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Praying yourself thin: How the weight loss industry weaponised Christianity – ABC News

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Praying yourself thin: How the weight loss industry weaponised Christianity
While Jenny was trying hard to be a good Christian, she was hiding a secret shame — one that can be traced back to biblical times.
Warning: This article contains content about disordered eating that may be distressing for some readers.
It started with bandages from her mum's medical supplies.
Jenny Denny was 14 and looking for "an efficient way" to deal with a problem.
Beginning at her ribs and moving down, she bound herself, pulling the bandages tight until her stomach was cinched and her breathing impaired.
Then came calorie counting and extreme dieting; the bingeing and the purging.
Jenny used these forms of disordered eating to punish herself.
To the outside world — Sydney in the early 2000s — her intentions were either invisible or inconsequential.
What mattered, Jenny observed, was that her body transformed. The more weight she lost, the greater praise she received.
Unexpectedly, the loudest cheers came from Jenny's faith community.
Eating disorders can be lethal. Anorexia nervosa has one of the highest mortality rates of any psychiatric illness in the world.
In Australia, it's estimated that more than 1 million people are currently living with an eating disorder, and nearly two-thirds of those affected are women and girls.
Both the symptoms and root causes of disordered eating are complex, but body shame often features in the equation.
And that shame — particularly in connection with women's bodies — can be traced back to biblical times.
In the Book of Genesis, Eve is tempted by the devil to eat fruit, against the wishes of God. After she shares the forbidden fruit with her partner, Adam, they're both exiled from Eden and humans are forevermore born into sin.
For some religious scholars, including Michelle Lelwica, this cautionary tale speaks to Christianity's influence on diet culture, body obsession and gendered body shame.
"Eve, really, is the one that destroyed everything; she ruined everything," says Dr Lelwica, a religion expert at Concordia College in the US. 
"Satan never would have attempted to try to persuade Adam to eat the forbidden fruit. He went for the gullible one, the one who had no restraint."
Eve wasn't just a woman or even simply the first. She was a figurehead for all female kind.
So, the decision to depict Eve as someone "whose intelligence was so small" and whose body was "sin prone" has tainted all women, Dr Lelwica argues.
"No credible religion scholar thinks that there was actually a lady named Eve, sitting in some garden," she says.
"But in the mythical story, sin and shame enter the world when she eats.
"So [eating] is a very shameful act."
The repercussions of Eve's transgression have reverberated ever since.
For Jenny Denny, the feeling of shame crept into her consciousness during adolescence.
She'd been an athletic kid, swimming competitively and practising several times a week.
But a knee injury took her out of the sport just as she entered high school.
"Until my early teens, I wasn't aware that my body was anything other than something that propelled me through the water, something that took me places," Jenny says.
Her body began changing, then puberty kicked in, and soon Jenny felt like a stranger in her skin.
"[I remember] looking around at my peers, reading tween magazines, like Dolly and Girlfriend, and realising … this is what attractive people look like," she recalls.
"I could see all these other ways to be. And I had to figure out how to attain those things."
Jenny wasn't alone in her pursuit of bodily perfection. She remembers a group of girls who wouldn't eat during recess or lunch — waiting, instead, to get home.
Her fixation on dieting was not just about food.
"I didn't really like myself," she says.
"This was a good way to control myself, to have some control in life ."
This sense of control is one factor that can keep an eating disorder going, says Carmel Harrison, a Sydney-based clinical psychologist.
"The cognitive style of black and white, dichotomous thinking is central to eating disorders," she explains.
"[It] results in this swinging from two extremes of strict control to loss of control."
Yet it's only one aspect at play. Eating disorders can develop from psychological risk factors, sociocultural influences, and biological and genetic predispositions — often in combination. 
Jenny knew her disordered eating was deeply unhealthy, but as she shed kilos, she was showered with compliments.
Many of them came from women in her Christian community.
"[People were] noticing that my body was different and perhaps more likeable, more worthy," Jenny says. "It was huge gratification."
The sense of fulfilment quickly faded when Jenny realised she was trapped.
"Once you start losing weight and changing the way your body looks, and people are praising you for it … how do you stop?
"You have to keep going," she says.
Jenny viewed her bingeing and purging behaviours as a "chamber of secrets" — something for her to battle alone, away from the rest of her life and the practice of her faith.
Now, as a 32-year-old, this compartmentalisation strikes her as odd.
As a woman of faith, why did she — and others around her — put so much focus on thinness when, in the words of the Bible, all humans are made "in the image of God"?
"For a community that is told to reject the culture around us, we're just as caught up in the dieting and body ideals, the fat shaming and body judgement, the pride of appearance," Jenny says.
"It's only when we do something that makes us more like Hollywood, or more like society's ideal, that we receive praise and affirmation.
"It's gratifying on one level and deeply confusing on another level, that what I'm 'worth' … is so tied up with how I look."
