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Grant Wacker

Slim for Him

Christian dieting and American culture.

Several weeks ago my wife and I were driving home from Atlanta to Chapel Hill. A few miles out of the city, my eye caught a billboard featuring a lean young white woman pointing to her bare midriff. The caption read, "Look hon, no scars." The logo at the bottom directed viewers to the website of a local birth control clinic. Baffled (as usual) by the subtleties of modern advertising, I asked my wife what it meant. She patiently explained that it was an ad for tubal ligation. I drove on, thinking something deep like, "Oh."

After reading R. Marie Griffith's Born Again Bodies this past weekend, I saw the billboard in a new light. It is not often that a work of first-rate historical scholarship opens our eyes to the unspoken assumptions regnant in the world around us. But this one—written by a Princeton University religion professor—does. And no wonder. The book is exhaustively researched, elegantly crafted, methodologically self-conscious, and argued with moral passion. The volume marks a worthy successor to Griffith's influential Harvard dissertation on Women's Aglow, published in 1997 as God's Daughters: Evangelical Women and the Power of Submission.

The scope of Born Again Bodies is intimidating. Though focused on the American story, it begins deep in the Middle Ages and ends yesterday. In the process, Griffith ranges back and forth across the Atlantic, lingers among Puritans and their evangelical successors, delves into the intricacies of 19th-century New Thought partisans, ventures into the hermetic realm of body purging and fasting zealots, surveys a plethora of Christian-inspired sexual prescriptions and proscriptions, investigates the largely unknown sideroads of phrenology, physiognomy, and soma typing, and finally ends up in the vast subculture of the contemporary Christian diet industry.

Griffith's main argument can be stated in two sentences. Between the early 17th and the late 20th centuries, American body discipline practices evolved from a ritual ...

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