God Wants You to Be Thin (and Other Lies the Evangelical Church Taught Me)
I believed I had been nurtured, like a lamb, for one purpose: Mine was to be thin.
Content warnings for this essay include references to: dieting, anti-fatness, and eating disorders.
Kate Bowler explains the onset of Christian weight loss as related to the prosperity gospel in her book Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel. The prosperity gospel is the notion that wealth and health are divine rights afforded to the faithful who invest in themselves—especially by tithing into their increasingly corporate houses of worship. The prosperity gospel began to evolve in the early nineteenth century, going from philosophical thought to the 10,000-plus-person megachurches that dot the American (and world) landscape.
Divine healing requires that the supplicant both ask God to be made new and to actively accept the healing. If an ill person did not recover, it was because they did not adequately let God in. Poor health—like poverty in the prosperity gospel’s wealth thread—is a spiritual failing. It was perhaps inevitable that as the prosperity gospel began to integrate with scientific advances to guarantee divine health, the spiritual imperative toward health began to overlap with the American obsession with weight loss through self-control. It is now widely understood that health and fatness are not remotely mutually exclusive, but this ideology hinged on the false belief that they were connected.
The mix of diet culture and religious judgment was easy to come by: “Teachings on food and exercise dripped with judgment as they piled up the sins of obesity: gluttony, bondage, idolatry, and moral weakness,” Bowler writes. Satan came on saran-wrapped plates—a slice of cake, a cherry cobbler. Worse, Satan was inside the faithful, for fat had a demonic root.
To exorcise the evil within came a series of options to pray—and buy—your way thin. In Born Again Bodies: Flesh and Spirit in American Christianity, R. Marie Griffith culls together a reading list: 1957’s Pray Your Weight Away proclaimed any “extra” weight as being “pounds of sin.” Three years later, an article appeared in the American Weekly that became a book called I Prayed Myself Slim. And then came the wildly popular, oft-copied Devotions for Dieters, published in 1967, which named an inability to control appetites as “dietary idolatry.” The list goes on: Joel Osteen with his fitness DVD, Pat Robertson with his shake—stretching into the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s.
But in the late 1980s, diet culture was reaching a fever pitch.
There to raise the devotees’ hands up in praise or plea—higher and in masses greater than anyone before her—was Gwen Shamblin Lara.
I was not raised in the evangelical church, but it is impossible to decouple the culture in which I came of age from the church’s influence: From sexuality to gender to even personality, entering young womanhood in the aughts meant living in the shadow of a certain version of Christ. You didn’t have to believe in him to be punished for your sins.
This was George W. Bush’s America, the surge of purity culture, of modest clothing, of compulsory heterosexuality. I forced myself to dream at night of a boy my age touching my shoulders, I hung magazine cutouts of heartthrobs on my wall, I thought of each of them as my future husband. I understood the danger in my body, that men might look. My body, which grew hips and breasts while I still had braces and long braids, was a weapon I didn’t know how to wield.
I read in the magazines that were supposed to teach me how to become a woman to swish mouthwash around in my mouth to trick myself into fullness on pages next to wedding spreads and blow job tips. Men like gaps between your legs, they told me. Men like thin fingers to put a ring on. Men like a girl who can eat a steak (but take small bites!). Drive him crazy by wearing his white shirt the next morning before he leaves for work, the shirttails billowing out behind you like an angel. You’ll look so small in his shirt. Make him breakfast. Men don’t like egg whites, but you can make them taste good with enough salt and hot sauce. The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. Ten core exercises to get a flat tummy. You’re not hungry, you’re thirsty.
The sex educator Erica Smith works with people who have left evangelical purity culture to build their own fulfilling relationships to their bodies, desire, and sex. She draws compelling connections between purity culture and diet culture. Both assert that “your body’s natural appetites are bad for you, whether your sexual appetite or your appetite for food,” she says. And both purity culture and diet culture operate in the same way: They “completely disconnect humans from trusting their own bodies—from being able to trust themselves at all,” she says. From assessing hunger signals to sexual desire, these systems of control take the agency out of the person’s body and make it a collective decision: a decision for their families, their churches, or their country to decide for them.
