Diet culture complicates Lenten fasting
Honest engagement with embodied experience can lead to a successful fast, says this professor.
Jessica Coblentz relies on firsthand experience of fasting to drive her research questions. She studies what we’re doing as people of faith every Lenten season when we take on a fasting practice. “I have a very vivid memory of being in the school cafeteria eating a little jar of diet yogurt and somebody asking me why I wasn’t eating more for lunch that day,” recalls the assistant professor of religious studies at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana. “I’m fasting for Lent” was the teenager’s simple response.
But the truth wasn’t really that simple. Like many people—especially women—her practice of fasting was tangled with societal pressure to count calories in order to fit a standard ideal of beauty.
As she began to have more open conversations with other women about their experiences of their bodies, particularly as Catholic women, she realized her use of fasting as a cover for harmful dieting and eating practices was quite common.
It is difficult to discern the difference between the everyday societal pressure to diet and the Lenten spiritual encouragement to fast, but there is an important distinction to be made between these practices in food abstinence. While some suggest the presence of body hatred negates the effectiveness of fasting, Coblentz argues that honest engagement with and sharing of our experiences of embodiment can lead to a successful fast.