Earlier this week, author, pastor, theologian and founder of DesiringGod.org, John Piper, responded to a question from a female reader, struggling with body shame. She asked (in part), “In the last eight years of my life, I’m not sure I’ve gone a full minute without having intrusive, destructive, and negative thoughts about my physical appearance. Sometimes I wonder if I have a mental illness, and I know the value of having this checked out by a local doctor (and I have) … Scripture says that I was fearfully and wonderfully made, and that God doesn’t look at outward appearance but looks at the heart. I believe these things are true, but what about my view of myself?”
Piper gave a lengthy response. (You can read it in its entirety here.) As part of the answer he said this: “I wonder if it might be worth considering that there is a good hatred of the body and a bad hatred of the body.” He then cites 1 Corinthians 9:27, and discusses the teachings of Paul. He then says, “My question is, Have you ever asked, ‘Instead of saying, ‘I should stop hating my body,’ maybe I should say, ‘I should start hating my body in the right way; I should start hating my body because it tempts me to sin’? … Now, this is not because it has any particular shape or disfiguration or has a certain complexion or whatever, but rather, you hate the body because it is what is making you sin against God. In that sense, shift all of your hatred. This would be a very significant liberation.”
Hillary McBride is a PhD candidate at UBC and a Registered Clinical Counsellor and is the author of the books Mothers, Daughters, and Body Image: Learning to Love Ourselves as We Are and the upcoming Embodiment and Eating Disorders: Theory, Research, Prevention, and Treatment. She can be heard on the Liturgists podcasts as well as Other People’s Problems.
In this open letter to Piper, she addresses why Piper’s comments are so potentially dangerous, and why it is so important to have a proper view of body image, spirituality and mental health issues.
I was both saddened and frustrated to see your comments to the woman who was seeking support from you. I’m saddened, first, as the story of the woman who wrote in reminds me so much of my own – as a person who has struggled with an eating disorder which had me facing death for years, not to mention inner torment as well as relational suffering. My own struggle with disordered eating, and the co-occurring body hatred was suspended, held in place, by beliefs you propose as being useful strategies. And I’m concerned: I’m concerned as a psychotherapist, researcher, and academic, who specializes in the treatment and prevention of disordered eating and body hatred.
What you said in your response to this woman’s concerns serves as an obviously harmful and problematic suggestion – so potentially injurious that I feel not responding to these comments would be unethical for me as a mental health professional. As part of the American Psychological Association (APA), and the Canadian Psychological Association (CPA), I have a professional ethical responsibility to society (this is, in fact, one of our guiding principles) — to speak out against deleterious rhetoric. I am concerned for your inability to see that providing guidance about mental illness is outside your scope of training, and concerned for the numerous people who will hear and read your work, and will possibly consider your recommendation to be helpful, perhaps even truthful. So, I write to you to provide an educative response, and am doing so publicly, hoping that those who read your words, may also read mine.
Firstly, it is important to state that as a theologian you are not qualified to provide counsel about eating disorders. While myths about mental illness and health pervade in communities of faith, I am hopeful that you would not be so foolish as to provide recommendations to a woman, about what antibiotic to receive, if she was facing a painful and long-lasting infection. Similarly, it would be just as inappropriate as what you recommended to this woman, to attempt to perform an emergency surgery for a myocardial infarction. It is for this reason that because of my scholarly and clinical expertise I will not attempt to parse Greek verbs.
Secondly, the etiology of eating disorders is often hatred of the body – regardless of the reason. Sometimes people hate their bodies because their bodies hold the stories of their trauma. As we now know, there is a significant link between sexual abuse and eating disorders (Preti et al., 2006; Schwartz & Cohn, 1996), and that the ensuing hatred of the body results from the shame caused by the abuse. I cannot imagine that you would ever suggest to a survivor of sexual abuse that their body caused the sin the sexual abuse.
There is also a long history of disordered eating emerging from the Christian tradition, long before the emergence of a formal diagnosis of Anorexia Nervosa (Brumberg, 2000). This occurred when Christian women (and sometimes men) starved themselves in order to feel closer to God, to demonstrate the spiritual discipline of control of the sinful body.
Unfortunately, these are not just historical accounts; using the same logic you proposed girls and women are currently experiencing mental illness and the simultaneous self-starvation (Davis & Nguyen, 2014; Huline-Dickens, 2000). It is essential to note that empirical research has determined which kinds of beliefs about God are most likely to induce disordered eating, related eating pathology, and mental illness (Siton & Fogel, 2010).
Across a variety of Christian denominations, religious practices motivated by guilt, shame, the desire to please others (including popular theologians) is linked with increased risks for mental illness, particularly eating disorders, depression, and anxiety (Weinberger-Litman, Latzer, Litman, & Ozick, 2018). However, recent research has shown that secure attachment to a loving God, a sense of God lovingly dwelling in our bodies an calling them good, are protective factors against mental illness and eating disorders, and can increase well-being (Homan & Boyatzis, 2010 a, b; McBride, Kwee, & Buchanan, 2017).
For the reasons described above, I am certain that the comments you made are harmful. And while it may not be clear to all readers of your post that you were trying to be helpful, I am inclined to think that you were not intending to be harmful, but were, in fact, trying to help a young woman struggling with body shame and disordered eating.