Lying in bed under the taped-up heartthrobs with their floppy haircuts, I knew I hungered for something. I didn’t know what, but I hoped that if I chewed enough ice like the magazine told me to, I could go to bed feeling full. Full enough.
The orientation video for the Weigh Down Basics program opens with John 4:34: “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.” Gwen Shamblin Lara appears on-screen, unforgettable with her trademark blonde bouffant. She introduces her “medically sound and faith-based” weight-loss program that she started in 1986, one that teaches you to “learn the self control of a thin eater, someone who can stop in the middle of a candy bar and have no desire to eat the second half.”
The program started out of a mall in Memphis but moved to a Baptist church in the early nineties. By the late nineties, the program had over 250,000 adherents scattered on every continent, especially after the 1997 publication of Lara’s book, The Weigh Down Diet.
Her book and the videos I find on YouTube are hard to stomach—steeped in an unapologetic anti-fatness. There are, in theory, no forbidden foods in the Weigh Down Diet (which, Shamblin repeatedly asserts is not, despite the title, a diet at all). Instead, restriction of quantity is key. She advises a massive reduction in intake. One should only eat when one has achieved what Lara defines as “true hunger”: when one’s stomach growls. (“If you are not sure that this feeling is hunger,” she writes, “just wait a little longer.”)
Her diet wasn’t some wingnut product. She was widely accepted by mainstream media, appearing on Larry King Live, Good Morning America, The View, The Tyra Banks Show, and countless others. Like her predecessors, Lara is clear about the biblical mandate to be thin: God wants us thin, in control, and all of us, apparently, strive for thinness.
The Weigh Down Diet professes that God and food are antithetical to each other: “We love the master that we obey,” she writes. “And we obey the master we love. We cannot love both God and food.” Similarly, a woman offers a testimonial in the video: “It taught me to fall out of love with food and into love with God.” (I will confess something to you now that shames me: I read this, and an old part of me says, Could you make God real again? Could you love him more than food?) Lara addresses a longing heart—a vast emptiness. “The truth is going to set you permanently free,” she says. “The love of food will disappear—salvation!”
To Lara, to lick brownie batter from your finger isn’t its own godly delight, but a false idol of misdirected worship, a moment where one loses control over one’s desires. As if Christians don’t join hands and say grace, thanking God for the bounty of the food on their table. The Weigh Down Diet was certainly the most popular Christian weight-loss program, with 1.2 million copies of the book sold. It still has participants today, training their eyes away from the dinner table, asking God to take control.
In my first year of college, I cried most nights, lonely in the wrong city, at the wrong school, in a bout of clinical depression. There were nice girls on my floor who met down the hall every Monday night. They invited me to join them, and so I did.
I wanted to believe—in God, and in thinness, that a different body would mean a different life.
It was, predictably, a Bible study. I munched on the chips and salsa and nodded along. I always told them I wasn’t religious, but they kept inviting me back, and soon I joined in, debating, asking questions, expressing skepticism. They struggled with elements of self-control, especially around sex, but they always had answers for me: “I know God,” they would say to me. “I know he’s here as much as I know you’re here.”
We prayed together and I cast wishes. Ten pounds, I’d beg. Make my stomach smaller. Take away my arms. I wanted to believe—in God, and in thinness, that a different body would mean a different life.
I wanted a miracle. I reached for him, but no hands received me, and I looked around as the young, slender women in that dorm room raised their hands, mouthed silently, let the spirit pour into them, speaking a shared emotional language that I didn’t understand. Why not me? It was a loneliness I had never known, to be refused on earth and in heaven.
When the leader of the group one day asked me, “What would it mean for your life if you accepted Jesus Christ into your heart today?,” all I could say was, “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” she said.
But we didn’t talk again after that, and I didn’t go back to the group. I had failed at being godly, I knew, and God had failed me. I hadn’t made myself a vessel, hadn’t made myself clean and worthy, and he hadn’t filled me.
