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Diet culture complicates Lenten fasting

Honest engagement with embodied experience can lead to a successful fast, says this professor.
Our Faith

Jessica Coblentz relies on firsthand experience of fasting to drive her research questions. She studies what we’re doing as people of faith every Lenten season when we take on a fasting practice. “I have a very vivid memory of being in the school cafeteria eating a little jar of diet yogurt and somebody asking me why I wasn’t eating more for lunch that day,” recalls the assistant professor of religious studies at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana. “I’m fasting for Lent” was the teenager’s simple response.

jessica-coblentz
Courtesy of Jessica Coblentz

But the truth wasn’t really that simple. Like many people—especially women—her practice of fasting was tangled with societal pressure to count calories in order to fit a standard ideal of beauty.

As she began to have more open conversations with other women about their experiences of their bodies, particularly as Catholic women, she realized her use of fasting as a cover for harmful dieting and eating practices was quite common.

It is difficult to discern the difference between the everyday societal pressure to diet and the Lenten spiritual encouragement to fast, but there is an important distinction to be made between these practices in food abstinence. While some suggest the presence of body hatred negates the effectiveness of fasting, Coblentz argues that honest engagement with and sharing of our experiences of embodiment can lead to a successful fast.

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What is Catholic fasting?

Canon law instructs particular practices of fasting but also defers to the authority of local bishops. For Catholics in the United States, that’s the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).

U.S. Catholics are obligated to fast on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and Fridays throughout the Lenten season. Canon law says that the young and old are absolved from this obligation. The USCCB specifies Catholics between the ages of 18 and 59 should abstain from eating typical meals, which means they’re permitted to eat one large meal plus two small meals per day.

Anyone over the age of 14 should not eat meat on Fridays during Lent, and the USCCB defines what it means by meat as well. It instructs also that if you have a mental or physical illness or if you’re pregnant or nursing you’re not bound to these obligations.

Is fasting a popular practice?

A 2016 Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) study of Catholics in the United States found that 62 percent of Catholics say they abstain from eating meat during Lent each year. This is significantly higher than the percentage of Catholics who go to Mass every week or even those who say they go to Mass a couple times a year.

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Why is fasting so popular?

Fasting is a concrete spiritual practice, not unlike receiving ashes on your forehead on Ash Wednesday, which is another very popular practice among Catholics. Some say Ash Wednesday is the busiest liturgical day of the year, and I’ve always thought that maybe it’s the concreteness of it. The demands of Christian life can feel daunting. Comparatively it may be appealing to say, “I can’t always live up to the moral aspirations of the Catholic life, but I can abstain from meat for a few weeks.” The concreteness and the feasibility of that may appeal to people.

A more unfortunate suspicion is that people take on the practice of fasting because it coincides with other interests they have as people in the contemporary United States. We are often encouraged to lose weight or try new health regimens that include adjustments to our diets. The coincidence of Lenten fasting with these other social demands and desires may be another reason why so many people are eager to participate in fasting.

Is fasting different than dieting?

Throughout much of history and in contemporary literature the difference between dieting and fasting comes down to intention. Fasting is meant to be an act of penance that is motivated by a desire to grow closer to God by way of sacrificing food. Dieting is meant to affect one’s health or to change one’s body to conform to society’s beauty ideals.

Like many people—especially women—Jessica Coblentz’s practice of fasting was tangled with societal pressure to count calories in order to fit a standard ideal of beauty.

One thing that concerns me about distinguishing practices of food abstinence in this way is that dieting and fasting are presented as mutually exclusive. If you desire to change the way your body looks through food abstinence, then you can’t possibly do fasting according to this definition, which suggests if you’re really fasting you won’t have any of these desires or you’ll be able to stave them off effectively.

