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When Religion and Dieting Collide: What Did You Give Up for Lent?

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What did you give up for Lent? Chocolate or ice cream? Or perhaps some other high-fat, high-sugar, and relatively high-calorie "forbidden food?" For overweight people struggling with eating disorders, an important aspect of treatment involves incorporating small amounts of "forbidden foods" into one's diet on a regular basis. The rationale is to break the cycle of being "on a diet" or "off a diet."

Despite having this knowledge, when religious holidays with dietary restrictions or associations come around (it can be Yom Kippur for Jews or Ramadan for Muslims), patients are eager to give up something like chocolate or to fast for a holiday. All too often, underlying the religious practice of self-discipline is the thinking that this is a good way to lose weight.

In our class on Psychopathology and Pastoral Care at Yale Divinity School, we happened to be discussing eating disorders, and the contrast between our country's obesity crisis and the pressure to conform to the "thin ideal." A student asked how we could help young people, particularly girls, develop a healthy body image in an environment where two-thirds of our country is overweight and everyone idealizes women who wear a size two. In the context of this environment, how can one make a difference?

One important aspect of this conversation is the identity and self-image parents help to create for their child. Do you focus on your daughter's appearance and weight, or do you compliment her character and achievements -- in your own mind, to her, and around other people? Is the way you build the identity of your son different than the way you do this with your daughter?

Then there is the matter of Fat Talk. Does your child hear you comment to yourself, "I feel so fat?" Or perhaps you ask your partner or child, "Do I look fat in this?" Fat Talk isn't about your shape or weight. Rather, Fat Talk is a demeaning way we talk about ourselves or others. Why do we do this? There is a false notion that berating oneself with this talk will be motivating. Nothing could be further from the truth. Fat Talk shames. It leads to inertia and impedes efforts to eat right and exercise more. Fat Talk is neither therapeutic nor pastoral.

How can we put a stop to Fat Talk and poor body image, and build better identities and self-images for our children? Try consciously correcting yourself when you hear Fat Talk in your mind, or when you say it out loud, especially in front of your kids. Avoid comparing your body with others. Instead, offer a prayer of thanksgiving for the skin you are in. If you feel down about being overweight, try going for a walk and enjoying being outside. Remind yourself of your importance to your family and community, and to the meaning of your work. Think about health and wellbeing, rather than thinness, as the goal.

Of course, it is hard to buck the media messages that continually assault our sense of wellbeing with idealized images of models and mannequins who appear to be suffering from anorexia nervosa. So in addition to being mindful about the way that we talk to our kids, we also have to speak out publicly and try to clear up this cultural confusion.

That's what a 14-year-old named Julia Bluhm, a member of the First Congregational Church of Waterville, Maine, did. As a dancer, Julia Bluhm became concerned about eating disorders. This led her to work with others to start a petition to Seventeen, asking the magazine to stop photo-shopping pictures of girls. The idea was to start showing pictures of real girls in their natural beauty. The campaign was a success, with 86,000 people signing the petition. Then Seventeen agreed to publish one unaltered photo spread each month.

How we frame things matters. It was the scientist among us, the psychologist, who told the divinity school class we needed to think about eating as a sacred practice. Sacred because it is the means of how we live, how we exist in our bodies. What if religious leaders started preaching this kind of mindfulness? What if we spoke more about well-being and less about looks?

We need to try to change the cultural conversation, starting with the way we talk to ourselves, to our children, to congregations, and in the public square. When religion and dieting collide, we need to think more deeply about our lives, our goals, and our values.

Maybe what we need to give up for Lent isn't a forbidden food, but the Fat Talk instead. Eating is indeed a sacred practice. As is the speech we use to feed our minds.

Robin M. Masheb, Ph.D. is Associate Director for the Program for Obesity, Weight and Eating Research, and an Assistant Professor, in the Department of Psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine.

Mary Clark Moschella, Ph.D. is the Roger J. Squire Professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling at Yale Divinity School.