I noticed a pattern during the 12 years I spent in my last ward. Cute newly wed girls and guys would get temple married and start their lives together. Then as the kids came along and the callings piled up they would gain weight, often times worse for the females. At least it seemed so from my definitely male perspective. I began to wonder if church made you fat. Over and over again, both with and without babies being born, the most valiant members, you know, the ones doing all the work in ward council and on committees. They would put on weight year after year, my wife and I included.
These observations came at a point in my life when I was beginning to question the validity of the teachings of the church. A very good friend of mine, a personal trainer, nutritionist and fellow mormon pointed out how some of the Word of Wisdom teachings actually contradicted the latest health science findings. Particularly regarding the benefits of things like moderate coffee and wine drinking. The WoW certainly promotes eating lots and lots of grains (known these days as carbs) and discourages protein (at least in the form of meat). Something completely contrary to most modern diet plans.
As my wife and I left behind our religion and approached nutrition from a non WoW perspective we both started losing weight, in fact we each lost over 60 lbs. Who would have thunk it? A daily cup of coffee turns out to be far more healthy than extracting that caffeine out of it and mixing it up in 64 ounces of diet coke. Cut out those carbs, eat more protein, add in a little exercise and you are well on your way to looking and feeling great! All pretty much by doing the opposite of what the word of wisdom says.
So my observations and my personal experience support the idea that church does indeed make you fat. However being an armchair theorist, I had to try and figure out why. Here are my thoughts.
Being a stalwart member of the church is a demanding undertaking. The church requires a lot of sacrifice. Even doctrinally it expects you to put the church above all else in your life including your own person. When you do so the community sees that and encourages it. The selfless member is lauded and appreciated for their sacrifice. The relief society president that goes to all the homes is gossiped about (in a good way) for her efforts. What happens is this. Slowly, week by week, year by year the church steals away your self esteem. The underlying message is that each and every member is nothing without the church. So as you work harder and sacrifice more, you lose more of your own person and replace it with the person of the church. Hell, on the female side of it they call it the Mormon Mom Syndrome. Personally I think it hits women harder for two reasons, one it is a very patriarchal society, and two I suspect some gene on that the extra X chromosome leads to a tendency to compare yourself more to others rather evaluating yourself on your own merits.
So with all this work and effort, even ignoring your own health for the church, its no wonder that a few pounds start packing on. That is the beginning of the self confidence spiral. One day you look in the mirror and you don’t like what you see, next week at church though people treat you great and are very nice, complementing you on your church efforts. Over time your self esteem becomes based entirely on your faithfulness in the religion. You see once religion has stolen your self-esteem, it ransoms it back to you for renewed devotion to the cause. It’s a no win spiral down into an unacknowledged depression driven by cognitive dissonance and an effort to be a perfect saint.
This is certainly a topic that is likely to incite many who read it. Especially if you are a true believer and can’t imagine even remotely the possibility the damage I am talking about. I believe there is merit to the discussion and at some level even the most devout Mormon mom’s realize the pressure that is felt to be the perfect member.
I once posted this bit of information on Facebook:
Cindy Mann, who lives in Logan, said after 15 years of taking antidepressants and not feeling better, she finally quit in July. Today she encourages others to do likewise, but she’s pessimistic. ‘It’s like Happy Valley here,’ she said, describing the Salt Lake Valley. ‘It’s a scary place sometimes. People don’t talk about their problems. Everything is always rosy. That’s how we got ourselves into this mess‑‑we’re good at ignoring things.’ 1
That post lit off a firestorm of comments, several females declaring loudly that sure there were high expectations from the church and at times they felt depressed, but vehemently denying that there was any possibility it could be connected to their unhappiness.
“The lady doth protest too much, methinks” is what came to mind as I waded through the comments. It made me sad to watch them defend the very institution that I thought was responsible for the depression we were discussing. The very same depression that they all acknowledged feeling from time to time. Ironically church claims to have the answer to this issue, Jesus himself said come to me and your burdens would be light. Why is it religion has been linked to chronic depression? Either the chronically depressed seek out solace in religion, or religion is causing it. I am of the opinion it is more likely the latter. Mormons aren’t alone in this either, sure they are a perfectionist religion that drives relentlessly after personal worthiness. But I realized that church making you fat by stealing your entire world view happens in all faiths when I saw this video.
Look at her and imagine where she gets her self-esteem from? Do you think it might be her religion? I do.
Now if it were all true, if Mormons are the only religion to get it right on this planet and if this sacrifice demanded now really did give you a forever family, I’d be first to line up and do what was needed for such a great reward. The fact is I did it for 44 years believing exactly that to be the case. However, if it is just a good club to belong to and a place to get your social fix… might I suggest Crossfit instead? The monthly dues are far cheaper and from personal experience I can see it has given my wife true self-esteem. Not some stepford wives appearance of it, but an actual physical change that helps her view herself in a positive light.