Most women I know and most of the literature on how women in contemporary society experience their bodies suggest that it’s not easy to simply reject all the deeply ingrained pressures to change our bodies to conform to beauty ideals. When Lent arrives and I desire to join with my Catholic community in this ancient spiritual practice of fasting, I can’t just turn off my deeply ingrained desires to alter my body to conform to society’s beauty ideals. This leaves me asking if it is even possible to fast today according to these parameters.

So is it possible?

Yes, but the first step has to be honest conversation in Catholic communities about how complicated abstinence from food is for many people. Even if I’m honest with myself about how complicated fasting is for me as somebody who struggles with body image and the desire to conform to society’s beauty ideals, I still feel a lot of shame about admitting that. I feel this particularly in a religious context where the default message about fasting has been one that suggests I shouldn’t struggle with these things and I should suspend all concerns with beauty in the name of being a good Catholic and fasting with greater purity.

Catholics need to become more comfortable with the ambiguity of our rituals. Theologian Susan Ross observes that there is often a tendency to reduce our ritual experiences to formulas: If you do x and y, then you’re guaranteed z will be the outcome. We often treat fasting this way: If we suspend our worldly desires, focus solely on God, eat only this much, and abstain from these things, then the outcome will be more holiness. That’s not how it works in reality. Our experiences of Christian rituals are more complicated.

If there was more open conversation about the fact that we join together as a community to fast with certain aspirations that are often complicated by the realities of our lives, and that God’s grace can work through fasting as well as other practices that we take on during Lent, regardless of the complications of our lives, that might free us from the shame we often feel when we can’t meet formulaic standards.

Catholics need to become more comfortable with the ambiguity of our rituals.

We should affirm that fasting is a practice that is primarily about deepening our relationship with God. For many people that doesn’t take place in a vacuum apart from struggles with society’s beauty ideals.

What makes a fast successful?

Fasting affirms the way in which our bodies are a medium through which we connect with God.

A successful fast might be one where we join together in this practice of food abstinence with our communities, while also intentionally reflecting on fasting. Our embodied actions might spur us to reflect more honestly and intentionally on the complications of being an embodied being in this place in time and to reflect on that individually as well as communally.

Some Catholics might find that fasting is not actually spiritually edifying, precisely because of all these bodily pressures. There are occasions when a successful fast could result in not fasting anymore.

Sometimes facing the complications of our multiple and conflicting desires while fasting can result in a collective coming to terms with issues of social injustice in our community. A successful fast could result in Catholic communities raising awareness and taking action against the detrimental beauty ideals that pervade our society and church communities.

Is body hatred an individual or a communal issue?

People often talk about body hatred as an individual problem—there’s something wrong with me if I struggle with my body image. Compounding this is shame that people have about how negatively they feel about their bodies.

If we situate our individual experiences of body hatred and shame within the context of society, we start to recognize that the source of these pressures is actually external. Its origins are in a society where we value certain sizes, classes, and races over and against others. Any person who doesn’t fit those ideals is individually made to feel bad about themselves.

The way to fix this is not only to work on our own psyches but also to intentionally and collectively change the way we represent what a good body looks like.

Do standards of beauty affect all people in the same way?

Images of ideal beauty that inculcate us in the United States are not just of generically beautiful women.

The beauty ideal also has ties to particular images of class. Images of beautiful women often include expensive-looking places: bustling downtown areas, beautiful mansions, luxurious beaches. That implies that this person has the money to be in a place like that.

White women are often idealized. If a beautiful woman of color is depicted, her features are often ones that are associated with a white female ideal. Sometimes it’s lighter women of color, which reflects colorism.

Different types of women face different degrees of pressure when it comes to their bodies. Women who are disabled, larger, older, transgender, or of color receive more messages saying that their bodies are a problem for society. These are just a few examples of the ways in which the particularities of different female bodies encourage different types of pressure from society.

We should affirm that fasting is a practice that is primarily about deepening our relationship with God.

If our church communities are going to contend with the social reality of body hatred, we also have to pay attention to the ways that this oppressive reality affects people differently.

