Shameful Bodies: 7 Questions for Michelle Mary Lelwica

In our interview series, “Seven Questions,” we ask some very smart people about what inspires them and how their latest work enhances our understanding of the sacred in cultural life. For this segment, we solicited responses from Michelle Mary Lelwica, author of Shameful Bodies: Religion and Culture of Physical Improvement (Bloomsbury Academic, 2017)

1) What sparked the idea for writing this book?

This may sound strange, but my body sparked the idea for writing Shameful Bodies. Long story short: I was diagnosed with severe osteoarthritis in my left hip when I was 47 years old. The doctors told me the only remedy for the chronic pain I’d been experiencing was a total hip replacement—something I was utterly loath to do. So I continued living with increasing pain for several years, until I couldn’t stand it anymore, at which point I finally went through with the surgery. During those years of living with inescapable pain, I was thoroughly frustrated with my body. I’d taken good care of it in my adult life, and I felt as though my flesh had betrayed me. I was mad that I couldn’t control the pain—not just mad, but also vaguely embarrassed, as if it were somehow a sign of some internal weakness. These feelings reminded me of how I’d felt about my body as a teenager, when I had an eating disorder. On one level, the situations were really different since my desire to control my middle-aged body-in-pain had nothing to do with my adolescent desire to be skinny. But on another level, the feeling of wanting to control or escape my body was very familiar. This similarity made me wonder how diverse body issues like weight and chronic pain/illness are connected. What broader cultural/religious narratives foster the idea that we can and should control our bodies? And what are the consequences of this idea for people whose bodies refuse to obey?

In many ways, Shameful Bodies builds on and expands my previous work on eating disorders and body image problems by examining a broader range of physical issues, including disability, chronic pain and illness, and aging (in addition to weight)—all of which involve somatic experiences that we can’t totally control. Essentially, the book asks readers to think about what happens to them internally when their bodies refuse to look, function, or feel the way they think they are supposed to look, function, or feel. For many people, what happens is shame. Rather than critique the culture that makes us feel bad about our own bodies and that encourages us to make judgments about other people’s bodies, we often direct our judgments at ourselves—and at other noncompliant, nonconforming bodies.

My analysis in Shameful Bodies encourages readers to redirect this critical attention by interrogating religious/cultural norms and narratives that encourage this sense of physical inadequacy, the sense that there’s something wrong with your body, something you should be able to control or fix—whether in the form of a chronic health problem such as cancer, various ailments related to aging, a physical disability, unwanted weight gain, or some other body “problem.” The book encourages this critical perspective by examining American culture’s preoccupation with body improvement, the dominant fantasies of physical perfection that orient the quest for improvement, the traditional religious and philosophical narratives embedded in this quest, and the shame many people experience as a byproduct of their particular body’s refusal to live up to the normative ideal.  

2) How would you define religion in relation to your work? Where do you see the sacred or sacred things in this book?

I use a fluid, functional definition of religion throughout the book. In this understanding, “religion” is a concept that brings into focus various systems of beliefs, stories, and behaviors through which people create/discover meaning in life. This view highlights the human origins and historic functions of religion. Throughout history, people have created and turned to religions in an effort to understand their lives and seek fulfillment against the backdrop of mystery, uncertainty, and “big questions” (e.g., What is the purpose of human life? Why is there suffering and what can we do about it? etc.). Through their diverse teachings, images, rituals, myths, and moral codes, religions give their members a shared and deeply felt sense of what’s most important in life, an ultimate purpose and perspective in relation to which everything is experienced and understood.

This understanding suggests that religion is defined not by unique characteristics that distinguish it from nonreligious parts of society, but by the role it plays in helping people cultivate a sense of ultimate meaning and providing a set of guidelines and tools for pursuing that sacred truth. This fluid, functional definition of religion blurs the boundaries between “religion” and “culture,” “spiritual” and “secular,” “sacred” and “profane.” In so doing it allows us to recognize the meaning-giving, quasi-religious aspects of seemingly nonreligious phenomena—like the stories, images, rituals, moral codes, and salvation myths that comprise the culture of physical improvement. Understanding the distinction between “spiritual” and “material” as porous (rather than solid) illuminates the body’s central role in the production of religious meaning—something scholars in the field of affect studies have been exploring.