Dr Harrison is a practising Christian and says some patients seek her out for this very fact. 
"Christian clients often like their faith to be incorporated into therapy," she says. 
She points out that food choices, body shapes and body sizes are often incorrectly perceived as moral issues.
"It is important to recognise the danger this plays in perpetuating disordered eating and body shame," she says.
"Historically, some church communities have over-emphasised individual sin, rather than the collective brokenness of humanity, which has unintentionally led individuals struggling with mental health issues to feel blamed."
At the time when Jenny was dealing with her eating disorder, this moral approach to dieting had found its way into the mainstream with the rise of American dietician-turned-church founder Gwen Shamblin.
Known for her petite, tanned frame and towering, teased, blonde hair, Shamblin started running theology-infused diet workshops in 1986.
It was her accompanying book, The Weigh Down Diet, published in 1997, that put her on the map. With more than one million copies sold, Shamblin appeared on the US talk show circuit spruiking the message that you could pray yourself thin.
Within two years of her book's publication, she had created her own church, Remnant Fellowship, which doubled down on the diet-based doctrine.
According to Lisa Isherwood, a professor in theology at the University of Wales, Shamblin's program has been the most successful in the Christian diet industry.
"[Shamblin] asserts that people have to eat thin, which means picking at food and leaving most of it. But, most importantly, they have to acknowledge that they are truly suffering from a spiritual hunger which they are confusing with a physical hunger," Dr Isherwood writes in her book The Fat Jesus.
In one promotional video, Shamblin advises followers to only eat when their stomach growls.
"The fact is … the desire goes away for the food. Instead of chocolate cake, you fill it up with God [and] you get skinny," Shamblin told Larry King in 1998.
Dr Isherwood points out that Shamblin — who passed away in 2021 — didn't just preach thinness for thinness' sake: being attractive was an advertisement for God.
"According to Gwen Shamblin, Jesus likes skinny people, because He likes to take them shopping for Armani and Gucci clothes," Dr Isherwood says.
"So, there's this capitalist thread through it all."
Dr Harrison views Shamblin's ideas as extreme, and not representative of Christianity in Australia.
But that's not to say church leaders haven't — perhaps unwittingly — perpetuated harmful messaging around body image.
"I do think that in many Christian communities, pursuing weight loss, at times, has been equated to a spiritually healthy pursuit," Dr Harrison says.
"Christian leaders engaging in 'fat talk' … that is, speaking negatively about one's body and the need to lose weight, normalise diet culture and moralise the 'thin ideal'."
Dr Harrison believes church communities can play an important role in supporting individuals to seek professional help.
Keith Condie, the co-director of the Mental Health and Pastoral Care Institute at Anglican Deaconess ministries in Sydney, agrees.
He says the notion of praying a problem away can be incredibly damaging.
"People facing that sort of mental health challenge need a lot of support, love and care, rather than being hammered by biblical texts in a way that just makes them feel worse," he says.
Having studied both psychology and theology, Rev Dr Condie now supports reformed evangelical churches to provide pastoral care — especially in regard to mental health.
"If churches understand that, as human beings, we're incredibly complex biologically, psychologically, socially, spiritually, then they'll appreciate that an eating disorder is not simply a spiritual condition," he says.
"If [churches] see things purely in spiritual terms and think, 'This is due to some demon' … that is very unhelpful."
For Jenny Denny, her relationship with religion has morphed over the years, from denouncing Christianity to finding solace in the Bible.
"Probably when I was 18 or 19, I had my last big faith crisis," she recalls.
"[Asking] how could Jesus love me when I'm such a sinner? Is He even real? How do I know I can trust the Bible? All those big existential questions.
"But ultimately, the older I get, the more I realise, the church isn't any one person. And when someone wrongs me, actually God is still good. He's bigger than that person's opinion or their hurt."
As for her eating disorder, there hasn't been a silver bullet.
"The biggest thing for me was probably accepting the fact that I'm going to live with anxiety forever, and … I'm always going to come back to having body image issues," Jenny says.
Despite that, she's learned to appreciate herself more through a range of sources — from Bible readings to the body positivity movement.
Jenny also cites intuitive eating, the practice of eating when you're hungry and stopping when you're full, as a useful tool. Counselling has been another.
But perhaps the most profound shift came from the birth of her son, two years ago.
"Going through pregnancy, your body just goes wild … and that made me amazed," Jenny says.
"All of those experiences helped to dissipate a learnt shame that shouldn't be there."
If Jenny could travel back in time, she'd unwrap her teenage self from the medical bandages she used to make herself slimmer.
She'd rip apart her shame.
"This is what I wish my 14-year-old self had known: Your body is a temple, therefore love it and care for it as someone would care for something that is priceless."
We acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Australians and Traditional Custodians of the lands where we live, learn, and work.
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Written by: Christianity Today

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