But I wasn’t searching for God for salvation in the afterlife, but for deliverance into a smaller body on earth. My search for God was a vehicle for an obsession, not a devotion. It wasn’t until years later, when I played God in my life by denying myself food, that I found the thinness I prayed for, which I mistook for divinity.
Some years after a crisis of faith for Lara’s followers in which she broke with the typical evangelical notion of Trinitarism, Lara died in 2021 in a plane crash with other church leaders. I wonder about her final moments, if her stomach growled, if she regretted the candy bars she’d left half-eaten.
Lara’s teachings didn’t disappear. Americans are still desperately trying to lose weight and are turning to their faiths for guidance. As I scroll Instagram one night many years after that day in Target, I come across the page of a woman I’ll call Emily, who posts a reel about working out with skirts over her leggings. God convicted her to make a change to a more modest wardrobe, she captions a reel. Emily becomes my gateway to Christian weight-loss coaches on social media. She leads me to a woman I’ll call Jenna, another Christian weight-loss coach—not a nutritionist, certified trainer, or medical professional.
I message Jenna, set up an interview. My first thought is to pitch an article, an exposé of this industry. Instead, her smile is warm and friendly, and I want to hug her. I introduce myself and hear myself say: “I am a searcher, still looking for my spiritual home.”
Can an atheist have a spiritual home? I don’t believe in God anymore, even as I sought him out as I became an adult, hoping for a different answer. I’ve long since stopped making a god of starvation, the one who I remember from the bathroom. But something pricks at me, some want that I can’t define. I search for the words but come up empty.
Jenna is among the legion I find on Instagram under various hashtags: #christianweightloss, for one, or #fit4christ. She, among countless others, have what they believe is a biblical mandate toward their definition of an ideal body—that is to say, one that is thin. On their business websites where they offer their programs, they cite various quotes from the New Testament. Any number of verses can be interpreted to tell you to lose weight if you’re looking for it.
Jenna tells me that she used to be fat and has since dropped 150 pounds with prayer. She’s also cut out sugar and flour, foods that she said she used to worship instead of God. These foods were her sins, she says. Through what she calls “food boundaries” (banned foods) and prayer, God, she says, has delivered her into a thin body.
She offers weight-loss coaching to other women and posts to her almost twenty thousand followers questions like: “Does your relationship with food bring glory to God?”
There are so many more: men who lift weights for God’s glory, countless women who pray instead of eat. There are so many people complaining of emptiness, who are searching through their Bibles for answers, who find the problem is themselves, their wants, their cravings, their desires. They are waiting for new bodies, for God to save them. To relieve them of their needs, to make them whole.
It would be easy to pin the people behind Christian weight-loss efforts as craven hucksters selling snake oil. But it’s more complex than that. Yes, there is money flowing directly from the wallets of the devoted into megachurch pastors’ hands. But through the interpretation of the prosperity gospel, the riches afforded to these people seem like a divine right. Even their faith, which can seem performative or convenient, rings true: God, in his infinite wisdom and benevolence, has provided these people with a path to wealth and health.
Christian weight loss hardly has a monopoly on the notion of making thinness a god. Pick up a health magazine, and you’ll find headlines accusing you of worshipping sugar. SoulCycle devotees sing of their spiritual experiences on stationary bikes. It takes all of two minutes to buy a tank top that reads “Training is my religion. The gym is my church.”
Fail at the Weigh Down Diet? Buy more tapes or in-person workshops. Fail at Weight Watchers? Sign up for another program by entering your credit card number. Live your faith? Donate to a certain politician. Live your values? Buy “ethical” products. Christian weight-loss programs didn’t invent anything that wasn’t already there. They simply encapsulate a distinctly American, capitalist truth: Your god is only as good as the money you spend to worship him. Your salvation is determined by the amount of control he is able to exert over you.
Your god is only as good as the money you spend to worship him.
