Take and Eat
eligious dieting has been with us for a while. Christians aren’t just fighting off such worldly temptations as adultery and homicide; Big Macs and ice cream also tempt believers with their false promises. Trying to maintain one’s morals while living in a culture that tries to lead you astray in millions of ways on a daily basis is difficult, to say the least, and we live in a difficult food environment. America is a great funhouse of revoltingly delicious treats. I recently dined at a local establishment which is universally loved for its special brunches; I had a hard time finding anything I could even bear to eat on the menu. I found a bowl of oatmeal, which would have been OK if I said to leave off all the sugar and chocolate and heavy cream it naturally comes with. I reported to a friend that I actually saw this on the menu: Pumpkin cheesecake-stuffed French toast. “That’s the kind of thing that makes people want to bomb the shit out of us,” he said. “They’re scratching in the dirt with sticks and we’re eating deep-fried bread which has been stuffed with a ‘dessert’ item which is, almost, solid cheese.”
How does one attempt to lose weight in such a society? You need some respite from the stress and alienation of modern life, so you turn to food, except that you can’t, because you are fat. What could be more comforting than food? God? Beth Hammond finds use for God in her 1983 book Lord Help Me! The Desperate Dieter. It is a litany of prayers about Beth’s obsession with food and unending attempts to diet. Don’t be fooled by the humiliating cover or what might appear to be a ha-ha funny thrift store find. This book is a cry from Beth Hammond’s heart, a terrible illumination of what it’s like to live in a society where food is everywhere in abundance, nothing is ever limited, and you are derided for being fat. Yet, if you show any sign of trying to change your behavior, your friends and family sabotage you constantly. It seems prescient, given that the food milieu in the United States has only worsened about a thousand percent since 1983. Food is, to Beth, an answer to all of life’s ills, but also the cause of her greatest pain—the pain of being fat in a society which rejects her on a daily basis.
The titles of the prayers alone give some idea of the depth of her struggle: “My Food, My God,” “Tears,” “Desperation,” “When Tired,” “When Sick,” “When Lonely,” “When Depressed,” “Secret Eating,” “Foodolatry.” Beth has prayers for contemplating a snack, prayers for before she goes grocery shopping, and prayers for when her spouse or friends are trying to tempt her to have “just one bite” of something she know she shouldn’t, because there is no “just one bite” for Beth. “One bite” can send her into weeks of bingeing. When she is lonely, she notes that she is liable to “stuff food into her mouth until she feels comforted and less alone,” and petitions God: “Can you match that?” She surmises that God would give her a “mental kick in the rear” and tell her to do something for someone else instead of thinking about herself.
By the last prayer, “Thank You,” Beth has turned a corner. She thanks the Lord for asking her to do His work, reach out to others, see her own self-worth, and take more responsibility for her life. She goes so far as to say that food has “ceased to be the source of my happiness or the idol I worship” and that she can look in a mirror and respond her to own image “with a smile.” She thanks God for “loving her through the fat.”
I’m left hoping that wherever she is, Beth is all right. I’m reminded of a story I heard from a woman who attended an overeater’s group; the attendees were under strict orders not to socialize with each other outside of the group, but, every week, they’d head out to a local “fast-casual” restaurant for a great smorgasbord of cheesy, greasy delights, which seems seriously fun in the same way as eating candy after seeing the dentist or doing something sinful right after confession.
Now I must confess: I try to eat healthy foods, but I usually have some candy stashed in my purse, “just in case.”
Mary Valle lives in Baltimore and is the author of Cancer Doesn't Give a Shit About Your Stupid Attitude: Reflections on Cancer and Catholicism. She blogs on KtB as The Communicant. For more Mary, check out her blog or follow her on Twitter.