There’s a scene in the Netflix series “Schitt’s Creek” that has found a home in my brain and lodged itself there, content amongst all the other squishy thoughts that either healthily or unhealthily so often take up residency. In this scene, David Rose is discussing a breakup and his sister Alexis reminds him of the behaviours he adopted after it: consuming a lot of one type of specific baked good. David’s response?
“I will not feel shame for the Mall Pretzels.”
It resonates with me so profoundly as shame can often be the strongest emotion I feel after I have eaten. Shame that I have not eaten the right foods, or not enough, or too much, shame because I desire chocolate or some other “naughty treat”, shame that my dinner wasn’t balanced enough, shame in my calorie counting, shame even in the eating of a gluten-free bowl of organic cornflakes because they’re “carb heavy”.
This may sound like complete and utter nonsense to you, particularly that someone could have such a strong response to a bowl of cornflakes, gluten-free, organic, or otherwise. It is not logical, qualifiable, or often even justifiable. It is reactionary, emotional, and rooted in a deeply unforgiving part of what makes me “me”.
During my teenage years, I made the unconscious decision to channel a lot of my confusion, pain and angst that found its origin in the tension between my sexuality and faith, into a deeply unhealthy relationship with food. This complex pattern of behaviours developed over a number of years but mostly expressed itself as:
- Becoming a vegetarian who didn’t eat a whole lot of vegetables,
- Shrinking my calorie intake down to the bare minimum, which included skipping meals or not finishing them,
- Binge-eating certain types of food, like chocolate and breakfast cereals, when I became too hungry or was particularly emotionally vulnerable.
These behaviours were exacerbated by:
- An unfamiliarity with my own body – not understanding what fuel my tall, slim, XY-chromosome body needed during those years of transformation,
- An often-crippling hatred for my physical appearance, and the belief that dieting or controlling what I ate could and would impact this,
- An almost exclusively female friendship group in which I was exposed to harmful language around idealised body images. (My few male friendships were deeply imbalanced and often resulted in hero-worship or a sense of inferiority at my own maleness and physical form.)
Both my behaviour and their foundations were further compounded by the detrimental relationship I had with my church context. An environment that many will be familiar with, in which you are taught of the unconditional love of God, but that you soon learn actually comes attached with a whole load of conditions. Although this is not expressed as such, the coded language used is pervasive and the shaming of the inferiority of our desires and physical bodies is rife within what is understood as “purity culture”.
Purity culture is often described as only concerning relationships, particularly sexual. During my teenage years it was a common event for us to discuss sexual purity in our church youth group; this largely focussed on the importance of abstinence before marriage, the sinfulness of anything outside of heteronormative sexual behaviour or emotional involvement, and the toe-curling sex-education lessons that contained very little education and seemed to only want to discourage us from ever considering a healthy sex life as a viable option.
This focus on sexual purity, and particularly the condemnation of those outside of it, rubber-stamped my own feelings of unworthiness, uncleanliness, and unattractiveness, linked almost exclusively to my unresolved sexuality confusion. However, this was not the only insidious breed of puritanism that had creeped into my unconscious through the teaching of the church.
In recent months it has become increasingly obvious to me that purity culture is far more than the demands of a certain code of conduct for sexual behaviour, but that it encompasses other restrictions on a variety of behaviours as well. Looking back, it is of no surprise to me that there were several people in my peer group and the one immediately younger who were diagnosed with eating disorders; and if many of us were being honest, there are likely the same number again who suffered or suffer from the same but that have remained undiagnosed. And whilst eating disorders are usually not the result of one explicit event but a combination of factors, it seems likely to me that puritanical behaviour in some churches can be found in amongst that mix of causes.
Of course, contemporary language around food doesn’t help; we are constantly told and then told again what food is good for us, bad for us, what is a treat or a cheat, and what we really should only eat if we’re facing starvation. I’m so programmed this way that I am unable to think about McDonald’s without associating it with a lifestyle of laziness and greed, but if you were to throw “organic” or “locally sourced” in front of something I’m likely to lap it right up. Temporarily placing the ethics of big corporates like McDonald’s to one side, shaming people for eating a burger has become integral to the way we relate to social structures in the 21st Century, as Ruby Tandoh describes in “Eat Up”:
“There are no gatekeepers here: no cover charge, advance booking, expensive ingredients, dress code, pomp, ritual or hefty bill. These are the most democratic foods we have, open to anyone, on more or less any budget, no matter the demands of work, childcare, ill health or poverty. The only thing definitively linking all of these ‘junk’ foods is that they’re available, convenient and affordable, and therefore popular. Maybe the reason that all these vastly different foods are lumped together in one rubbish category isn’t because of their quality or nutritional value, but precisely because they are the foods of the people. In a society where anybody can afford a steak bake and a can of Coke, the goalposts for aspirational eating are forced to move to classier things.”
The puritanism of food and eating has stretched well beyond traditional notions of “good” and “bad” in this increasingly broad marketplace of consumerist capitalism. We are caught between a rock and a hard place, and instead of liberating us – faith is often the final nail in the coffin.
Christians are taught to believe that our bodies are temples for the Holy Spirit, to be kept pure and righteous so that God doesn’t have to suffer the indignity of humanity; which of course is completely contradictory to the incarnation in which God deliberately suffered this alleged indignity of humanity. However, the teachings of an arguably very confused apostle (Paul) that were then compounded by centuries of church doctrine around what is clean, what isn’t, when things can be done, and when they can’t, all for the purposes of control, seems to have successfully undone what is perhaps the most underrated miracle of the incarnation: not that we are saved from the fiery damnation of hell, but that we are saved from the fiery damnation of our hatred of own selves. That we are taught to embrace that we are not in our humanness intrinsically shameful, but instead beautiful beings in our own right. That God, who holds the fabric of creation together in and through the Godhead, chose to live as a human, not in shame but in fullness and offers that to us too:
“I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” John 10:10b
The culture of puritanical shaming in our churches needs to be called out and challenged for what it is: an attempt to degrade the fullness of God’s creation for the purposes of control.
We then need to begin the long process of not only personally deconstructing our relationship with the shame we have been nurtured to keep close to our chests like a beloved pet, but also the complicated web of structural shame in the global church. Until then, we will not be able to fully welcome in anyone, let alone the other, if we are culturally predisposed to the behaviour of shaming what we don’t know or don’t like.
A prayer for wholeness:
God of wholeness,
wholeness that stems not from rules,
not from behaviour,
not from control,
but wholeness rooted in and through You:
Hear my prayer.
When I seek wholeness through the application and adherence to rules, created by “experts”, societal pillars, or even by my own hand,
point me to your Word and remind me of the love that breaks all chains;
When I seek wholeness through habitual behaviours, unhealthy patterns, the familiarity of the known,
point me to your Word and remind me of the love that restores and rebuilds;
When I seek wholeness through the control of myself, of others, of what I eat, point me to your Word and remind me that it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles, but what goes out.
God of wholeness,
a Divinity of three yet one,
of an incarnation that was fully human yet fully Divine,
of a future hope in which we are all restored to wholeness with You:
Hear my prayer.