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Michelle Lelwica: Shameful Bodies

Michelle Mary Lelwica, Shameful Bodies: Religion and the Culture of Physical Improvement (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017), 271 pages, ISBN 9781472594938.

Shameful Bodies is written as an exploration of the embedded assumptions that cause us to judge individuals whose bodies do not fit the cultural norms of society. Lelwica examines the influence of religion and dominant culture on our views of what’s healthy and beautiful and the consequences of our efforts to change the way we look and feel. Lelwica’s objective is to encourage us to live at peace with ourselves and others, and she shows us how religion can help us re-evaluate our bodies in ways that reflect grace rather than judgement.

The book is divided into two parts. In part one, Lelwica analyses the way society, namely marketing departments and the entrepreneurial health industry, promote the ‘better body’ ideal and instil fear and loathing toward less than ideal bodies. Lelwica also explores how Christianity has been used to promote the better body, and by implication, promotes shame in individuals who do not or cannot measure up to this unrealistic standard. In response, Lelwica offers alternative ways to view the human body, relying both on Scripture and Buddhist thought. On the one hand, there is the “religion-as-controlling” paradigm that instils aversion to non-ideal bodies; on the other hand, there is the “religion-as-transformative” paradigm that encourages us to think and feel differently about ourselves and others, by living in and learning from our bodies.

Part Two examines the issues of disability, weight, chronic pain and illness, and aging and how individuals carry shame and shame others who live in these states of being. Lelwica shows how religion can be used to promote peace with our bodies. Her framework for re-thinking how we view “non-standard” bodies is based on principles of biodiversity, vulnerability, impermanence, and interdependence, all of which, Lelwica claims “the better body story supresses or denies” (p. 47). These principles develop out of feminist studies and Buddhist teaching. Buddhism’s emphasis on interconnectedness and mindfulness can help us transform our thinking from non-critical ego-centric assumptions to fair-minded, rational thought on the value of who we are as we are. Lelwica also touches on biblical concepts, such as imago dei, the incarnation, and prophetic critique as a way forward for understanding how we can be who we are without succumbing to powerful social structures.

This isn’t a self-help book; it’s an academic critique of a social and cultural phenomenon. If readers are looking for how-to steps to transform their thinking, they may come away disappointed. Rather, what this book does is open readers’ minds to the way things are and how they could be. It’s up to readers to challenge themselves to think and judge differently going forward. Now that the wool has been pulled off our eyes, will we see ourselves and others with more grace, compassion, and acceptance, and distance ourselves from the structures that imprison us with cruel judgement of less able, overweight, diseased, and aging bodies?

Reviewed by Michelle Vondey


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Category: Fall 2018, Living the Faith

About the Author: Michelle Vondey, Ph.D. (Regent University) and M.Div. (Church of God Theological Seminary), has more than twenty years’ experience working in non-profit organizations. Her interests are focused mainly on developing followers in their roles in organizations. She teaches courses in leadership, critical reasoning, and Christian discipleship. 2012 dissertation LinkedIn

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