There are many today who believe a person’s sexual orientation is fixed from birth and revealed later in life, often through the decision to “come out” to friends and family. Increasingly, in culture and in law, people identify themselves by their sexual attractions.
A growing number of people also believe that gender is fluid—that is, gender is a social construct that goes beyond the binary of “male” and “female” and includes various expressions that fall outside traditional norms and do not correspond to a person’s bodily form. This belief has led some to identify themselves with whatever term they believe best describes them: transgender, genderqueer, bigender, and so on.
These developments should not come as a surprise. We live in a society influenced by the philosophical currents of late modernity. Our devotion to radical human autonomy intersects with a new view of freedom: we are free when we overcome nature and the body. Freedom and “equality” requires the rejection or redefinition of “norms” when it comes to sexual behavior, sexual preference, and gender.
Most likely, the next phase of this cultural shift will challenge the norms of health and beauty.
What does it mean to be healthy? What does it mean to be beautiful? Are these not social constructs, too?
Coming Out as Fat
A recent episode of This American Life, “Tell Me I’m Fat,” chronicles the journey of several individuals who have struggled to come to terms with their weight and appearance in light of society’s expectations.
In the first segment, Lindy West speaks to the damaging notion that thinness should be the norm and that fatness is exceptional:
“The way that we are taught to think about fatness is that fat is not a permanent state. You’re just a thin person who’s failing consistently for your whole life. . . . So to actually say, OK, I am fat—and I have been as long as I can remember, so I don’t know why I live in this imaginary future where . . . someday I’m going to be thin.”
Fatness is a bodily reality; therefore, it should be embraced. According to this line of thinking, the word “overweight” is problematic because it “implies that there is a correct weight for people.”
Fatness and Health
No matter what you currently weigh, you may be thinking: Wait a minute! Aren’t there medical reasons that should lead us to maintain a healthy weight? Yes, of course there are!
But in a world in which no one agrees any longer on what the human body is for, why should those reasons matter? When it comes to gender, marriage, and sexuality, we have already abandoned any notion there being a telos or goal for human existence that is given to us by nature or by God. In light of that loss, who’s to say a certain weight is truly healthier or better for a person?
Do you see how the logic plays out?
- Our bodies have no ultimate meaning or purpose when it comes to sexual intercourse. “Heteronormativity” refers to privileging sexual relations between a man and a woman designed for the reproduction of humanity.
- Our bodies have no ultimate meaning or purpose when it comes to our gendered physical forms. How else do we explain the government’s agreement to pay for the mutilation of perfectly healthy reproductive organs in order to “confirm” one’s perceived gender identity?
- The individual parts of our bodies have no ultimate meaning or purpose. This why some people now ask doctors to amputate healthy arms or legs or blind their eyes if they believe they are “transabled.”
Why, then, should “health standards” matter for what we weigh?
If there is no ultimate purpose or meaning of the human body (apart from whatever we, as independent individuals, decide such meaning to be), then beauty and health must be created, not discovered. And what society has traditionally said is “healthy” may be radically different than how people today construct their own definition of health.
A psychology professor recently criticized doctors for “medical fat shaming” in order to “motivate people to change their behavior,” because this “malpractice” is stressful to patients. “Sizeism” must be confronted, just as “sexism,” “ageism,” “classism” or “transphobia.”
Seen in this light, Michelle Obama’s fitness and food initiatives are exercises in discrimination, reinforcing the prejudiced notion that one should strive for a certain kind of physical form. According to those who come out as fat, no weight is better than any other weight. To assume otherwise is to further prejudice.
Fatness and Beauty
No weight is better than any other weight when it comes to beauty either. No physical form should be considered more beautiful than another. Neither fatness nor thinness is objectively desirable.
Lindy West believes we should change society’s expectations of beauty so that fatness will be accepted. “Fat rolls and arm fat and bellies,” she says, “what if I found that objectively beautiful? What if I decided that’s beautiful?” If we decide what constitutes “health,” why not “beauty,” too?
In the end, all we are left with is difference and diversity, where the only way to find happiness is to accept your current state and oppose anyone who would be prejudiced in some way against your appearance.
Testimony of a Trans Fattie
I’ve been reading Trans Bodies, Trans Selves, a resource for the transgender community that explains the gender theories that drive the transgender movement.
Early in the book comes a testimonial from someone who identifies as a “Trans Fattie.” Note how the story ties together “coming out” as transgender with accepting one’s fatness:
“I am a genderqueer, trans woman. I also weigh over 400 pounds. These two realities have shaped my life in ways I never imagined, for both better and worse.”
Here’s how the story begins, with a little boy who feels out of place in society for reasons related to gender and weight:
“When I was a young, fat, feminine boy, my teacher was concerned that I was both out of shape and not behaving like the other boys when it came to recess and athletics. This is just one instance when my fatness and my transness came to be inextricably linked.”
