There’s this thing called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and it says that the words we use to talk about our world actually shape our world itself. Some versions say they limit it. We can’t become a thing we can’t imagine, and we can’t imagine a thing we can’t describe. If we don’t have the words for it, we probably don’t have the will for it either.
So when low-fat ice cream labels in the freezer section at the grocery story line up to promise me “all the flavor with none of the guilt” and the rice cakes brag that they are a “truly guilt-free snack,” I start to worry about the cage we’re making. If food is so closely associated with guilt, then the weight and body maintained by that food becomes evidence of moral character. It’s impossible to weigh neutrally. It’s impossible to see someone’s body as that someone, not as evidence of their strength or willpower.
This language in describing foods– especially foods that are associated with weight gain by their fat or sugar content– is so pervasive that I hardly notice it anymore. It’s interesting though, that when we talk about guilt-free foods we don’t mean fair trade or sustainably produced or anything else about how the food gets to us, only where it ends up, namely on thicker thighs or a fuller butt. As Jeanne Ray puts it in her novel, Eat Cake, “people equate virtue with turning down dessert.” We’ve all been that person at dinner debating whether we’ve been “good” enough that day to be allowed dessert when the waiter asks. But have we stopped to wonder why we let our calorie count determine our goodness in the first place?
Of course, eating healthfully is important, and moderation is always a good thing. But there’s nothing healthy about letting food shame us.
In the Christian faith, meals are central to our lives in community with one another. Unofficially, we’re known for our potlucks and community meals. Officially, the Lord’s Supper is one of the central sacraments celebrated regularly in millions of churches all over the world every single Sunday. In my United Methodist tradition, we talk about guilt in that meal, too– the ritual begins with a prayer of confession, not for the food we have consumed but for the ways we have failed to love God and others in our lives. Immediately following the pastor offers words of comfort and healing: “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven!” and the people respond in one voice, “In the name of Jesus Christ you are forgiven!” It’s not our bodies that we’re primarily concerned with, but Christ’s. Christ willingly put his body in harm’s way to suffer shame and pain in order to wipe them away and to replace them with love. As it stands now, though, our world isn’t perfect, and those things still exist. We haven’t cured every disease. We haven’t healed every wound. We haven’t prevented every accident or addiction. We still get sick, we still hurt, we still die. There are some things that happen to our bodies that we simply cannot control. How we nourish them and talk about them, though, do not fall into that category.
We can control not only how we eat but also how we think and talk about eating. We can recognize that the freedom to walk into a grocery store and have a choice of foods is a tremendous privilege in and of itself. We can realize that everyone is self-conscious about something (Lord knows we’ve worked hard enough to make each other that way) whether we think they should be or not. We can embrace beauty in all of it’s shapes and sizes and celebrate it rather than evaluating it. We can make our grocery shopping choices based on where our money will go instead of just where the calories will go.
We can start simply, by remembering to pray over our food. I admit, this is a habit I have fallen out of over the years, but will you join me in reviving it? Just a few moments of quiet, focused gratitude at every meal can change our relationship to food and to the bodies it nourishes. The prayer can be silent or out loud, long or short, spontaneous or memorized–whatever is comfortable and feels authentic and natural for you.
Here’s how I’ll start: “Lord, thank you for this food and for the hands and lands who have prepared it. We ask that you would bless it to the nourishment of our bodies and us to your loving service. Amen.” Short and sweet, just like the dessert I’ll be enjoying after dinner tonight, totally guilt-free.