Food&Drink Editor Harriet Laban unfolds how losing sight of the traditional values of Lent has enabled diet culture to creep into the religious observance
Content Warning: This article contain mentions of eating disorders.
Many of us will have either been brought up observing the traditions of Lent or have been taught about it at school during assemblies or religious education lessons. For those of you who don’t have any previous knowledge of the Christian observance, Lent is a period of forty days which begins on Ash Wednesday, the day after Shrove Tuesday (or Pancake Day) and ends on Holy Thursday, the day before Good Friday and Easter weekend. Traditionally, the period is for us to prepare spiritually for Easter, often through fasting, in honour of Jesus spending forty days in the desert without food. Today, people observe Lent through abstaining from a particular vice, such as drinking or eating certain foods.
Fasting and abstinence from food-based temptations are the characteristics which stand out to an increasingly secular society. Many people who are not religious continue to attempt to observe Lent, often using it as an opportunity to remove unhealthy food from their diets. Although this is done in the tradition of Lent, it is questionable as to whether people are still choosing to abstain from treats for the purpose of testing self-discipline and replicating Jesus’ sacrifice.
Today, restriction is closely associated with diet culture, a phenomenon which causes individuals to ‘worship thinness and equates it to health and moral value.’ This is ultimately detrimental to our well-being, as the essential nature of diet culture means that satisfaction is never attained. Many people face pressure to look a certain way, which affects the way they eat. Diet culture informs the way we choose to go about losing weight or may cause us to want to change our appearance, and is far-removed from the customary values Lent should instil within us.
When choosing to do Lent in the traditional manner, avoiding certain foods for the forty-day period can help increase self-discipline, and can lead to a great sense of achievement. The ability to stick to something for a prolonged length of time can teach us valuable skills which can be carried over to other areas of our lives. Perhaps choosing to be meat-free or avoiding chocolate can actually help us in our studies, through honing our dedication and perseverance in a challenge.
However, it seems that due to more modern values seeping into this religious tradition, the original intentions have been somewhat concealed, and replaced with the detrimental consequences of narrowly focusing on foods which you cannot eat, as opposed to the spiritual reflection and opportunity to self-improve which Lent traditionally offered.
Using Lent as a conduit for dieting can deplete our mental wellness reserves through placing excessive focus on our weight and calorie intake; it is hardly a step forward to pressurise ourselves to such an extent. Furthermore, if it is healthy eating habits you are in search of, a total overhaul of your habits is unlikely to happen sustainably in such a short period of time.
It is not necessary to have a Christian faith to choose to do Lent, or to be successful at it. Rather, the key to getting through Lent without a lapse in self-control is to have a suitable, healthy-minded reason which motivates you to see it through to the end. For instance, you may wish to give up sugary sweets and drinks because you wish to help improve the health of your teeth. To avoid falling foul to the harmful effects of food restrictions, it is crucial that your reason for doing Lent is about more than losing weight in order to conform to the narrow concept of beauty we see regularly perpetuated. Being motivated to stay true to your goal for the whole forty days requires a more meaningful objective, perhaps to do with long-term health.
A more fulfilling Lent can be achieved through returning to more traditional values, removing the oppressive influence of diet culture to give ourselves a better chance of self-improvement, as opposed to perpetuating mental dissatisfaction on a never-ending journey towards an unattainable body image. Think about why you want to abstain from your particular vice, and question whether it is for significant reasons. Lent is ripe with the opportunity to build faith, even if this is purely a faith in yourself.