Fat Jesus and the Desire to be Thin
Things I don’t allow myself to eat, in no particular order:
Cheese. Bread. Crisps. Cake. All sweets. Nut butters. Full-fat dairy. The skin off roast chicken. Chocolate. Fizzy drinks. Pancakes. McDonalds. Mayonnaise.
This isn’t an exhaustive list, just the first things that come to mind because these things are always on my mind, due to the fact that I’ve catastrophised their impact upon my body and therefore obsess about them almost daily. For a woman who is known on Twitter as the Church of England’s lay minister for snacks, this is probably surprising news. I can just see the headline now: ‘Lay Snack Minister doesn’t even Eat Snacks!’ This article will ruin me.
Ok, so it’s preferable for me to admit that I do sometimes eat these things but when I do it’s always with a colossal portion of guilt on the side. Such is the reality of a life of disordered eating, which for a period in my younger years included full-blown anorexia.
I’ll start at the beginning
Way back in the 1980s, when parents gave scant disregard to things like E Numbers, clean eating or wholefoods, I was a slightly tubby kid. I enjoyed Wagon Wheels, orange Club biscuits, and bags of 10p mix from the corner shop. Meals at home included Eighties classics like Findus crispy pancakes, homemade chips from the deep-fat fryer, Campbells meatballs, and Heinz tinned puddings.
My mother expressed horror when I inexplicably wasn’t skinny like she had been as a child, or reed-thin like my very sporty brother. My joy at being asked to be a bridesmaid at my uncle’s wedding was diminished by her comment that unless I stopped eating so much I would ‘be waddling down the aisle.’ This was when I first consciously started to not eat when I was hungry, something which is popularly known as going on a diet. I was eight years old.
To be fair to my mum, she didn’t develop her rampant hatred of fatness out of thin air, if you’ll pardon the pun. As a young teen, she can recall being scolded by her father for her ‘fat legs’ as he bemoaned that they ‘were nothing like your mothers. She’s always had great legs.’ There’s so much wrong with that sentence it’s probably worth an essay all by itself, but the point being, mum learned, as all women learn, that to not be thin is a crime against womanhood. People guilty of this crime will be punished by being shamed and bullied. We all know this and that’s why to be fat is sometimes seen as the worst thing a woman can be.
A lasting impression
I can’t recall how successful this first diet was, but an operation I had at age nine made far more of a lasting impression. I was an in-patient for over two weeks and lost a fair bit of weight due to having to consume an all-liquid diet. The aftermath of this would live long in my memory; I was no longer fat, or ‘plump’ as my brother called me, but very thin and was fulsomely praised for it. How much better I looked and how well I had done. How I had finally shed my puppy fat. An unassailable truth burrowed into my prepubescent brain and settled like a cancer; to be thin was righteous and to be a fat female was a sin. I have spent my entire life trying not to be her.
My early experiences of Christianity, as an atheist in a Catholic school, did little to nurture faith or a healthy attitude to my body. My Catholic secondary school contained enough suffering Christ iconography to dangerously entangle Christianity with pain and anguish. The Christ of my school years represented the brutal reality of crucifixion; naked except for a loincloth draped about his bony hips; ribs protruding obscenely, his skeletal face etched with agony. Years later I would starve myself until my own ribs were visible, and I would remember this emaciated Jesus and feel virtuous in my shrunken body. My empty stomach echoed with hunger pangs which felt holy.
Years have passed. Four children later and at an age where these things ought to matter less, I confess that while the pursuit of thinness doesn’t dominate me like it once did, the discomfort of living with a body that falls short of this mythical ideal is still very real. This is a mental health issue that for me somehow exists beneath the radar of my self-esteem and confidence; I know that I am loved, and I appreciate my body for all the wonderful things it is capable of. Through it all, she has been a faithful friend, when I have repaid her with prolonged starvation and loathing. I have treated my dog with more loving care than I have at times shown to myself. If I was my own best friend I would cease all contact due to behaviour that has been toxic and relentlessly unkind. I would have nothing to do with me.
Jesus with me
Into this wounded headspace comes Jesus, but a radically different Jesus to the one whose tortured image haunts my teenage years. And because Jesus both was and is, I can imagine a fat Jesus, one whose flesh overflows in ripe abundance, who has meaty arms big enough and squishy enough to enfold me, and a lap so voluminous that it can seat all of me comfortably. I need not fret that I am too heavy for he is strong enough to take the load.
I want to imagine the colossal Jesus so beautifully depicted in Stanley Spencer’s artwork, or the paintings by Fernando Botero. This is a Jesus who is so monumental and all-encompassing that he can envelop all fears, all worries, all hurts. This Jesus is profuse with power and bountiful with loving kindness. Here is my body, he says, and he shows me the beauty of my own, for he has declared it good.
There are some hurts that will not be healed in this earthly life, and we must live with them. So it is with me; some parts are too broken to be repaired without seamless cracks. There is a small kernel of worthlessness that exists deep in the centre of my soul, but God cradles it in his hands, and for now, this is enough. This is my reality: I am an online snack minister and it’s still easier to talk about food than it is to eat it.
Jayne Manfredi, 04/03/2022