Tread carefully: Diet Culture and Lent

Before I begin, I want to be clear that I am not actually a Christian. I am, at best, Christian-adjacent, by which I mean that my partner is a committed Christian, and I am the token atheist at church events sometimes. And this part of the liturgical year, up to and including Holy Week, is my absolute favourite. 

Let me explain. I was raised in a secular household and received a largely secular education. I grew up knowing vaguely what Lent was, but I don’t think I had any idea what it was for. It simply didn’t interest me very much until I had been with my partner for a while, and experienced Lent, Holy Week and Easter in the Scottish Episcopal Church. Witnessing the drama and depth of emotion that can be explored over the forty days of Lent, culminating in the miracle at Easter, was enlightening. 

The concept of a religious fast would have been pretty alien to me, but looking back I can see how this idea of sin and repentance trickles through into the wider culture. As many others have pointed out, this vague idea of self-denial as a goal in itself is very prevalent, and, detached from any spiritual purpose, becomes bound up in our cultural obsession with self-improvement. I can’t presume to know why every secular person who observes Lent does so, but I think that for many people it’s an attempt at self-improvement, a forty-day opportunity to jump-start a small reinvention of oneself. And what kind of self-improvement does our horrible, terrible culture like most? Weight loss.

Diet culture is a set of beliefs deeply entrenched within British society. It equates thinness with morality and value, it presents weight-loss and self-improvement as never-ending projects, and it normalises extreme and disordered ways of eating and exercising. The influence of diet culture means that there are many people constantly on the look-out for ways to restrict their eating, and if it can be done with a veneer of plausible deniability then so much the better. 

Intermittent fasting has been a recurrent lifestyle trend in recent years. You probably remember the 5:2 diet from a few years ago, and there is now a veritable proliferation of books, brands and social media accounts telling you that you should be fasting for a couple of days every week. Some of them will talk some capitalist nonsense about maximising your productivity or boosting your brain, but this is at heart a weight loss strategy. 

I am far from the first person to observe the contrast and overlap between people fasting to lose weight and people observing religious fasts. A quick google search leads to plenty of articles linking the two for clicks. This Financial Times article uses Lent as a jumping-off point to talk about the supposed health benefits of fasting, for example. 

I also glanced through a few Christian forum threads decrying the misappropriation of Lenten fasting as a weight loss tool. We’re hardly at the level of Susan Gregory’s Daniel Fast (the Biblical approach to losing weight!) here, but in our deeply disordered food culture is it any wonder that many people are unable to separate the idea of a fast of penitence and self-denial from the ever present pressure to deny oneself food in pursuit of thinness? 

This BBC article from 2014 hardly helps, literally taking tips from monks and clergy who fast and suggesting that people apply them when undertaking the 5:2. It includes a claim I’ve most recently seen from wellness influencers on instagram: that humans do not need to eat every day. You hear that? If you eat food every day, you’re practically a hedonist. What does this muddle of religious and secular approaches to food and fasting say about us? What does it mean when some people are able to see eating as a decadent indulgence and others are relying on whatever they can get from the food bank? 

I could go on. I could talk about Lent in different times and cultural contexts. I could talk about how, for the first time, I am considering observing Lent. I could make some sort of ruling about the ‘right’ way to do Lent, but I think we can all agree I’m not qualified. Were I actually a Christian I might say something about the false idol of thinness. Quite possibly I've written all this to conclude, weakly, that it’s complicated. Lent comes, and we are surrounded by just as bewildering an array of choice and as many conflicting ideas about food as ever. Tread carefully.

Written by Naomi Berry, token atheist with an unhealthy interest in theology.