Beauty is not the basis of a healthy love. Even the thinnest person gets old, their body fails, and they eventually die. A person who is obsessed only or primarily with physical appearance in their spouse promotes an unhealthy standard which no person can ever hope to maintain.
– Sarah Sparks (RN)
My opinions of the New York Times best-selling book Love and Respect are well known. A few months ago, I wrote a four-part review of the book, and its author Emerson Eggerichs. In that series, I offered four theses.
- The biblical hermeneutic of Emerson Eggerichs is based not in sound scholarship, but in the desire to reinforce male privilege by disenfranchising women.
- Eggerichs’ teachings on marriage promote physical and sexual abuse by undermining consent and denying women agency over their bodies in marriage.
- Eggerichs’ views of gender and the science he uses to support them are harmful, outdated, inaccurate, and an intentional misrepresentation of data.
- Eggerichs is a spiritual abuser, and thus entirely disqualified from ministry.
In the end, I found the principles of Love and Respect as Eggerichs teaches them to be nothing but repackaged patriarchy and abuse apology. His books, seminars, and ministry are based upon blatant deceptions perpetrated by Eggerichs in order to promote a system of male privilege.
After discovering all of these things, I was fairly convinced that little coming out of the Love and Respect camp could still surprise me. Then came a recent article from their website entitled “How to be Truthful Without Being Hurtful.”
I first became aware of this article through the Love and Respect Twitter account, where they promoted it with the tagline “How to answer the age-old question, ‘Does this red dress make me look fat?’” Knowing L&R’s history of making disturbing comments on gender issues, I knew I was in for more. But, to be honest, I was not prepared for just how vile this post was.
Telling the Truth
The post begins with a rather odd assertion: “Some questions from one spouse to another are nearly impossible to answer without causing heartache.” This assertion is the preface to the apparently damning “red dress” question.
Emerson Eggerichs says that answering, “No, the red dress does not make you look fat.” is a lie. As such, the assumption of this article is that the only possible truthful answer to my wife asking me if an outfit “makes her look fat” is “Yes.” But of course, such an answer is unloving and hurtful, and thus the solution is to find an answer that says “Yes, dear, that dress makes you look fat.” without hurting her feelings.
Here’s the issue, in Eggerichs’ assessment . A husband must love his wife unconditionally, but he must also be a Christian committed to the truth. As he sees it, then, there are times in a man’s life when he will need to figure out how to “tell the truth” without compromising that love.
Emerson Eggerichs believes he has struck just such a balance. That is, he believes he knows the best way to lovingly tell a woman she looks fat. He offers as a template the following statement: “Because of the extra baby weight you still carry, which you’ll get off soon enough, the black is more becoming right now than the red dress. But I love you no matter what so give me a hug.”
It occurs to me as I read the above template, that Eggerichs presents this template in three steps:
Actually call her fat, but be sure to explain exactly why she is fat.
Assure her that you expect her to lose that weight, because it wouldn’t be loving to just love her as she is.
Provide her a specially chosen “non-fat” dress, and be sure to tell her that even though you see her as fat, you still love her because love is unconditional.
Sadly, at the heart of all of this are two very problematic assumptions.
Truth vs. Love
First, it seems strange to me to propose that, for a person seeking to follow a distinctly Christian ethic, there is contention between the notions of Truth and Love. In fact, as I see it, if the Christian ethic is rooted in the person and works of Christ, culminating in his death on the cross and its vindication in his resurrection, then there can be in Christ no divide between Truth and Love.
Consider, in John 14, Jesus tells us that he is The Way, The Truth, and The Life. He is how we know the will of the Father, and apart from him our understanding of God as Trinity will be entirely incomplete. With this in mind, then, it is important to discern precisely how Christ depicts a true disciple, one who embraces his ethic and lives according to his example.
In Matthew 20, we are told that a person who embraces the way of Christ cannot assert their self as a master over another. They must be persons of humility, operating as servant of those around them in the example of the cross. In John 13 we are reminded that people will know those who follow Christ by the ways in which they embody Love for one another. According to Matthew 22, this Love is an expression and extension of the Love we share with God in the beautiful dance (perichoresis) that is Trinity.
It is further interesting that the Johannine author also speaks of Love in relation to Jesus in 1 John 4. In this passage, we are reminded that the ability of any person to practice a love which reflects God is rooted in the cross. That is, if God is Love, and if to Love is to be in God, then the man who was the embodiment and source of God’s Truth is also the embodiment and source of God’s Love. This is no insignificant claim.
In Philippians 2 we are told that a love rooted in the example of Christ is a love which eschews personal status and privilege in order to uplift other persons. In John 15, Jesus reminds us his cross is the ultimate expression of Love, and in Philippians 2:3 we are told we cannot practice this cruciform Love by advancing our own selfish purposes.
A Love rooted in Christ is a love which humbles self, which speaks the Truth of Christ’s cross in freeing others from captivity (Luke 4:14-30) and in taking a stand with those whom others would seek to exclude and oppress (Luke 14:1-23). This Love then, rooted in our faith in Christ, cannot be simply paid lip service, it must be embodied in our lives. It must be shown through our actions and words (c.f. James 2:14-25).
This brings me to the famous “Love Chapter” of 1 Corinthians. In Chapter 13, the follower of Christ is given an important reminder: Any act performed by one claiming to follow Christ is nothing but emptiness if it is not rooted in Love.
