If you happened to grow up in a Christian household that observed Lent, you are probably familiar with the idea of “giving up” something during this period of 40 days (46, counting Sundays) between Ash Wednesday and Easter. Tradition has it that the 40 days of Lent represent the 40 days that Jesus Christ was tempted by the devil (Mark 1:12-13, Luke 4:1-13, Matthew 4:1-11), though there are many passages throughout the Hebrew Bible and New Testament that have a theme of 40 days of sojourning into the wilderness for some reason or other (see, Moses, the wanderings of the Israelites, etc.). People in diverse strains of Christianity practice giving something up as a way to make space in their lives to pay more attention to God and God’s call in their lives. Many see giving up something, food and drink in particular, as a way of purifying the temple of the body as a reminder of the importance of Jesus’ body that was to be broken for the salvation of the world. Yet others find it helpful to give up something because it’s a good once-a-year slap in the face to recover your yet-to-be-started New Year’s resolutions (yeah, we’ve all been there).
If you didn’t grow up in a Christian household observing Lent, you are probably either thinking
1) what in the world am I reading this for?
2) so THAT’S why I could never watch TV during the month of March
or 3) I enjoy when my Christian friends do this because I get all their chocolate and/or wine (for you who are of age, of course).
However, there are some darker sides to this seemingly benign liturgical practice of forgoing treats which you habitually enjoy. The way that some people practice Lent is focused very much on penance, on repenting of your sins and thus punishing yourself by giving up things which you enjoy, mostly falling into the categories of Sweets, Alcohol, Meat, and Chocolate (yes, it gets its own category…duh). Though I am generally a fan of dwelling in the shadowy parts of our faith, exploring fear and doubt and spiritual silence as a way of getting to know the different sides of God, I do not wish to perpetuate any damaging thinking arising from theologically reflecting about punishment and food shaming.
In United States American culture, food is fraught with positive and negative connotations reaching from warm community dinners to the rising prevalence of food-related self-harm diseases, such as anorexia and bulimia. In a certain way, giving up food we usually enjoy cannot only have the side effect of making us a wee bit healthier for 40 days (no one gives up “salad” or “beans” for Lent, amirite?), but it can also attach painful ideas about shame and controlling one’s urges/desires under the guise of being a spiritual practice, and can trigger emotional responses to these very serious diseases.
Food and how we eat is also gendered. Men don’t want to order “girly” drinks at bars, and women feel weird drinking “man’s beer” and are often worried about how much food they can eat on a first date so they don’t “look like a glutton.” How many times have I been told that I should only order a salad on a first date? A ridiculous amount of times. I’ll eat whatever I feel like eating, thank you very much. And so will he. (or she/they/whoever you like to date). Preparation of food is another place where gender intervenes; many girls and women are taught that the place for them is in the kitchen and are expected to make the bacon after the men bring it home…and it’s 2016?!
Another important aspect of our culture’s relationship to food is fat-shaming. It’s dangerous and a socially accepted version of shaming. There are multiple projects that are dedicated to fat acceptance, some showcasing what folks who identify as “fat” go through when eating something (ice cream, donut, etc.) that thin people around them disapprove of. Also, have you ever verbally slurred someone by saying, “Oh, you look so good, did you lose weight?” or slurred yourself by saying, “Damn, I look so fat today. No one is going to find me attractive.” Beauty and desirability and fitness for life or a relationship have 0, that’s right 0 things to do with what people eat/how they eat/how their bodies process food and store fat. All the numbers on the scale can read “beautiful creation and child of God.” Check out these cool resources about fat shaming and fat acceptance. (Fat Acceptance and Body Love: http://theadipositivityproject.zenfolio.com/; http://www.haleymorriscafiero.com/; http://thebodyisnotanapology.com/magazine/tag/weight-size/; http://ineedfatacceptance.tumblr.com/.)
For these reasons, I’m going to encourage us to spend this Lent being a bit more intentional about what we are “giving up,” if indeed we choose that route. A dear friend of mine from college always “took on” a new practice instead of “giving up” something, though she did try to abstain from desserts. This “taking on” took the form of a new volunteer project, a self-improvement task of not gossiping but sharing joys, and learning how to knit. So, your Lenten practice can take a lot of different forms, but I want to encourage you to join me in rethinking our relationship with food during the next 40 days.
Here are some ways to think about this practice:
What is your favorite food? why is it your favorite? are there nostalgic memories attached to this food? or is it simply delicious?
Have you ever been shamed for eating/not eating something? reflect and journal about that time in your life and how it has affected you afterwards
Have you ever gone on a diet? What was that decision like? What did you notice in your body differently while you were on a diet? How do you see diets portrayed in USAmerican culture?
What have you always wanted to know about food? Wondered where it comes from? How does it get from farm to table? Take some time and research something that interests you!
That sound like a lot? Here are some (easy-ish) practical things you can do:
- Keep a journal! Write down how you feel, what you are thinking and how you are keeping track of your body over this time.
- Interview people around you about their relationship to food.
- Try to cook for yourself more throughout this Lent.
- Jesus eats A LOT in the Bible. Find some of these passages and read them with friends over a meal once a week during Lent.
If you feel like you want to embark upon this journey with me, please let me know and keep me updated on how you are thinking/feeling. Write to me, post on this blog, follow me on Instagram, do whatever y’all feel like doing to keep in touch and build a community around re-imagining abstinence/sweet deprivation/etc. over this holy season of communal retreat.