a collaborative genealogy of spirituality


by Lynne Gerber

First Place brochure
First Place brochure

The opening ritual of every First Place meeting is the weigh-in. First Place is a national Christian weight loss program sponsored in thousands of evangelical churches and private homes around the country. Before the meeting begins, group members line up to be weighed. The scale is typically located in a semi-private space: a church’s kitchen, a hallway, a small closet. The weigh-in itself is between the group member and the group leader alone, but the line is often bristling with conversation and often with tension. When being weighed, the member steps on the scale and recites the week’s scripture memory verse, one of nine commitments participants make for the duration of the thirteen-week program. The leader writes down the member’s weight in her book—it is almost always a her—along with the member’s success at recalling the verse. The fusion between religiosity and weight loss that marks First Place is exemplified in that moment where the member is held accountable to two sacred symbols of God’s power and will: scripture and the scale.

The weigh-in is constructed in First Place, as it is in many weight loss practices, as the time of judgment, where the truth of one’s adherence to the program will be revealed. There is an expectation of reward for the faithful and punishment for the transgressor: that the scale will be just in its pronouncement. But, as many dieters know, there is a great tension in almost all weight loss pursuits between what the mind wants and what the body does. In First Place that tension is sacralized in an ongoing contest between godly ideals and bodily realities. While the program celebrates thinness as God’s normative ideal, weight loss is in fact hard to come by, especially in diet-based programs like First Place. The scale’s authority as arbiter of fidelity to the virtues of weight loss, an authority established by the program and reinforced in American culture, is always at danger of being undermined by fat’s tenacity. Thus tension around the weigh-in is high, filled with fear of judgment and condemnation for failing at a project that is seen as reflective of God’s will yet is notoriously difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. This tension needs to be managed if faith in the program, and, at some level, faith in God, is to be sustained, especially when the scale shows its disfavor and weight is not lost.

One way this tension is managed is through a regular, informal conversation that I observed regularly at the First Place group I attended and came to call “divining the scale.” After the weigh in was completed and participants settled in for the meeting, but before the meeting formally began, the group, often at the behest of the group leader, collectively discussed their weight loss results, interpreting them and discerning what they meant or didn’t mean about the women themselves, about their relationship to God, and about the program.

One conversation took place in the sixth of the group’s thirteen meetings. After everyone weighed in, but before the meeting formally began, Norma, a group leader in her mid-60s with short brown hair, a solid build, and sparkly eyes, asked everyone how they were doing. “Did you all have a really crappy week?” she asked. Someone in the group asked if Norma could give a tally of the weight lost. “This week it wouldn’t help,” she responded. “It was terrible. We’ve had one superstar, but I don’t want to say who so as not to jinx her.” “You don’t want to say cause she isn’t safe,” someone teased. “You know we’d kill her.” “But the rest of us,” Norma continued, “it’s pathetic. At least I’m the same, not up. But we’re up and down. Any idea what’s going on?”

In making the move to divine the scale’s message for its faithful but flawed supplicants, Norma raises questions about religion and food, eating and spiritual transgression, questions that have been of interest to Christians for a long time. And it raises a tension that stands at the heart of First Place’s project. The program believes that thinness is normative for the believer and that weight loss occurs when we are in physical, mental, spiritual and emotional harmony with God’s will. “As we put God in first place for our day and with our weight,” writes program director Carole Lewis, “then everything else falls into place.” The more one aligns with God’s will through adherence to First Place’s nine commitments, the more that alignment should be reflected on the scale.

But bodily realities and the limitations of dieting as a method of weight loss challenge this presumption and reality of weight’s persistence threatens to overrun the spiritual ideals that underpin the program and are the basis for its claim to efficacy. If people don’t lose weight after faithfully adhering to the program they may come to question its conflation of God’s bodily ideal with thinness and weight loss. Members need to be trained to read the persistence of weight not as a reflection itself of God’s will (if I’m trying and I don’t lose weight, maybe God doesn’t want me to), or the failure of dieting’s disciplines (if I keep doing this and it doesn’t work, maybe it just doesn’t work) but to attribute it to other causes.

