Feminist Theology and Contemporary Dieting Culture
Sin, Salvation and Women’s Weight Loss Narratives
- ISBN: 9780567659972
- Published By: T&T Clark
- Published: August 2019
For many, dieting is a casual topic, brought up on the first of January or after a regretted second helping—but in Feminist Theology and Contemporary Dieting Culture: Sin, Salvation and Women’s Weight Loss Narratives, Hannah Bacon illustrates the deep spiritual significance of food, body image, and weight loss. Relying on her own ethnographic research, she argues that current weight loss culture draws on theological themes and that some of these might be resourced as a corrective to traditional Christian theology, the discourse around weight, and the dieting industry itself.
The foundation for Bacon’s work is her participation in a secular weight loss group near her home in the UK, a participation rooted in her own feelings of unhappiness regarding her weight. However, she finds this desire to lose weight to be in tension with her theological and feminist skepticism toward such groups that she sees as feeding into patriarchal and neoliberal norms. This incongruity within herself sets the tone for the complex relations she maps throughout the book between food and theology, dieting and feminism, weight and capitalism.
The first half of the book draws out the “recycled” theology of her weight loss group, particularly its deployment of the categories sin and salvation. In fact, Bacon chooses the organization she joins because of its use of the word “Syn” to describe particularly sugary and fatty foods, a word with obvious Christian connotations. In her initial examination, she demonstrates how traditional conceptions of sin are implicit in the group—Syn foods are seen as dangerous, deadly, selfish, tempting, and shameful—but follows this by highlighting how the organization frames Syn as something good (albeit in moderation). In this way, a tension remains as one acknowledges “the increase in capacities women experience in the group – advances in self-possession, self-assertion, self-awareness and self-attentiveness… without denying the ways in which these capacities entangle women even more deeply in webs of patriarchal domination” (134). Also at work is an idea of salvation that informs women’s understanding of their weight loss narratives. Salvation in this context balances, on one hand, a sense of hope and achievement and, on the other, an acceptance of oppressive social expectations that dictate fat as something to be overcome.
In the second half, Bacon builds on the findings of her research in order to reimagine the categories of sin and salvation—not only using the insights of the weight loss group to help steer Christian theology but also reflecting feminist theology back on to dieting culture. Her first step, following Rosemary Radford Ruether, is to redefine sin as “distorted relationality”—in this way, sin is not fat or food but how we conceive of our weight and diet. With this in mind, women can start to move toward “sensible” eating, a way of eating that is both nutritious and, more importantly, enjoyable and sensual. Likewise, salvation is understood in terms of Sabbath, “an invitation to return to our bodies with delight” and “resist the will to dominate” (265).
By working within a feminist paradigm, Feminist Theology and Contemporary Dieting Culture rightfully orients the reader toward the oppressive (often double) standards that are applied to women, standards that lead to a disproportionate number of women who feel shame about their body—fat or otherwise. Moreover, by prioritizing the common theme in feminism of self-affirmation, some of the positive aspects of weight loss communities can be appreciated and their unique understanding of sin can be reapplied to traditional theology. This timid recognition of merit within dieting programs represents one of the more controversial points of the book, in which Bacon does “not wish to endorse the pursuit of thinness” yet acknowledges that “there are nevertheless things feminist theologians can glean from weight loss communities” (308).
Bacon is an engrossing writer, able to seamlessly weave together empirical research and theological reflection. In fact, her primary contribution is the bringing together of Christian religious thought, feminism, and an interest in the lived experience of dieting. Admittedly, Bacon’s ambitious work can feel scattered as it finds that these relations cannot be fully untangled and holds many of its different themes in tension with one another. Still, the book provides critical engagement with each topic and author it addresses; it makes frequent conversation partners with Paul, Augustine, and Foucault as well as with a host of feminist thinkers such as Rosemary Radford Ruether and Michelle Lelwica, and thus likely requires an audience with a background in the academy.
Though sympathetic to her larger argument, readers may feel uneasy about the extent to which her theology relies on self-affirmation. Her guiding principles lean toward the subjective, devoid of traditional Christian standards or societal norms out of fear that they represent patriarchy. Yet while the self-esteem corrective she offers is important, many will see in her argument a form of hedonism and will opt to maintain the wisdom of weight and food discipline, which receive only a few pages of treatment. This moral subjectivity also opens her argument up to possible traps—for example, in her desire to move toward pleasurable eating and escape the neoliberal systems that compel women to loathe their bodies, she may inadvertently jump from the fire into the capitalist frying pan of the food industry.
These problems aside, most readers will find no issue with Bacon’s writing style or her attack on harmful body-imagining. These are worthwhile subjects that she tackles by examination of the real lives of women and applied theological analysis. Even if one remains unconvinced of her arguments against healthy weight, there is a great deal to be said for her emphasis on rediscovering the joy of eating and producing body-positivity.
Daniel Crouch is a PhD student in theological studies at Baylor University.Daniel CrouchDate Of Review:September 26, 2022