Why should Christians care about body hatred?

The incarnation compels Christians to care about bodies. We believe that God took human form, which means that bodies are good. Unlike other philosophies and religions throughout history that believed bodies were obstacles to communion with the divine, the incarnation reveals to us that bodies are not in competition with divinity. Christ was divine and human. This furthers the fundamental Christian teaching that we are made in God’s image and likeness.

Thus Christians have reason to care that many people struggle to feel good about their good bodies and to be concerned about the ways in which the church and society contribute to experiences of body hatred.

How do we make sense of the experiences of saints like Catherine of Siena or Julian of Norwich whose refusal to eat is seen as something holy?

If we tell the stories of these holy women who fasted to extreme measures and don’t use that as a springboard for talking about the implications of that kind of food abstinence for our own culture, then we risk subtly endorsing that kind of extreme disciplining of the body to an unhealthy degree. We should acknowledge it and talk about it. There’s a great deal of scholarship that tries to make sense of this behavior. At least some of it highlights the fact that many of these women lived lives that were so constricted that these extreme bodily practices were some of the few ways they could really engage or pursue the kind of spiritual life they wanted to.

Had these women had more avenues for exploring the Christian spiritual life, then they might not have relied on such extreme measures when it came to fasting. For me that raises questions about whether spiritual practices other than fasting might be more edifying for particular individuals at a given time in their lives. If somebody can’t participate in fasting because they find themselves in a situation where it compromises their health, then they should explore other spiritual practices in our rich Catholic tradition. That exploration should be celebrated as valid and important.

How can people approach fasting within this culture and these problems?

Familiarize yourself with what the church is actually asking us to do when we fast. Many Catholics don’t know that you can still eat a good deal of food when you’re fasting. The knowledge that this doesn’t have to be an extreme practice may be helpful to some people. Likewise, it raises awareness that not fasting for various health reasons is acceptable. Eating disorders are an extreme manifestation of body hatred that can be life threatening. I’ve often wondered whether people know that they are being good and holy Catholics by not participating in fasting when they’re in a situation like that.

The incarnation compels Christians to care about bodies.

Learn more about the goodness and holiness of bodies outside of a practice that asks us to discipline them. Because of the negative messages we get from society about our bodies, it’s important for Catholics to familiarize themselves with the affirmation that the church gives toward our bodies and their inherent goodness to counteract those social messages. The practice of fasting should first and foremost be grounded in an affirmation of our bodies, not a negation or a criticism of them.

Approach Lenten fasting as an opportunity to raise individual and collective awareness about your own complicated experiences of embodiment, the church’s affirming teaching on the body, and the church’s concern for oppressive body ideals in our society. Fasting can be accompanied by awareness and conversation about how people are experiencing their practice and greater education about the social reality of body hatred that often complicates it.

What are some examples of how people can raise that awareness?

Take our communities’ Lenten practices—such as fish fries or seasonal faith-sharing groups—that are meant to collectively engage people participating in fasting, spiritual reflection, and renewal and use those events to educate the community about the goodness of the body from a Catholic perspective. Encourage people to share information and resources about body hatred, oppression, and beauty ideals in society. People are already gathering for these events, so use them as sites for education about social injustice.

Create space for honest discussion about people’s experiences of fasting, raise education, and mobilize collective action in response to oppressive beauty ideals. Even outside of the Lenten season parishes can facilitate reflection on the ways in which communities perpetuate harmful beauty ideals through the images in their sanctuaries, on their websites, and in their church bulletins. Does your parish website reflect a range of races, classes, abilities, genders, body sizes, and ethnicities?

The more that we in our local communities celebrate the diversity of bodies—all of their shapes and sizes—the more we will send a message that we don’t stand for the negative messaging about bodies that pervades our society.


This article also appears in the March 2021 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 86, No. 3, page 26-29). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.

Image: Unsplash/Kamil Szumotalski

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