You are such an engaging speaker, and you have a captivating and entertaining sense of humor. You know just how to draw an audience in, make them laugh, and yet hit them with soothing words of God’s love, grace, and truth. Honestly, this letter was hard to write, because I adore you as a pastor. I also know that you love your congregants. But here’s the thing, the fat jokes have to stop.
Large people experience bias, stigma, and discrimination every single day. They hear jokes, just like the ones you say from the pulpit, from friends, family members, and the media, and it’s hurtful.
I know you heard laughter after you made fun of yourself for “being a fatty by getting another taco” but that’s because a large portion of your audience experiences thin privilege. They too are unaware of the offensive nature of these jokes.
It’s even possible that I was the only person not laughing. But let me explain: Weight stigma is so rampant in our culture and that no one even realizes it’s a thing. Let me tell you – it’s a thing. And it’s actually hurting the health and well-being of the people we love. And yes, fat jokes fall in the weight stigma bucket.
Many researchers have studied the harmful effects of weight stigma and discrimination. As you can probably guess, stigma and discrimination in all its forms are causing stress, and scientists now know the harmful effects of stress on the body. Shaming someone or making fun of someone because of their body size doesn’t make them want to “try harder” it results in emotional stress and self-loathing…and as a pastor, I’m sure you know that self-loathing isn’t the road that God intended.
My greatest concern, and what is most compelling me to write this letter is your influence on teenagers and young adults. Disordered eating and body hate are prolific in our youth and when jokes are made about body size, you unintentionally contribute to behaviors that could take a young person down a dark, dark road, possibly even a deadly road.
If you’re ever not sure if the joke is offensive, replace the subject of fat/weight with some other reason a person is often on the receiving end of discrimination (for example, race, religion, sexual orientation, or disability) and you will quickly see that the joke isn’t funny, it’s offensive.
I often hear you making these weight-centric jokes about yourself, and I’m sure you believe that making these jokes about yourself somehow softens them. It’s just not working. Imagine that you make a joke about your own body but the person in the front row has a body larger than yours. How might that person feel? You’re basically encouraging people to hate their bodies when you make fun of yourself. I know this wasn’t your intention.
And, you’re not alone in your off color jokes. I know you probably even see jokes about body size as not that offensive because, “Hey, a person can always lose weight if they don’t like to be the brunt of everyone’s jokes.” But you see, it’s not that easy. Day-in and day-out Americans go on and off diets, trying to remove themselves from this stigmatized and oppressed group of people. And guess what? Study after study has shown that weight loss attempts don’t work in the long run for a very large majority of dieters. Our body actually has mechanisms in place to fight against starvation, so it’s not even the person’s fault who regains the weight. And there are many many other challenges about losing weight such as genetics, a sluggish metabolism (often ruined from years of dieting attempts), and those who barely make ends meet and may not have the means to purchase a gym membership or nutrient-dense foods.
I’m sorry to bring this one back at you, but if we’re going to really take a look at “What Would Jesus Do?” then we’re going to have to ask this question about fat jokes. I think you know the answer.
Look, we’re all human. And I suspect you had no idea that these jokes could be offensive to some people in your audience. And you probably weren’t even aware that fat-bashing is a form of stigma and discrimination that hurts emotional and physical health. But now you know. And when you know better, you can do better.
I also realize that pastors don’t have it easy. You are under attack, under a microscope in many ways. You have to address difficult issues like marriage, divorce and money. My intention is not to make your job more difficult but shine a light on an area that many people don’t know anything about. I know you want to be someone who inspires, encourages, and empowers, and you want others to know God’s unconditional love. I want that too. I hope you will take my request to heart, and I’d be happy to meet up to discuss this issue further, if it would help.
God bless you and your ministry,
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Dawn is an Associate Professor of Nutrition and a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. She is a wife and a mother to an amazing 11-year old boy. Dawn enjoys finding creative ways to spread the word that God’s unconditional love can bring healing to every broken relationship, including one with food.