BORN AGAIN BODIES:
Flesh and Spirit in American Christianity.
By R. Marie Griffith. Univ. of California Press. 323 pp. $55 (hardcover), $21.95 (paper)
When Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee’s weight-loss crusade gained national publicity last spring, so did the deep-fried traditions of his Southern Baptist heritage. In his weekly radio address to one of the nation’s fattest states, Huckabee told a story about schoolchildren who were asked to display symbols of their faith at show-and-tell: “The Baptist boy brought a casserole.”
Streaks of religion do indeed run through our food and fitness culture, and R. Marie Griffith thinks it’s time we cop to it. The metaphor of salvation through slimness, the need for sacrifice, the guilt associated with “sinning” by overeating—these are not coincidences. An associate professor of religion at Princeton University, Griffith traces the religious overtones of America’s body obsession from early Puritan fasting, to the New Thought movement’s attempts to will away the body completely, to the present-day ideal exemplified by the diminutive white models in such magazines as Today’s Christian Woman. Modern Christian dieting is populated by the likes of Gwen Shamblin, a string bean in a business suit who heads up a Christian diet corporation called the Weigh Down Workshop. A cornucopia of Christian diet titles have hit the market, including Slim for Him (1978), More of Him, Less of Me (1998), and What Would Jesus Eat? (2002), plus the culprit-fingering “Help, Lord: The Devil Wants Me Fat!” (1977).
Unfortunately, Griffith doesn’t allow herself a moment’s levity, even when describing early-20th-century fasters who sought a state of such purity that their excrement wouldn’t stink. Her most provocative argument—that religion, primarily Protestant, has had a hand in America’s exaltation of slender white bodies over all others—dribbles away among caveats that make her sound as though she’s afraid of giving offense. And she does no more than mention research showing that Christians on average are heavier than non-Christians in the United States. Surely this observation raises questions about the connection between religion and excess that deserve more than the hors d’oeuvre of a brief aside.
Born Again Bodies does, however, demonstrate that religious sensibilities—among them the assumption that inner beauty is reflected in the flesh—thoroughly pervade the way Americans see the human body. In the final chapters, Griffith quotes interviews with Christian women. Here the material begins to come alive, as we hear articulated the struggle to reconcile spirituality with body weight. A Mormon woman recalls receiving instruction at her church on how to make pies and pastries—and how to avoid eating them herself. One faith, Griffith reports, remains above the fitness fray: When Catholics urge abstinence, a “cradle Catholic” explains, they’re not talking about food.
—Sarah L. Courteau