangerous because your ideas might spread to others. You could destabilise those in positions of power, and shake the faith of those who are still safely in the fold.

Notice how many Christian metaphors I used in this piece. Tell me again that we live in a secular society. Go on.