Diets, like purity culture, are highly effective “systems of control” that “keep the people in power in power,” Erica Smith says. Inside the church, outside the church, we are eager supplicants, thirsty buyers, ready and willing to allow someone else, someone more in control than we are, to take the wheel. You are not your own, for you were bought with a price.
In churches, in gyms, in America, it is not enough to feel hungry and to eat. You have to be changing yourself, investing in yourself, shrinking yourself, controlling yourself, controllable, until you are malleable and worthy.
The year after I left the residential eating disorder treatment center in Philadelphia was the darkest of my life. Without starvation to numb me, I sunk into a depression so severe I thought I’d never crawl out, that I would die there, alone in a hole where no one could reach me. My entire body ached, both from what is called “refeeding syndrome” and from the despair, which clawed at my insides. Medication didn’t help, and a doctor suggested electroshock therapy, but I was too afraid.
Without being able to worship thinness, without being able to fast to prove my devotion, I was adrift, purposeless. I was lonelier than ever, divorced from my body, from my relationships, from faith in anyone and anything.
I negotiated with myself throughout those early days of recovery: I can always lose weight again if I want to. But even as I am settling into years of recovery, there is a truth I have had to face more difficult than an absence of God, one that leaves me bereft, one that keeps the Weigh Down Diet and Weight Watchers alike in business: Diets don’t work. The control we believe we have over our bodies is fleeting. Most people gain back the weight they lose, if not more.
There was a turning point: medication that finally helped, therapy that was a godsend, supportive relationships that were as close to divine as I can imagine. But it was messy—it meant untangling a lifetime of worthiness and godliness and a body that wouldn’t cooperate. It meant finding new ways to define worthiness, something divorced from my size—to find something redeeming in this earthly form of mine. Untangling also meant divesting from the political structure of anti-fatness and grappling with the ways in which I benefit from and uphold that system.
The mess remains. When I became what in eating disorder treatment is called “weight restored,” it felt like the biggest failing of my life. It may seem small to you, shallow. You might pass judgment—you wouldn’t be the first. But it’s simply true. I had been nurtured, like a lamb, for one purpose: Mine was to be thin.
Like religion, dieting—and later anorexia—gave an organizing principle to my life, something to strive for. There was ritual in my daily calorie allotment, worship in weighing my portions and counting my ribs. It gave me a thrill of ecstasy when the scale moved in the direction I wanted it to, and it answered questions about my purpose. Like Bible study, it gave me fellowship—other people trying to lose weight in my family, social circle, on Instagram. And it gave me something to fill my time: tracking calories, getting my steps in, meal planning.
But it left me lacking. No matter how devoted I was, it was never enough. And diets—and eating disorders—have an end date. The body fights back. Mine wanted to live.
When my body returned to its prestarvation size, I had to find faith in something else, something that wasn’t fleeting, something that wasn’t killing me.
If diets don’t work, what does? I used to ask myself: Does religion? Will God give me something that starvation won’t? Is someone there to take me in? To wrap me up? Where is my body’s home? But these are the wrong questions, I know. They leave me chasing vapors, seeking something that offers no answers for me. They ask me to look outside myself, above myself, when the problem is here, deep in me, internal. The better questions are What am I hungry for today? How can I feed it? Can I give myself the gift of meeting my own desires?
I write this with years of distance: distance from that treatment center in Philadelphia that saved my life, distance from dieting, distance from those Bible studies in a dorm room in Boston. There are for me, now, more unanswered questions than ever, and I am comfortable with my place as a searcher. But it is not accurate that I am searching for a spiritual home like I told Jenna. Not any longer, at least.
I am my own place to come home to, my own house of worship. Eating the first ripe peach of the summer, lying next to my partner in the grass, brightening at the sound of my sister’s laugh, cooking holiday meals with my friends who let themselves into the apartment using their own keys, pressing my fingers into the softness of my stomach and feeling the abundance, the little miracles of daily life, of having a body that recovered, that fought to live. Of feeling grounded, my feet on the ground, my eyes cast forward. Joy, despair, a burnt piece of toast, homemade ricotta. That—all of it—is its own glory.