In Shameful Bodies, I examine the hidden role of religion (especially traditional Christianity) in the culture of physical improvement in four intersecting ways:

  • I examine how the popular devotion to physical improvement in developed Western societies serves what has historically been a religious function: the creation and pursuit of what Paul Tillich referred to as an “ultimate concern”;
  • I identify three traditional Christian narratives that are recycled in the secular salvation myth of somatic improvement: 1) the body’s pivotal role in redemption; 2) the body’s long-standing association with women; and 3) the body’s anticipated perfection in the Resurrection.
  • I highlight how some aspects of the culture of physical improvement resemble certain features of traditional Christianity—i.e., beliefs, images, rituals, and moral codes that encourage us to cultivate health, happiness, and healing (“salvation”) by eradicating our physical “defects”;
  • I consider what the popularity of the goal of a better body reveals about our existential (or spiritual) needs for a sense of agency, purpose, and unconditional acceptance

In short, my analysis highlights the various ways that traditional religion is implicated in the culture of physical improvement. None of the body issues the book explores (i.e. aging, weight, illness, pain, disability) have been peripheral or neutral topics in the history of Christian theology. Moreover, since the modern period, traditional Christian views of “the body” as disobedient, unpredictable, and in need of taming have combined with more modern (Cartesian) notions of the “self” as an unencumbered, autonomous individual to create a fantasy of the ideal body/self that is not just desirable, but achievable.        

As an alternative to the popular pursuit of physical improvement, which is typically predicated on the conquest of unruly, non-conforming flesh, I construct an approach to health and healing that honors the diversity, fragility, intelligence, and impermanence of embodied life. This approach draws on the works of diverse feminist scholars of religion, some Western Buddhist teachers, and the stories of those who have wrestled with various body ailments and who through that wrestling have reconciled with the vulnerability, nonconformity, transformation, and finitude of their bodies. The energy of the sacred is apparent in these stories. It’s manifest, for example, in the experience of Audre Lorde, who refuses to wear a prosthetic breast in the wake of her mastectomy because she feels that doing so would diminish the profound difference that breast cancer has made in her life—i.e., the lessons her illness taught her about speaking out against injustice, about the power of solidarity that honors diversity, about the bravery of women who refuse to buy into their role as decorative objects, about the agency it takes to stop fighting what you can’t control. I also see the sacred in Harriet McBryde Johnson’s refusal to be turned into an object of pity or a freakish spectacle, despite the nonconforming appearance of her disabled body—a body that emanates intelligence, dignity, and beauty even as it sits slumped over in a wheelchair because of a muscle-wasting disease. I see this embrace of somatic diversity and impermanence as sacred; I see the agency of letting go as sacred; I see these and other stories and actions that challenge our culture’s somatic hierarchy and the shaming gaze it fosters as sacred.

3) Can you summarize the three key points you’d like the reader to walk away with when finished?

First, I’d like the book to spark readers’ recognition that shame is not a natural response to being physically impaired, fat, chronically sick, and/or old. Rather, it’s a culturally conditioned reaction that reflects a confluence of religious and philosophical narratives that associate virtue with a body that’s under control—a body epitomized in the commercially-fabricated fantasy of physical perfection that pervades popular culture and that undergirds many mainstream medical and self-help discourses on health and healing.

Second, I’d like the book’s analysis of the culture of physical improvement to trigger readers’ curiosity about the multiple ways traditional religious norms and narratives are recycled in seemingly secular forms of culture. This implies that even people who do not identify as religious, and even discourses that claim to be entirely secular, are nonetheless influenced by the beliefs, images, rituals, moral codes, and salvation myths of traditional religion. In short, I hope the book leaves readers pondering the hidden role of religion in the feelings they have and the judgments they make about unconventional bodies (their own and others’).

