My husband’s grandfather once uttered a one-liner that has made its way into family lore. Surveying a particularly, uh, well-endowed session of temple patrons, he said, “We may be a chosen people, but we are a corpulent people.” I’m not sure that he was right in suggesting that Mormons tend to be fat; in fact, he may be dead wrong. Although, as Frank has shown, it can be dangerous to extrapolate from Utah statistics to Mormon statistics, Utah’s overweight and obesity rate is very near the bottom of state averages, as this table indicates, with a rate of 52.1% of the population overweight or obese. Interestingly, when the Utah rate is subdivided by gender, Utah men are only slightly below the national average, while Utah women are a full 7.3% below the national average for women. It would be dangerous to assign these statistics fully to the influence of the church, of course: Utah obesity rates are rising as they are all over the country, and Utah shares its low obesity rate with its neighbor Colorado, suggesting that obesity is more a regional and national phenomenon than a religious one.
Still, statistics aside, Mormons seem to be thinking about weight a lot recently. It’s on television, on the stage, even in the bloggernacle! To make it clear from the outset, I think we can agree that people who are overweight, like people who have bad teeth, are under no moral disadvantage before God: the Lord is no respecter of love-handles or root-beer-bellies. Gluttony, while not one of the seven highly effective habits, seems to have dropped out of the Mormon top-seven deadly sins. How do Mormonism and Mormon living inflect our ideas about weight and our experiences living in differently-weighted bodies?
In the featherweight division: It can be argued that the intent of the Word of Wisdom is to promote physical health–“health in the navel and marrow in the bones–and that the maintenance of a healthy weight is a natural fit with the other health-related planks of section 89. But even if one does not accept this interpretation of the revelation (as I do not), there are other reasons to suspect that Mormonism might foster a healthy weight control. Mormon families tend to be busy, active, and child-centered, contributing to the touted “active lifestyle” conducive to weight control. Furthermore, the Wasatch Front, with its unparalleled access to a variety of outdoor activities, may export with its diasporic members a cultural affinity for the outdoors and outdoor sports: rock climbing, hiking, backpacking, skiing, boating and jogging have all been favorite family activitites in the wards I’ve attended. Finally, it can be argued that the Book of Mormon’s–and, more generally, Mormon culture’s– emphasis on “prospering in the land” can be distorted into an unhealthy emphasis on image, leading to eating disorders and unhealthy obsession with weight.
In the heavyweight division: If some members’ Mormonness contributes to their overweight, I would suggest three possible mechanisms. First, the anti-ascetic ethic of Mormonism: Mormonism rejects the body-spirit dualism that has informed most Christian asceticism, with its emphasis on mortifying and denying bodily appetites. Mormons envision an embodied ideal state in which the body will be perfected and subject to restraint, to be sure, but will still be capable of experiencing pleasure. Indeed, Mormons reclassify “sinful” sexual desire as an essential feature of the divine (again, when properly restrained and expressed); this acceptance of the body’s appetites–including the appetite for food–may lead to a more relaxed attitude toward weight.
Second, the historical Mormon ethic of frugality: we’re cheap, and we hate wasting things–including uneaten food on our plates, leftovers in the refrigerator, and serving dishes at the all-you-can-eat buffet. Present-day social eating practices, together with a relatively new-found prosperity and our large family sizes, may exacerbate this tendency: we can afford to eat out more now, but it’s still cheaper to feed a family of six at McDonald’s than at the Whole Foods deli.
Third, the Mormon devotion to self-improvement. One might think that this would weigh in on the opposite side of the scale, but I suspect that LDS emphasis on goal-setting and progress-tracking leads many members to diet–and dieting, as we all know, is a notoriously unsuccessful way to lose weight permanently.
On the boys’ side: Men’s obesity rates are consistently higher than women’s, and this is undoubtedly true among Mormons, as well. If sitcoms correspond in any way to reality, it has been argued, men may be exempt from the kinds of cultural pressures that drive women to pilates and plastic surgeons. I think it’s at least as likely, for Mormon men in particular, that it’s difficult to find the time for the gym among the obligations of family and church–although, if he can find a spare hour, a man is less likely to have to drag the kids along!
On the girls’ side: Weight is a crucial element in the heterosexual beauty culture, of course, and the heterosexual beauty culture plays a starring role in the heterosexual marriage market. Because the heterosexual marriage market is such a prevalent social dynamic among young adult Mormons, I suspect that both men and women feel pressure to conform to ideal body images–perhaps even more strongly than other young people of the same age. After marriage, LDS women tend to bear children early and often, and this childbirth culture may offset obsession with weight. Still, though, none of these factors adequately explain the surprising gap between Utah women’s obesity rates and national trends. Ideas?
So spill the beans–or the tofu or the country-style ribs–is your attitude toward weight influence by Mormonism? Do you or have you struggled with weight issues? How does Mormon culture inflect national trends toward obesity?