However, I am an expert in this field, both as a researcher who has spent most of my research career investigating the prevention and treatment of eating disorders (and the role of spirituality and religion in those processes), as a clinician who provides treatment for eating disorders and body hatred, and lastly as a recovered person – who spent over a decade working towards recovery from an eating disorder held in place by a spiritual hatred for the body, based on its “badness” or “sinfulness” and “impurity.” As such, I am qualified to provide helpful commentary and insight to this woman.
As this is an open letter, I am hopeful that readers who read your harmful suggestions may also read these words, and find some relief for their suffering- perhaps even drawn closer towards experiencing the love of God for themselves. To be educative to you, but also to the readers of this letter, here is what I might say to this woman, and anyone struggling with body hatred:
- I am so sorry to know you have been hurting so long. I believe in a creator who so loved creation that God put on flesh. We can take comfort in knowing that God has also suffered. In that, we are not alone, and we do not have to experience the added pain of feeling aloneness in our distress.
- Your body is not bad. It is good, you are good, and beautiful, and loved, and like all of creation is a song —a dance—telling the story of the mysterious Divine Lover who made you, and longs to know you and welcome you into that Love. Hatred of your body will not heal your struggles. Love will, learning to love your body, and perhaps allowing others to help you do that by modeling a compassionate, radical kind of Jesus love for the most hurting parts of your experience.
- The level of distress you describe would be greatly improved by a variety of therapeutic supports. Please ask for help – tell your doctor, see a therapist, find group support, and possibly inpatient or outpatient treatment, and if necessary pharmacological intervention – you do not need to keep suffering in this way, and you don’t have to find the way forward alone. If you are only seeking pastoral support, and your pastoral supports have not referred you out to mental and medical health professionals in light of this level of suffering, please know that your pastors are not trained, licensed, clinically equipped to support you where you are at. It is beyond their level of training or ability to provide guidance for you in this manner.
- I have walked the road of recovery, and it is long. For me, the moments of healing began to emerge when I realized that I could indeed begin to heal, but it was fear, pride, shame, guilt, and harmful religious attitudes (“just pray more”, or “if you really loved God you wouldn’t be suffering like this”, or “your pain is proof of your sinfulness”) were actually contributing to the problem.
- Consider the idea that you could being to see yourself, your whole self, through God’s eyes, through the eyes of love.
- Consider that God may dwell in you, in all of you: not just your thoughts, but fingernails, cells, eyeballs, and stomach skin. And, because of that may you find courage to begin to honour your body, making it a lavishly loved temple, fit for the Divine.
Mr. Piper, I hope that you are able to consider this as an invitation, an opportunity to consider that you may not know all things about the human experience, about suffering, about our relationships with our bodies. I would like for you to stop providing mental health advice to others when this is not your training. It is my hope that in reading this you may find an opening within which to press deeper into the love of God, finding that in the end, this actually is what helps you yourself to experience love, and healing, and find more to offer the people who seek support from you.
Brumberg, J. J. (2000). Fasting girls: The history of anorexia nervosa (1st Vintage Books ed.). New York: Vintage Books.
Davis, A. A., & Nguyen, M. (2014). A Case Study of Anorexia Nervosa Driven by Religious Sacrifice. Case Reports in Psychiatry, 2014, 512764.
Homan, K, & Boyatzis, C. (2010a). The protective role of attachment to God against eating disorder risk factors: Concurrent and prospective evidence. Eating Disorders, 18(3), 239-258.
Homan, K, & Boyatzis, C. (2010b). Religiosity, sense of meaning, and health behaviors in older adults. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 20(3), 173-186.
Huline-Dickens, S. (2000). Anorexia nervosa: Some connections with the religious attitude. The British Journal of Medical Psychology, 73 ( Pt 1)(1), 67-76.
McBride, H. L., Kwee, J. L., & Buchanan, M. J. (2017). Women’s healthy body image and the mother-daughter dyad. Canadian Journal of Counselling and Psychotherapy (Online), 51(2), 97.
Preti, A., Incani, E., Camboni, M. V., Petretto, D. R., & Masala, C. (2006). Sexual abuse and eating disorder symptoms: The mediator role of bodily dissatisfaction. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 47(6), 475-481.
Schwartz, M. F., & Cohn, L. (1996). Sexual abuse and eating disorders. New York: Brunner/Mazel.
Silton, N, & Fogel, J. (2010). Religiosity, empathy, and psychopathology among young adult children of rabbis. Archis for the Psychology of Religion, 32(3), 277-291.
Weinberger-Litman, S. L., Latzer, Y., Litman, L., & Ozick, R. (2018). Extrinsic religious orientation and disordered eating pathology among modern orthodox Israeli adolescents: The mediating role of adherence to the superwoman ideal and body dissatisfaction. Journal of Religion and Health, 57 (1), 209-222.
Hillary McBride is a PhD candidate at UBC and a Registered Clinical Counsellor in private practice. She is the author of the upcoming book "Embodiment and Eating Disorders: Theory, Research, Prevention, and Treatment". Hear her on "The Liturgists Podcast", and her new podcast with CBC, "Other People’s Problems."