Third, I hope the book makes visible how discourses that are supposed to help us “improve” our health and healing can often be very damaging. This becomes apparent when you start to recognize the antagonistic approach to physical improvement that commercial, medical, and self-help discourses commonly encourage. Notice, for example, the colonial paradigm implicit in familiar calls for us to blast belly fat, fight cancer, conquer chronic pain, triumph over disability, defy aging and banish wrinkles. Once we recognize the controlling/conforming mentality that pervades the culture of physical improvement, we can begin to think about alternative approaches to health and healing—ones that honor the inescapable diversity, impermanence, interdependence, and finitude of embodied life.

4) Who were intellectual models or inspirations for you as you wrote this book?

In the acknowledgements to Shameful Bodies, I thank my three primary graduate school mentors at Harvard Divinity School—Drs. Margaret Miles, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, and (the late) Gordon Kaufman—who have had an indelible influence on my thinking. More broadly, I owe an enormous intellectual debt to feminist scholars of religion, as well as postcolonial scholars, disabilities scholars, and (most recently) fat studies scholars. My search for an alternative approach to health and healing has also been shaped by the work of some Buddhist authors. While I’m neither a Buddhist nor a scholar of Buddhism, I have found the ideas and practices of some Buddhist teachers to be fruitful for exploring the challenge of living fully and peacefully in a body that is prone to change and destined to perish.

At the risk of oversimplifying, I guess you could say that these thinkers and schools of thought have helped me recognize two distinct paradigms of religion that permeate the pages of Shameful Bodies. One paradigm views religion as answer giving, rule oriented, individualistic, anti body, other-worldly, triumphalist, exclusive, judgmental, and controlling. The other sees religion as question-raising, meaning seeking, diversely communal, this-worldly, body affirming, earth loving, process oriented, and transformative. Whereas the religion-as-controlling paradigm promotes the energy of fight or flight (i.e. we must either conquer adversity or escape it), the religion-as- transformative paradigm fosters the energy of presence, which enables us to metabolize difficulty and loss in ways that open our hearts, sharpen our critical thinking, and deepen our sense of accountability to others. Religion’s ambiguous potential to foster body shame or health/healing makes it part of the problem, and part of the solution. 

5) What was the most difficult thing about writing the book? Did you encounter any unexpected problems or challenges?

One of the most challenging parts of developing my argument was nuancing my critique of the culture of physical improvement. After all, here I am critiquing the “fix-it” mentality that pervades this culture, when I myself have enjoyed the pain-relieving benefits of having a total hip replacement! This apparent contradiction forced me to think more carefully about what it is about mainstream approaches to a “better body” that I find to be problematic. Eventually, I realized that my critique targets a specific storyline about physical improvement: one that serves the interests of global capitalism; one whose iconography creates a hierarchy of bodies that reinforce social inequities; one whose moral codes and body norms foster judgment and aggression toward people whose bodies don’t resemble the singular ideal; one whose language and rituals tell us we can/should control and efface the idiosyncrasies of our particular bodies; ones that deny the vulnerability, diversity, interdependence, and limits of embodied life, thereby encouraging us to feel estranged from (or at war with) our own flesh. My critique also challenges both the notion of “self” that the salvation myth of physical perfection promotes (i.e., Descartes’ sovereign, unencumbered, self-sufficient individual), and the more-better-faster culture the ideal body/self represents.

6) What’s the most unexpected response, critical or positive, that you’ve gotten about the book?