Don’t let an institution that is more worried about the bottom line, than its doctrine; that spends more money on malls than its own members. Don’t let them steal your self-esteem only to sell it back to you. Check the facts behind the promises, look up the claims they are making and see if you should really invest. Because one day they will market their dream to your daughter. To a young woman it is a beautiful enthralling idea of a forever marriage in a beautiful castle that is the promise for the servitude that is required. If that dream isn’t really theirs to make good on, you just might want to warn your little girl that church makes you fat.
While looking for an appropriate picture for this post, I stumbled onto this article, and this one too. Turns out I wasn’t the first to notice this correlation and some real research (as opposed to my pontificating) has been done on the topic. Also of note as I was discussing this topic with my wife, whenever we have to deal with subbing and shunning from family that still believe over the fact we are now considered apostates. Cravings to eat a whole box of Oreos kick in hard. Even having left church behind over a year ago, it is still trying to make us fat, and its not just the jello salad with funeral potatoes…
- Los Angeles Times, Feb. 20, 2002, “Study Finds Utah Leads Nation in Antidepressant Use,” by Julie Cart ↩
thank you for your blog. resonates with me a ton. no pun intended. people need to wise up and start thinking for themselves! reformed and FREE at last! anon in UT 🙂
Absolutely agree with you!
But the phenomenon doesn’t have to wait until motherhood to hit.
I was overweight for all of my teenage years and into my early 20s. Now since leaving the church I have lost over 25 pounds. I know that leaving the church has been a major factor in my ability to lose weight and be more confident with my body. It’s hard to put a finger on exactly what it was about the church that kept me fat for so many years, but I think it had something to do with an almost subconscious fear of being attractive. I didn’t want males looking at me and having sexual thoughts. It was easier to remain “righteous,” dress modestly, etc, when I was so uncomfortable with my body. During that period of time I told myself that I wanted to lose weight, I tried to go to the gym or eat better, but there was always something holding me back.
Since leaving the church and suddenly shedding pounds, I can now see clearly that the church had a powerful impact on how I chose to take care of my body. I still don’t choose to flaunt my body now, but the thoughts of a man looking at me and thinking I have a nice body isn’t scary anymore, and it isn’t evil. I’m not responsible for what men think when they look at me. I’m responsible for taking care of my health and feeling good about myself. And if men are attracted to me, what’s the problem?
If you are asked if you obey the WoW : overweight meat-eaters can say yes, but coffee or beer drinkers must say NO. Why do they even ask if you obey the WoW? Why not just ask if you drink coffee, tea or alcohol? Pick and choose which doctrine is the proper doctrine to follow… for now. Alcohol wasn’t even a temple question until the 1933- right in the midst of prohibition, but ask FAIR and they say it’s because the members needed 100 years to prepare for the doctrine to be fully implemented.
FAIRs only job is to try and make sense of the status quo, that is the job of any apologetic, truth and logic take second seat to the need to defend.
I remember the time I was reading the WoW and looked at the justification that ‘hot drinks’ are tea and coffee because those were the hot drinks when the revelation was given. If you do a little of that same historical research about the ‘drinks of grain’ that are all fine and dandy in the WoW, you discover that is beer. The rub is you can’t make sense of it no matter how you slice it up. Just another sign it is just men making it up as they go along.
I love love love that you mention the correlation between weight, depression, and being a “good saint”.
I was the ultimate Mormon Mom of the Millennium for nearly 9 years. I’ve got stories to tell. Perhaps I’ll work up the nerve to tell them! 🙂
Thanks for the validation and honest expression of what it’s REALLY like living under scrutiny of the ideal Mormon Housewife.
Hey Profet, I completely agree with you. I do believe that devotion to religion causes other aspects of life to be neglected (or altogether ignored).
I have been a consistent exerciser and whole-food-adherent since college, but I frequently felt guilt over the fact that I was able to spend 10 hours a week at the gym, but TOTALLY unable to stick with personal scripture study, prayers, FHE, etc. I always felt bad for focusing on my vanity!
My point is that even if you are a Mormon who DOES value and prioritize fitness, you’ll likely be dealing with tremendous guilt for not being devoted enough to the church; there are only so many hours in a day!
I ALWAYS felt “unworthy,” as a Mormon; ineffective as a mother, and quite low on the social ladder of the ward, regardless of how “fit” I was, or how well regarded I was by the Young Women or the primary kids I was teaching.
I’ve struggled with low self-esteem throughout adulthood, and while I recognize that many factors are involved in the formation of self-identity (genetics, socio-economic class, etc), I absolutely believe that my feelings of inadequacy were grossly compounded by the teachings and attitudes of the church. Having been out for nearly two years now, I can say with complete sincerity that I am much more balanced, confident, and happy.
Yep, the church definitely makes you a fatter, or more depressed, or more guilt-ridden version of yourself… And it’s not good.
“…and two, I suspect some gene on that extra X chromosome leads to a tendency to compare yourself more to others rather evaluating yourself on your own merits.”
…No. No, that’s also patriarchy. Also… it’s not an *extra* X chromosome. Both are required. 🙂
You are right, forgive me, purging the patriarchy that has been engrained for 44 years takes time 🙂
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