“Here’s a big idea: let’s make churches more welcoming of the large-bodied people in their midst.” That’s what I was thinking recently as I climbed the steps to the pulpit of a church where I preach occasionally. It’s a beautiful old Methodist building, and a wonderful group of caring people gather there in Christian community. The problem is, I can’t fit through the door to the pulpit. I can’t even squeeze through, or at least not as gracefully as I feel a worship leader ought to.
It is revealing that a preacher like me can’t physically access the pulpit where they would address their congregation, and it makes me realize how often I’m in church spaces that physically exclude me. Christians are called to practise a radical acceptance, but I don’t think we’ve realized the need to consider accommodating people-of-size as a part of our faithful welcome.
Not only are many churches physically inaccessible for large people, they sometimes aren’t socially welcoming either. I’ve heard plenty of side comments about the fear of “getting fat” during cookie and coffee hour, and they always leave me feeling disheartened. And I’ve yet to see a community of faith actively address the societal shame around body size, or hold conversations with large-bodied people about their sense of comfort and inclusion.
Scripture tells us, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Corinthians 12:27). Each of our bodies, in all of their shapes, sizes and dimensions, are made and loved by God, and Christ dwells in each of them. In a society that creates and exploits body image issues for corporate profit, that is a radical idea for people-of-size to consider.
If my size has been a barrier to fully participating in church communities, then I’m sure I’m not the only one.
People-of-size can often hold a significant sense of body shame, leading to silence and isolation. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our churches faced that fear and shame with gentleness and compassion, modelled after Christ’s healing embrace and empowerment of the outcast?
I’ve worked outside the church to help empower people to resist the body-shaming prejudices our culture encourages. Now, I want to see churches take up this cause as well. Because if my size has been a barrier to fully participating in church communities, then I’m sure I’m not the only one. According to the 2015 Canadian Health Measures Survey, about one in three Canadian adults has obesity. That’s a lot of people who might appreciate a more intentional welcome in their church.
So, in addition to ensuring their physical spaces are accessible to people-of-size, churches should become aware of size-shaming and actively promote dialogues around body positivity, so that every person in every pew knows that God loves their body, no matter its size.
It’s time for churches to embrace people of all sizes, and start a gentle and kind conversation about dignity for everybody — and every body.
This column first appeared in the June 2019 issue of Broadview with the title “Sizeism in the Church.” For more of Broadview’s award-winning content, subscribe to the magazine today.