The first response to Norma’s question came from Celeste, a small woman, also in her 60s, with dyed blond hair who converted to evangelical Christianity from Catholicism. She offered: “Satan and his dirty work.” Tessa, one of the group’s success stories, gave a more worldly explanation. “We get complacent at week six,” she said. “We started by doing everything we’re supposed to do. So this week, after not coming last week, I didn’t write anything down for CR [Commitment Report], didn’t open up the Bible study.” Norma then confessed her own complacency, saying “I’ve decided I didn’t need to do a CR because I haven’t been taking it with me.” “Mine is exercise,” offered Kathleen, a younger, larger woman with two small children at home. “All I can say is don’t think you’re a Lone Ranger.” Norma comforted, “We’re all not doing well.”

First Place’s program consists of nine spiritual and physical commitments. These commitments serve a range of purposes, but one, as we can see in this exchange, is an opportunity to defuse the tension between godly ideals and bodily realities. When beginning a thirteen-week session, First Place members commit to regular attendance at group meetings, adherence to the food plan, regular exercise, memorization of one scripture verse per week, daily bible reading, daily bible study (the two are different), daily “quiet time” in prayer, weekly encouragement of another group member (usually via email or phone), and faithful recording of adherence to these commitments, including every bit of food eaten, in what’s known as a Commitment Record or a CR. The CR is handed in to the group leader every week and she returns it at the next meeting with comments. Commitments are so numerous in part because the program aims to address the problem of weight loss physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. They also reflect an increasing tendency to see weight loss as a life altering pursuit that requires personal changes far more extensive than food restriction and increased exercise and a resultant proliferation of disciplines.

It is widely recognized and accepted that it is difficult if not impossible to meet all of these commitments at any one time, not to mention in an ongoing manner. But the virtual impossibility of ongoing, faithful adherence does not keep members from being held accountable to them, especially when weight loss is not achieved. The sheer number of commitments give First Place members a variety of ways to explain why weight loss has not occurred as hoped. Surely there is always something that members have not faithfully implemented in their lives during the previous week, especially as the thirteen-week session progresses. The proliferation of commitments provides a range of ways to assign individual responsibility for the lack of weight loss success, diverting attention from the shortcomings of dieting and from the possibility that God is the author of those failings which may themselves carry a message that participants could discern.

Frustration with the complexity of the program, and confusion over which aspects should be prioritized, was then voiced by Deborah, a medical professional with a teen-aged daughter who came to First Place in part to manage her diabetes. “But the program is about all emotions, spirituality. You should focus on exercise,” she told Kathleen, “and make that a focus. It’s hard to manage every piece of the program.” Norma used this comment to report on a conversation she heard at another church meeting that she and other First Place members attended the previous week. “I overheard, very recently, Deborah talking about the First Place group. Someone asked how are you doing. She goes, ‘Well, I’m doing really well spiritually, but not so much with losing weight.’” “I didn’t think I could do the Bible verses,” Deborah modestly replied. “She has the right idea,” Norma continued. “The bottom line is to keep the communication line open with God. Bible study forces us to be self-reflective and to get to the important stuff.”

First Place’s range of commitments reflects a central ambiguity in the program’s purpose: whether First Place is a weight loss program whose value is enhanced by the inclusion of spiritual practices or whether it is a spiritual program whose value is enhanced by the inclusion of weight loss practices. This a live question that is often at play in First Place interactions, including this one. Ostensibly, the program positions itself as the first: as a weight loss program that is enhanced by spirituality. First Place is effective at weight loss, they claim, because it focuses on the whole person, integrating spiritual concerns into the heart of its practice. The absence of God is depicted as the problem in secular weight loss programs and First Place presents itself as filling that crucial void.