The first “coming out” was as transgender. But watch how the story unfolds as this person feels the implicit judgment of society due to weight gain:
“As I grew much fatter, I started to notice the discrimination and stigma from my family, my doctors, and the ‘caring’ friends who expressed their worries. I became much more aware of the constant fat-shaming in the media, and the push by the medical establishment to forward the notion of the ‘obesity epidemic’ and the need for dangerous gastric bypass surgeries.”
Acceptance of this person’s gender identity didn’t go far enough. Discrimination and stigma remained, only now it surrounded weight not gender.
Note the quotation marks put around the word “caring.” The writer implies that it is judgmental and unkind for someone to express worry for your mental or physical health. The only way to show your love for someone is to accept everything about them as good, or normal, or acceptable. (To see just how radical this notion is, imagine if this were the story of someone struggling with weight loss instead of weight gain, and the only way to show kindness to someone with anorexia was to affirm the weight loss, no matter how damaging or life-threatening!)
“But when I came out as queer and trans back in the early 1990s, I made a promise to myself: never to allow others to make me feel bad about who I am. I was sick and tired of others hating on me in a misguided attempt to puff up their own sagging self-esteem. . . . Fatness is a benign characteristic much like being blond, or left-handed, or tall, or flat-footed. It was not being fat that was the problem, but the prejudiced society in which the fat person lives.”
Few doctors would say “fatness” is benign, like being blond or tall. Still, the person here has decided that the problem is the prejudice of society, not one’s weight.
“As people who are marginalized due to our bodies and our identities, the trans community should be natural allies to the fat community. Sadly, I have witnessed a lot of fatphobia in the trans community. . . . We have learned the value of affirmative slogans over the years: Black is Beautiful! Gay is Good! Trans is Terrific! And the latest: Fat is Fabulous! In order to be a whole, healthy community, we must celebrate the dazzling diversity of everyone and stop the fat-hate once and for all.”
The “coming out” as fat is the next stage in this person’s self-acceptance, and then after the conversion comes the mission: rid others of the sin of “fatphobia” until they accept people for who they are.
What is happening here?
Our society is entering the next phase that follows from our radical notions of human autonomy and freedom. There is no cosmic order, nothing essential about human nature, no objective truth, and no absolute morality. Freedom today means the individual can (and must) define his or her own reality. And, increasingly, the definition of love has been twisted into accepting an individual’s self-definition.
Despite the efforts of some to show how compatible this view of human nature and freedom is with Christianity, the historic and biblical understanding of the world is very different.
First, we must recognize that gender and weight are not the same kind of thing. We are born male or female. But a number of factors can affect our body’s weight, and these factors often go beyond choice and discipline.
Second, we must reject “body shaming,” bullying, or the promotion of unhealthy social stereotypes (the beautiful Barbie is always skinny, and so on) that harm people who may be out of line with societal expectations. We believe in the dignity of all human beings because we are all made in the image of God. Human worth is not affected by human weight.
Third, as Christians, we recognize that in a fallen world we all face challenges with our bodies. We are all broken in one way or another. The answer is not to normalize our brokenness, but to long for resurrection hope. As theologian Oliver O’Donovan has written:
“The sex into which we have been born is given to us to be welcomed as a gift from God. The task of psychological maturity—for it is a moral task, and not merely an event which may or may not transpire—involves accepting this gift and learning to love it, even though we may have to acknowledge that it does not come to us without problems. . . . None of us can, or should, regard our difficulties with that form, or with achieving that good, as the norm of what our sexuality is to be.”
Finally, and most importantly, Christianity’s dissent from gender ideology gets to the root of what it means to be free.
We do not believe that freedom is best defined as the absence of limitations or constraints, or the escaping from societal norms. Freedom is not from our bodily constraints, but freedom for life within the grain of the universe, to live in a particular way. Freedom means to flourish within what Marilynne Robinson calls “givenness of things”—accepting certain constraints within which we fulfill the original design God has for us.
Likewise, we do not see nature as something to overcome, or the body as a tool that can or should be shaped however we please in order to fulfill our deeper aspirations or identities.
We believe there are answers to the question: What is the body for? And we do not believe that every answer someone gives to the question “What is the best way for me to flourish within my bodily form?” is equally valid or will lead to human flourishing.
Following from this, we do not seek a world devoid of all judgments, where all choices are seen as good, or where the idea of “norms” is discriminatory. Our vision of human flourishing depends on the willingness and courage to call people to live in line with God’s design. We do this morally, when we discourage a person’s flaws and vices, and we do this physically, when we call people to live in light of God’s design for health.
Today’s buzz words of “stigma” and “shame” and “judgment” would rid us of the notion that we should oppose any part of our neighbor’s personality. But the Christian view is that when we oppose a person’s vices or unhealthy habits, we do so because we love our friend and desire their best. And this vision of what is “best” comes from outside ourselves, not from inside.
This is the fundamental dividing line in our society. Is truth created or given?