But bodily realities and the limitations of dieting as a method of weight loss challenge this presumption and reality of weight’s persistence threatens to overrun the spiritual ideals that underpin the program and are the basis for its claim to efficacy. If people don’t lose weight after faithfully adhering to the program they may come to question its conflation of God’s bodily ideal with thinness and weight loss. Members need to be trained to read the persistence of weight not as a reflection itself of God’s will (if I’m trying and I don’t lose weight, maybe God doesn’t want me to), or the failure of dieting’s disciplines (if I keep doing this and it doesn’t work, maybe it just doesn’t work) but to attribute it to other causes.

The first response to Norma’s question came from Celeste, a small woman, also in her 60s, with dyed blond hair who converted to evangelical Christianity from Catholicism. She offered: “Satan and his dirty work.” Tessa, one of the group’s success stories, gave a more worldly explanation. “We get complacent at week six,” she said. “We started by doing everything we’re supposed to do. So this week, after not coming last week, I didn’t write anything down for CR [Commitment Report], didn’t open up the Bible study.” Norma then confessed her own complacency, saying “I’ve decided I didn’t need to do a CR because I haven’t been taking it with me.” “Mine is exercise,” offered Kathleen, a younger, larger woman with two small children at home. “All I can say is don’t think you’re a Lone Ranger.” Norma comforted, “We’re all not doing well.”

First Place’s program consists of nine spiritual and physical commitments. These commitments serve a range of purposes, but one, as we can see in this exchange, is an opportunity to defuse the tension between godly ideals and bodily realities. When beginning a thirteen-week session, First Place members commit to regular attendance at group meetings, adherence to the food plan, regular exercise, memorization of one scripture verse per week, daily bible reading, daily bible study (the two are different), daily “quiet time” in prayer, weekly encouragement of another group member (usually via email or phone), and faithful recording of adherence to these commitments, including every bit of food eaten, in what’s known as a Commitment Record or a CR. The CR is handed in to the group leader every week and she returns it at the next meeting with comments. Commitments are so numerous in part because the program aims to address the problem of weight loss physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. They also reflect an increasing tendency to see weight loss as a life altering pursuit that requires personal changes far more extensive than food restriction and increased exercise and a resultant proliferation of disciplines.

It is widely recognized and accepted that it is difficult if not impossible to meet all of these commitments at any one time, not to mention in an ongoing manner. But the virtual impossibility of ongoing, faithful adherence does not keep members from being held accountable to them, especially when weight loss is not achieved. The sheer number of commitments give First Place members a variety of ways to explain why weight loss has not occurred as hoped. Surely there is always something that members have not faithfully implemented in their lives during the previous week, especially as the thirteen-week session progresses. The proliferation of commitments provides a range of ways to assign individual responsibility for the lack of weight loss success, diverting attention from the shortcomings of dieting and from the possibility that God is the author of those failings which may themselves carry a message that participants could discern.

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