Female Body Weight and the LDS Culture

TW: discussion of body shaming, polygamy

DEBORAH: Immediately after being called as a Young Women’s president, a mother expressed she was pleased by my call, saying, “They usually don’t let bigger women be YW presidents. The girls need to learn their value isn’t tied to their weight.” Needless to say, I was taken aback.  I still am, though more than twenty years have passed.

My initial reaction at the time was to argue with myself that “I’m not that fat.” My second reaction was condemnation of the woman’s rudeness. My third reaction was resolve—not resolve to change my shape, or to change the perception in LDS culture that fat women are lesser, but resolve to the fact that she’d fairly captured our Mormon culture.

Aux president 2018

Of course, across time, I’ve seen numerous overweight women called to be YW counselors. But I was the ward president. In the interim years, I’ve probably watched a dozen women serve as YW presidents in the wards I’ve been in. I’m struggling right now to think of a single one of them who has been more than 20 lbs overweight.  Do heavy women receive calls to be YW President? Obviously. I did. I was probably 70-ish pounds overweight and the mother of two very young children. Hopefully, in your wards, you’ve seen impactful callings offered to women of size.

However, other plus size women have told me that they understand fat women don’t get called to be auxiliary presidents because they are “bad examples.” I’ve had other heavy women tell me they feel snubbed by more beautiful and fit women. But I look at the youngish, fit and beautiful-by-the-world’s-standard women in my ward/stake and notice they often knock themselves out with high energy fitness classes and all sorts of MLMs that bring them access to everything from diet products to make-up at reduced rates. I make no criticism of that; I admire both the drive and ambition. But I also see in it a generation of Mormon women who appear to link their outward image to acceptance, including from their ward associates.

Prim presFrom men, priesthood holders, the people who offer the callings. Let’s place this rightly where it originates. And I don’t mean it originates today, with our current crop of male leaders. This is polygamy culture, the hand-me-down, too small and tattered remnants of historic Mormon polygamy.

In historic polygamy, a man’s spirituality was measured by the number of his wives. Generally, when a man was allowed to add a wife, he chose one younger whom he deemed attractive, unless a superior asked him to marry a specific woman as a sort of charity. The more desirable women a man added as wives, the better his eternal reward; the greater his spirituality. Physically desirable women were a marker of a man’s spirituality.

RS pres

Judging by the habit of calling attractive-by-the-world’s-standard women to the top callings in wards, stakes, and, yes, general auxiliary presidencies, our priesthood leaders haven’t moved far from this behavior, whether its consciously done or not. Two hundred years of patriarchy hasn’t brought us all that far from the attitudes created during our polygamous past.

We can talk all day about why women experience calling shunning and I hope to read your observations and perceptions left as comments. But even if we put aside polygamy culture, it’s vital to understand that women are being handed an unpleasant cocktail (or should I say Jell-O salad?) that is a mix of:

  • Men being in charge
  • Women being without power/authority
  • Women gaining soft power by pleasing men
  • Female beauty being the quickest way to be noticeable to men

Serve these mixed together and the result is that heavier women tend to experience a degree of marginalization and thin women tend to receive spiritual recognition that isn’t forthcoming to their equally wonderful, but heavier, sisters in the gospel.  Look, I understand that not all women can become auxiliary presidents, and I doubt men realize they call a specific type. I’m speaking in tendencies, not hard, fast rules. But two things seem fairly certain: 1) Female spiritual giants come in all shapes and sizes, and 2) this cocktail of which I speak will leave most women, regardless of shape, feeling insecure and unsure that who they are inside matters much.

Of course, Christianity has a long tradition of condemning gluttony. Let’s not lose sight, however, that in the ancient middle east, it was difficult to become overweight. It required great riches and an abundance of time. In today’s world, the overweight are very often hard-working people with little free time, people who are often the poorest among us. It’s stereotypical, I acknowledge, but pop culture’s “beautiful people” of today are the wealthy with personal trainers. Nothing says “apples to oranges” quite like this realization.

Let’s be honest here, a helluva lot of Mormon women are financially wearied and putting in tremendously long hours, whether or not they work outside the home. There’s a reason Jesus commanded us to love our neighbors and to refrain from unrighteous judgment. It’s to save us from becoming a people who judge outwardly, who lack awareness that every YW president in our ward, for 20 years, would be deemed physically beautiful by a worldly standard we claim to reject.

And yes, very often heavy people like me do marginalize ourselves. I know about this. I’m ashamed to go to a swim activity or to show up at a party because, even in my nicest clothes, I hear the word “frump” inside my head. I hesitate to insert myself into conversations even when versed on the topic. People misjudge my intelligence based on my body shape. I’m tired of speaking and receiving reactions of surprise.

It’s food season, the most horrible time of the year for many LDS women. We cook the food, we serve the food, and every bite is too often a moment self-hatred. But that self-hatred has been cultivated in a religious society that tends to weigh our hearts according to a bathroom scale.  Thanksgiving is nearly upon us. Sisters, enjoy the day. Refrain from bemoaning having to work it off. Just be. Exist. In whatever size and shape you are. You are loved and lovable.

And the rest of you? Mind your own damn business.

~Deborah~

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