Published August 2, 2007
(RNS) — Religion teaches faith, hope, charity – maybe even a good body image.
According to a new Cornell University study, highly religious people were the least likely to think of themselves as fat. In fact, they often thought they were thinner than they actually were.
Researcher Karen Kim speculates that religion “encourages self-worth beyond the body” and protects people from the ideal body imagery that pervades popular culture.
The idea resonates with Heather Lawless of Mechanicsburg, Pa., who teaches a weight loss class at Christian Life Assembly of God in Lower Allen Township, Pa.
“I tried to stress that it’s not about having a perfect body. It’s about having a healthy body,” Lawless said. “Our bodies are the temples of the Holy Spirit. So we want to honor our bodies.”
The study looked at more than 3,000 men and women in six categories – conservative Protestant, mainline Protestant, Roman Catholic, Jewish, other religions, and no religion.
Participants were asked whether they were very or somewhat overweight, very or somewhat underweight, or about right. The accuracy of their perceptions was measured against medical standards.
The one exception to the correlation between strong religious commitment and good body image: Jewish women. They tended to overestimate their weight.
Kim, now an assistant professor of health behavior and health education at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, grew up Southern Baptist. She says she has no idea why Jewish women would be more likely to feel overweight.
Rabbi Hava Pell of Camp Hill, Pa., who is working on her certification as a food addiction counselor, suspects Kim’s sample probably missed the more traditional segments of Judaism – and therefore compared apples to oranges.
“The bottom line is most of our society is pretty obsessed with what’s wrong with their bodies,” Pell says. “It sounds American cultural to me as opposed to Jewishly cultural.”
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