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Associate Professor Hannah Bacon, with Feminist theology and contemporary dieting culture.

Hannah Bacon is Associate Professor in Feminist Theology and acting Head of the Department of Theology and Religious Studies. She has recently written Feminist theology and contemporary dieting culture, which is published by Bloomsbury. The book draws on her research conducted inside one UK secular commercial weight loss group to show how particular Christian ideas to do with sin and salvation are recycled and put to work in a secular commercial slimming context.

In her book, Bacon argues that notions of sin and salvation resurface in the secular dieting world. The slimming organisation she researched recovers the Christian terminology of sin – but spelt 'Syn' – and encourages members to frame weight loss in terms of their ‘salvation’. These theological terms function to align food once more with guilt and moral weakness.

As well as naming as 'sin' principles and practices which diminish women's appetites and bodies, this book forwards a number of proposals about how salvation might be performed in our everyday eating habits and through the cultivation of taking pride in our bodies.

Bacon said: “The idea for the book came about as a result of research I’d been doing around faith based dieting in the US. As a feminist theologian, I was already very interested in the interface between Christian theology and bodies, particularly how Christian thought interpreted women’s bodies and how women’s bodies were constructed in contemporary culture. Cultural phobias about fat and the prominence of weight loss dieting among women in the US and Europe concerned me.

“When I started reading around Christian dieting, I came across one feminist scholar who argued that Christian weight loss programmes were actually quite dependent on buying into secular ideals about ‘the body beautiful’ for their success, so what appeared ‘religious’ was really quite heavily informed by a ‘secular’ culture many evangelical people were ironically trying to distance themselves from.”

She added: “That got me thinking about whether so-called ‘secular’ weight loss programmes made use of Christian ideas in any way. This question had been sparked by my growing interest in one UK weight loss slimming club who intentionally adopt the Christian nomenclature of ‘sin’ to speak about food. Although this company has now changed the spelling to ‘Syn’, I was fascinated by the way this secular commercial enterprise appeared to be drawing quite overtly from religion in order to bolster its appeal and frame its weight loss programme.”

As part of her research, Professor Bacon joined one regional slimming club as a participant observer. She said: “It was really important to me to actually get inside the weight loss company and give women in the group the opportunity to share their experiences of slimming; I also wanted to experience what it was like to be a member for myself.

“As a feminist researcher, I wanted to immerse myself within this slimming culture so that the research I produced emerged from the actual lives of women rather than from books I’d read or things we assume about women and slimming. I also, though, was actually quite interested in losing weight as well, and this really upset my feminist principles!

“I joined as a participant observer and as a fellow dieter because in the end, that felt more honest and I wanted to give voice to that conflict in the research I produced rather than pretending it didn’t exist. The book, though, doesn’t just reflect on my time inside the slimming group, it also uses this time and these insights to shape practical theologies of sin and salvation, to consider what ‘sin’ and ‘salvation’ might mean in a culture where fears about fat appear to be growing and where a growing number of people, especially women, are worried about their size. Taking the narratives and lives of women who slim as a starting point, how might we talk about ‘sin’ and ‘salvation’ in ways that speak meaningfully back to slimming culture, and also meaningfully back to Christian thought? The book took nine years to complete – no wonder, given the ambitious nature of the project! – but I’m delighted that it’s finally completed and on the bookshelves.”

Reviews for Feminist theology and contemporary dieting culture include:

“In this age of understanding the human body and health mostly through the lens of science, it is easy to forget the long history of religious faith and its influence on contemporary western ideas and practices related to embodiment. In developing a feminist theological philosophy of weight loss, Hannah Bacon does a wonderful job of demonstrating the continuing importance of Christian beliefs in often surprising, but always thought-provoking ways.” 

Deborah Lupton, University of New South Wales, Australia

“Hannah Bacon offers a critical engagement with the pressing issue of women and dieting, which she rightly identifies as a political issue about the control and bounding of women's bodies. What emerges is an incarnational theology that claims women's bodies as bearers of the divine, as sacred. She encourages women to enjoy their flesh, offering the Sabbath as a symbol of how women may rest from a battle with their size and the Eucharist as a 'foody' celebration that encourages sensible eating, that is sensuous, communal eating that builds community. This book contributes new insights to the already scarce existing work on the subject – it offers a broader understanding of how slimming groups work and from this a sharp theological analysis which in turn brings to light new ways to understand theology.”

Lisa Isherwood, University of Winchester, UK

Feminist theology and contemporary dieting culture, published by Bloomsbury, can be bought at:

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