For a Christian, all Truth must begin in the cross of Christ and the embodiment of this example in the life of the believer. We cannot present truth apart from our commitment to The Truth and we cannot truly love apart from the Love of Christ shown us in Christ. There can be no conflict between the Truth and Love embodied in Christ.
The premise of this article that Truth is inherently hurtful, that kind and loving words like “No, you do not look fat” would be automatically lying to one’s spouse, operate under a false dichotomy. I love my wife because I recognize within her the image of God and see her as an equal in both worth and commission in Christ. I cannot assume selfishly that her body is my possession and I cannot assert myself as an authority over it by seeking to “lovingly insult” her or taking a critical and hurtful stance.
I can recognize within her the beauty of our years together. I see in her the beauty of childbirth, the fact that she has given me three children, and in that I see the power and grace of a woman strong enough to endure three Caesarian births in order to give life to our family. I can see in her eyes the spirit and vigor God has blessed her with, a fire and determination to be supported and cultivated, not extinguished. I can look at my wife and find her stunning because her every feature is a testament to our life together.
As a man claiming to lpractice a Christian ethic, I must recognize that she is not an object. She is not my property to be controlled. She is not my subordinate. My wife is a gift from God, my partner and constant companion, my ezer kenegdo. To treat her as anything less is to live a lie, to deny her the fullness of mutuality is to fail in my love for her.
Love vs. Shame
This brings me to my second point.
The rhetoric of Emerson Eggerichs presented above is nothing short of body shaming.
This rhetoric is disgusting, it is abusive, and it has absolutely no place within any marriage. In fact, a 2015 study suggests that body shame bears a direct correlation with poor physical heath. Further studies seems to indicate that fat-shaming fuels weight gain, not weight loss, and can cause a person to resign them self to obesity, which of course also leads to adverse health effects as well. These studies have led researchers to assert that shaming someone for their body-type or weight is only, ever, a harmful practice and has a strong likelihood of being detrimental to their health.
Concepts of beauty are societally conditioned, and in no way consistent across cultures. If our only concept of beauty is a stereotype in a magazine, then we inherently do damage to the very real people around us. People are not photo-shopped objects used to sell products, they are human beings. And when we exalt artificial conceptions of beauty to the forefront of attraction, we reduce people to one-dimensional objects. Any mindset which equates outward beauty with attraction inherently leads to bullying and denigration of those persons who fall outside the so called category of “beautiful.”
This is dangerous, as studies suggest that the perception of being “overweight,” regardless of any actual physical reality, can be directly linked to issues of depression and suicide. Body shaming is a recognized cause of eating disorders. Also, persons who feel rejected or shamed because of their body, have an increased likelihood of suffering from other mental illnesses.
All of this means that negative body image is far more dangerous to a person’s health than their actual weight. Eggerichs fails to understand that a woman with a positive body image, even with those “extra 20 pounds of baby weight,” is going to be decidedly more healthy mentally and physically than a woman who develops a negative body image while attempting to conform to her husband’s demanding weight standards.
Is it not the height of selfishness to assume that a husband’s arbitrary standard of “fat-ness” ought to trump his wife’s actual health?
Despite Eggerichs’ offensive rhetoric, common sense and science both tell us a woman is not “fat” because she has gained weight after child birth. This phenomenon is both perfectly normal, and entirely healthy. In fact, many women work out and maintain healthy lifestyles, but never lose the weight fully. Yet studies show healthy eating habits and exercise are a larger contributor to overall physical and mental well-being than actual weight on a scale. In fact, because the medical definition of overweight is a Body Mass Index of 25, it is entirely possible for a person to be healthier at an “overweight” BMI than a person who is considered “normal” but invests nothing in their fitness.
Further damning for Eggerichs assumptions is a study which shows that our concepts of “beauty” in strangers has no actual bearing on our concept of attractiveness in persons we know well. Often, a failure to find one’s spouse attractive is actually less related to their physical appearance, and more connected to some other major relational flaw which impedes a sense of closeness and safety in the relationship. A husband who is so dissatisfied with his wife’s appearance that he would actually dare to think her fat, let alone call her fat to her face, for still having her baby weight is actually more likely to be an indicator of regular porn use or addiction than it is of her actual physical attractiveness.
All of this is to say, there is absolutely nothing healthy, normal, or loving about a husband calling his wife fat, no matter how he chooses to package it. Instead, body-shaming is always and only a form of abuse. For a Christian husband to shame his wife over her body is to devalue her health and wellness. Such behavior is a disregard for her as a person, and instead views her as an object for one’s own personal means. This is domineering and disrespectful, a denigration of her intrinsic femininity due to some perceived inability to conform to an arbitrary and harmful concept of beauty.
Again, disregard for the well-being of any person in promotion of a personal and selfish agenda is a textbook definition of abuse. And I would hope it goes beyond saying that creating an abusive dynamic within a relationship is a betrayal of the call to Love others as Christ loved us in the cross. Returning to Matthew 20, one cannot be both abusive tyrant and humble servant.
With these things in mind, then, I remind the reader once again that Emerson Eggerichs is not an expert on gender or marriage. His work is rife with unexamined bias and the promotion of personal privilege. His theology is utterly bankrupt. And most importantly, he encourages husbands to abuse their wives in order to preserve a patriarchal dynamic within the Christian church.
Where systems of abuse are allowed the flourish, the Gospel of Christ is diminished. All such behavior is a betrayal of the Gospel of Christ, which demands we eschew shame and condemnation, pursuing justice and equality for all persons.