Because the topics I discuss in Shameful Bodies touch my own life in various and immediate ways, I became deeply engrossed in the issues I was exploring. Everywhere I looked I saw connections to what I was writing and thinking about—evidence of our culture’s obsession with physical improvement, of the colonial rhetoric and strategies used to promote this improvement, of the lingering religious and philosophical narratives hidden in the moralizing quest for a “better body”—and I started thinking that the connections I was making were too obvious to be writing a book about them. But when I had students in my “Body Politics” class read parts of the book last semester, I was surprised to find that in fact my analysis was making them think about body issues in ways they never had before. Though most of them had first-hand knowledge of the struggle that often ensues when your body refuses to comply with the normative ideal, few had any experience with thinking critically about the social/cultural/religious underpinnings of their seemingly “personal” struggles.

I was also pleasantly surprised to discover that the students in this class—all of whom were able-bodied, physical healthy, and young—were nonetheless interested in body issues they had never experienced. They recognized the challenges experiences of disability, chronic pain and illness, and aging create in a culture that tells you that you can/should control your body. For example, some of them related ideas from the chapter on physical disabilities to their own struggles with what they referred to as “invisible disabilities,” such as anxiety and depression. They identified and critiqued the Cartesian notions of selfhood that they saw as contributing to the shame they felt and the stigma surrounding these mental health struggles. Because body shame in some form or another is such a common experience, my hope is that the book can trigger similar critical thinking—including both self-examination and cultural critique—among a broad variety of people.

I’d say that the part of the book that some people have found to be most challenging is the chapter that deals with fat shame. In this chapter, I engage ideas and insights from the field of fat studies—an academic field that generally challenges widespread assumptions and stereotypes that many Americans take for granted: that fat people can and should lose weight; that fat bodies are unhealthy, ugly, lazy, out-of-control, etc. Some readers have told me they’re not comfortable with challenging these stereotypes because they fear doing so promotes irresponsible eating and exercise habits. I’m not surprised by this response because there’s so much misinformation about the relationship between weight and health circulating in popular culture today, and because the myth that you can control your body is deeply entrenched, and because explicit and implicit hostility toward people whose bodies are heavier than average is sadly socially acceptable. My own response to such skepticism about fat acceptance is to see body size as both a diversity issue (i.e., why do we all need to be the same boring size?) and a social justice issue (i.e., insofar as physical health is profoundly impacted by any number of environmental factors, and thus is not simply a personal achievement). I subscribe to the Health at Every Size paradigm, which prioritizes healthy eating and exercising for strength and fitness over losing weight. But taking the focus off weight is threatening for those who insist on seeing “excess” fat as a barrier to happiness, health, and freedom.

7) With this book done, what’s up next for you?

In the immediate future (i.e., this summer), I intend to spend plenty of time in my garden, sitting on the dock at the lake, going to my sons’ baseball and basketball games, and practicing other ways of slowing down and paying attention to the sacred mystery of embodied life that the culture of physical improvement encourages us to ignore.

Longer term, I hope to draw on the work I did for Shameful Bodies to resume blogging about religion, culture, and body issues. I’d done some blogging for the Huffington Post and Psychology Today after my previous book (The Religion of Thinness 2009), but eventually I got too busy and lost the practice of writing for a broader-than-academic audience. Since the topic of body shame and religion is one that I think is interesting and relevant to folks outside the academy, I’d like to put some energy in to blogging again. I’m also going to be developing a course on Religion and Health, which I think will appeal to many students at the college where I teach (Concordia College—Moorhead, MN).

Though I enjoy writing for and speaking to non-academic audiences, I’m also drawn to theories that challenge me to think in new ways about religion, bodies, and culture. I’ve just started doing some reading in affect theory that is very interesting, and I’d be surprised if some of this theory doesn’t find its way into my next writing projects. At the same time, I worry about scholars of religion pursuing projects that are inaccessible to a broader audience, particularly at a time when our country is in dire need for experts in the field who can help the broader public develop more careful, complex, and informed understandings of religion and its ambiguous power as a tool of oppression or liberation.

Michelle Mary Lelwica is Professor of Religion and Chair of the Religion Department at Concordia College, USA. She is the author of The Religion of Thinness (2009) and Starving for Salvation (1999). She has regularly blogged for Huffington Post and Psychology Today.