Shameful Bodies

Religion and the Culture of the Physical Improvement

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Michelle Mary Lelwica
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , January
     2017.
     288 pages.
     $24.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781472594938.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

This book was written after the author was diagnosed at the age of forty-seven with severe arthritis in her hip. Having suffered from anorexia in her adolescence, this new medical condition caused her several years of reflection and soul searching to see why she felt so alienated from her body both as a teenager and in middle age. Why, she asked herself, was she reluctant to use a cane? Why did she try so hard to disguise her limp? Was there something about limping that seemed unattractive, unfeminine, and not middle class? Her physical condition made her acutely aware of how disability is commonly viewed. For example, she corrected her sons when they used the word “lame” to describe something undesirable. She pondered what it meant that she was perfectly happy about other people using a cane, wheelchair, or walker, but those were definitely not for her. This introduction immediately draws in the reader (especially this one, who had both hips replaced at a relatively young age). What, indeed, did and does the author’s reaction to her own disability tell us about our attitudes toward our bodies and the bodies of others, especially in a culture that sets such store by physical health, normalcy, and beauty? The answer is, a great deal, as the author unpacks “the psychic, physical, and spiritual consequences” of efforts to improve our bodies to conform to our current images of the ideal male and female body. 

In part 1 of this wide-ranging, insightful, and very instructive analysis of Western culture’s obsession with bodily perfection, Lelwica uncovers the largely obscured contributions that Christianity has made to the culture of physical improvement. One of her primary goals is to demonstrate the relevance of studying religion beyond conventional religious topics. As she convincingly shows, religion is more than a matter of devotional beliefs and practices; religion, in this case Christianity, has shaped and continues to shape Western conceptions of the healthy, virtuous, and socially desirable individual in ways that affect even those who are neither religious nor Christian. As she explains, “because of its deep roots in commercial culture, the better body quest may seem like an entirely secular phenomenon. But…the feelings of shame this quest frequently generates are our first clue that it has quasi-religious, moral dimensions. And when we consider how for many people the mission to create a better body functions as a quest for salvation—a search for happiness, health, and healing—its distinctively secular character is even less clear (16).

Lelwica claims that three prominent Christian narratives shape our collective imagination about the way bodies should look and function, each one offering an explanation for why bodies fail to live up to expectations and suggestions for what to do about this. The first narrative concerns the pivotal role the body plays in salvation. Christianity has an ambiguous attitude toward human bodies. While created by God and in his image, the body is also seen as a relentless source of sin. In the drama of salvation, the flesh is pitted against the spirit, which is commanded to fight against the body’s base urges. A second narrative genders this battle by associating women with the body to a much greater extent that men. Women’s carnal, emotional, and irrational nature is taken as a given fact and contrasted to the more spiritual and rational nature of men. Christian ascetic practices, together with the conviction that celibacy represents the highest level of earthly existence, fostered the view that women were the ultimate threat to male transcendence. The third decisive Christian narrative stresses the perfection of resurrected bodies. The saved enter heaven without physical defects of any kind: no disabilities, no fat, no chronic pain, and no wrinkles mar their perfect health and beauty: “By equating bodily redemption with physical perfection, early church leaders systematically removed somatic impairments, afflictions, and irregularities from God’s kingdom. In so doing, they implicitly conflated disease, deformity, and disability with sin, impurity, and punishment. Ultimately, this eschatological cleansing interpreted bodily anomalies and ailments as signs of corruption in God’s perfect creation” (27).  

Lelwica highlights the “religious-like features of the culture of physical improvement.” As she says, “Explicitly or not, most advertisements for better body products employ a before-and-after logic that mirrors the born-again thinking of eschatological improvement” (28). The culture, or one might say cult, of physical improvement has its own icons, just as religion does, in representations of perfect male and female bodies. It has its own gurus, who establish rituals of exercise, dieting, and body enhancement intended to help adherents reach the goal of physical perfection. And it thrives on guilt and a moral code of shame.

In part 2 Lelwica makes the important point that by shaming individuals who suffer from disability, obesity, chronic pain, or old age, our competitive, individualistic culture puts the blame squarely on the shoulders of the disabled, criticizing them for their poor life choices and lack of self-control and will power. The disabled are consequently seen as weak and dependent: if they would only use their initiative and fight harder, they could conquer their disabilities. This emphasis on personal responsibility allows society to ignore the social and environmental factors that give middle- and upper-class whites access to health care, healthy food choices, exercise clubs, and all the other things money can buy to improve health, things beyond the reach of the poor and most people of color. The emphasis on personal responsibility mirrors the long-standing Christian association between physical impairment and moral impurity. It recapitulates the Christian eschatological narrative that healing comes from repentance and faith in the miraculous intervention of God’s saving power. Among the numerous examples Lelwica cites to illustrate this connection, the one that bowled me over was the description written on a jar of anti-aging skin cream called “Hope in a Jar”: “where there is hope there can be faith; where there is faith miracles can occur” (193). 

Lelwica’s hope is that by exposing the core assumptions underlying the idea that bodies are shameful unless they conform to an ideal type, we can consciously envision alternative ways “of thinking about and pursuing physical, mental, and spiritual well-being—ways that aren’t tethered to a profit-driven ideal, and that don’t put us at war with our flesh and make us complicit with a social/symbolic system that shames unorthodox physiques” (47). Such an alternative vision will be based on “the principles of biodiversity, vulnerability, impermanence, and interdependence—all of which the better body story suppresses or denies (47). She makes it clear that there are alternative traditions in Christianity, especially those unearthed by feminist scholars, to which one can turn for this more inclusive vision, as well as other visions of the body in faith traditions such as Buddhism. 

There is so much more in this rich, surprising, and disturbing book that unfortunately cannot fit into a short review. It is a book that should appeal to anyone, including high school and college students, interested in the profound impact religion and culture have in shaping our identities and deepest sense of self. Only a very few of us can escape the pervasive shame we have been taught to feel about our bodies. By suggesting that we do not have to think this way, Lelwica has done us all a service.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Allison P. Coudert is Castelfranco Chair in the History of Religion at the Universit of California, Davis.

Date of Review: 
April 19, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michelle Mary Lelwica is Professor of Religion and Chair of the Religion Department at Concordia College, USA. She is the author of The Religion of Thinness (2009) and Starving for Salvation (1999). She has regularly blogged for Huffington Post and Psychology Today.

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