The Fat Jesus: Feminist Explorations in Boundaries and Transgressions

Rachel Muers on a work about the vital religious issues played out in women’s relationship to food

March 27, 2008

Lisa Isherwood’s has been one of the most important voices in the development of “body theology” as a form of Christian political theology. Perhaps best known for her work on sexuality and eros, in this book she turns her attention to another powerful site of embodied desire and the struggle to control it – food.

The multiple symbolic importance of food in Christian history has, Isherwood notes, been underrated and under-researched, and as a result we may not always recognise the extent to which theological themes play themselves out in the ostensibly “secular” worlds of food marketing, the diet industry and discussions of obesity and anorexia.

Isherwood presents a theological critique of what she perceives as a theological as well as a political and a social problem – the troubled relationship of women with food and their bodies, and society’s problem (it seems) with fat women. The fat body, Isherwood suggests, is read as the insufficiently controlled body, the “sinful” body, the body that is too material to be spiritual, the body that fails every test. Against this perception of the fat body she offers the image of the Fat Jesus – the Jesus in whose body boundaries are broken down, and fears of one’s own body and others’ bodies are overcome.

One of the most interesting – and disturbing – sections is Isherwood’s discussion of the multimillion-dollar Christian diet industry in the US. Programmes such as “Slim for Him” and the “Weigh Down Diet”, marketed extensively to (in particular) white, middle-class, Protestant women, explicitly connect bodily and spiritual states, in part by literalising scriptural references to (for example) the “narrow gate” to heaven and the evils of “flesh”. Isherwood uncovers some of the deeper assumptions that shape these programmes and that also appear to shape “secular” dieting regimes aimed at women – the individualisation and depoliticisation of food and eating, the links made between desirability or worth and the suppression of one’s own desires, and the background presence of a watching and judging male figure.

As Isherwood notes, most discussions of obesity, dieting, food marketing and so forth go on in the West without attention to the wider economic and social context of food. Global food distribution, the conditions of food production, or even the sharing of food with neighbours, are not concerns for the dieter, Christian or “secular”, who is encouraged to be concerned solely about the shape of her own body. Here Isherwood sees potential for alternative theologies of food that emphasise shared feasting, communities of eating, and food that tastes sweet because it is produced and distributed justly.

This is a fascinating but often frustrating book to read. Writing for a general as well as an academic readership, and covering an enormous amount of material in a little space, Isherwood seems to assume prior knowledge of or sympathy with many aspects of her earlier work – for example, her reading of the incarnation as demanding a countercultural “body theology”, and her analysis of the relationship between Christianity and patriarchy. She also makes sweeping generalisations – most notably about “the Church Fathers”, condemned en masse as villains of the piece – without space in which to qualify or defend them. Major theological and political claims crowd in upon each other, and upon

the multiple examples of contemporary attitudes to food and diet, without much space for discussion. The general reader excited by the subject matter may be put off by the breathless presentation; the student may be frustrated by the relative paucity of references for some of the significant claims. Nonetheless, the issues in this book are vital and underrated and Isherwood is ideally placed to raise them. Her work will spark debate, and may begin a much-needed revival of interest in the religious dimensions of the contemporary culture and politics of food.

The Fat Jesus: Feminist Explorations in Boundaries and Transgressions

By Lisa Isherwood
Darton Longman & Todd
158pp, £12.95
ISBN 9780232526387
Published 25 January 2008

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