Yet there is reason to see First Place as primarily a program of Christian discipleship that instills spiritual practices by linking them to the popular goal of weight loss. Spiritual changes are often the changes celebrated in First Place literature and its spiritual disciplines inculcate Christian practices that are deeply valued yet quotidian in the evangelical subculture. To use a food metaphor, spirituality and weight loss are applesauce and pill, combined in First Place to make the vital but bitter one more palatable. The question is whether spirituality is the applesauce that makes the pill of weight loss go down more easily, or whether the possibility of weight loss is the appealing substance that allows Christian disciplines to slip in. If weight loss is the pill, the weigh-in is the moment where it should display its efficacy. But if spiritual discipline is the pill, the lack of weight loss threatens to keep people from eating the applesauce.

Most of the time this ambiguity is not an issue. Within this self-help landscape, weight loss aims and spiritual aims are seen as so vitally interconnected, so conflated, that there is no need to distinguish between the two. Thinness is God’s desire, and godly devotion will effect weight loss. But when the judgment of the scale threatens to reveal possible tensions between First Place’s spiritual and weight loss projects, distinguishing between the two can be helpful. First Place commitments are so extensive that most people need to prioritize one or two of them at any given time. Spiritual commitments have the advantages of being the clear priority in a faith-based program that, after all, puts God first and of being more easily attainable than weight loss. It is far easier to cultivate a regular prayer practice than to ensure that one’s body will respond to dietary disciplines in the desired way.

By reporting Deborah’s conversation as a positive example, Norma makes the distinction between the physical and spiritual aims of the program in order to place the importance clearly on the spiritual. Deborah is held up as a model for recognizing the importance of spiritual improvements made in the course of the program even when weight loss does not follow. This not only gives members a more attainable goal to focus one’s sights on, but defuses the power of the scale as the ultimate revelator of faithfulness. Members have a means of claiming success even when it’s not reflected in the numbers. This strategy is not without its risks: the promise of weight loss is what provides the opportunity for inculcating spiritual disciplines. Thus Norma can’t go so far as to say that weight loss is not a priority at all. But differentiating between the physical and spiritual aims of the program, and prioritizing the latter, is useful in deflecting attention from the limitations of weight loss by devaluing it as a goal in comparison to spiritual development.

The divining the scale exchange concluded with participants making confounding observations about the vagaries of weight loss. Caroline observed “It’s weird that the week I didn’t write the food down I lost a lot of weight. It’s weird.” Tessa seconded the weirdness of weight loss, saying “[. . .] Sometimes I feel the same way. I had a weight loss during a week when I ate the worst in years.” Celeste said, “I did well and gained a pound. I knew I was going to lose a pound this week but I didn’t.” Norma tried to reassure her, replying “Sometimes there’s a delay thing. You might lose three next week.” “Thanks for trying to make me feel better,” Celeste said, “but that won’t do it.”

The pursuit of weight loss is in almost all contexts something akin to evangelical religion. Both are based on a simple philosophy based on perceived common sense and easy-to-apply salvific formulas. Both value and cultivate a perception of the transparency and accessibility of its central authority, scripture or the scale, for those who seek answers there. Both present themselves as straightforward in theory yet are complicated in practice, continually threatened by lived experience which often seems to trump its claims. When it doesn’t all make the sense that it should, sometimes it’s best to simply contemplate the mystery.

The question Christian weight loss programs often poses for scholars of both religion and of dieting culture is similar to the ambiguity in First Place’s purpose: is Christian weight loss essentially a secular venture, luring believers into its programs by adding a spiritual varnish to a worldly practice, or is it merely explicating, marking or making clear the religious concerns that are at the heart of weight loss projects both sacred and secular? This is a question that is important to me and has informed a great deal of my writing about First Place. But First Place members don’t really care. They are much more taken with tension that mounts as the weigh-in progresses and their faithfulness is about to be measured by number. By collectively divining the scale in the wake of that judgment, the tension between godly ideals and bodily realities are eased and the program maintains its plausibility for another week.