by Stephanie Logan
In retrospect, it really isn’t surprising that I fell for Gwen Shamblin’s Weigh Down Workshop diet. In my family of origin, thinness was next to godliness. The only thing my mother wanted to see more than a thin kid walking in the door of the church on Sunday morning was a kid who outperformed the pastor’s kids behavior wise. And she managed that easily by intimidation and controlling nearly every type of food, and the amount, that went into my mouth. Her instincts to control the food intake of her daughter were still going strong the last time I visited her home, when for breakfast she offered me and my three teenaged children exactly 4 thinly sliced pieces of banana bread and her usual weak tea with artificial sweetener. She then waxed eloquent as if she had laid out a banquet fit for a king. Anyone else witnessing it would have chalked it up to her ageing mind, perhaps even called it a delusion, but that was just how she fed me. Always.
I remember hunger in my childhood about as much as I remember anything else. It seemed my stomach always growled. Extended family often teased me about being so skinny that I probably had worms. Given the chance at a family or church potluck, I would eat myself sick from the pure joy of tasty food. Watching skinny little me pile my plate high must have been entertaining for the onlookers because they always commented on my appetite. Our diet at home was somewhat limited by our income, but our food intake really wasn’t so much about the inability to get food – the cabinets were never totally bare – as it was about mom’s control of that food.
I think mom must have counted the cookies in the jar when she baked them, because if I ate even one beyond what she permitted each day, she would fly into a fit of rage. That rage and it’s sister, condescension, also showed up whenever she had to interact with someone who enjoyed tasty or indulgent foods. Like, the pastor’s “little brat” who was upset that mom had served her plain, air popped popcorn at a children’s event. Or the friends and family members who weighed more than she thought appropriate. It was very clear from her behavior that she considered the condition of being “fat” or even the potential of becoming “fat” to be moral failings. Though she hid it well in public, the conversation at home was always cruel and disrespectful toward those who couldn’t or wouldn’t maintain what she considered appropriate thinness.
Once in my teen years – and I only made the mistake once – I invited friends over for a movie night. The day before that event my mom announced that she would only serve plain, air popped popcorn and Kool-Aid (always made with half the sugar). I was sixteen and I was humiliated at the thought of my friends showing up and eating such boring, tasteless food, but I was determined to have a fun night and asked my friends to bring something to share. And they really came through! One brought their mom’s homemade caramel popcorn, another brought a couple two-liter bottles of soda, and my closest friend brought a couple of bags of chips. It was probably the only time up to that point in my life that all of those food items came into my home at the same time. It was shocking to see the dining room table covered with rich treats. Mom managed to keep her thoughts to herself until everyone left, but I heard for days afterward about the overindulgence.
For the entirety of my at-home life, mom portioned out dinner servings meticulously. At dinner, I might be served exactly one drumstick, one serving spoon of mashed potatoes, one serving spoon of steamed veg, and one slice of bread with a very thin smear of margarine. And I learned never to ask for more. So, when I went away to college and I could eat until full and eat indulgent things and have seconds at every meal, it did not take long for me to gain two times the typical freshman fifteen. And mom noticed.
Then, like a good Christian girl, I got married young and started having babies quickly. And I began to see myself as “fat”. That natural weight gain, meant to nourish a growing baby and provide it with milk after birth, became abhorrent to me and to my mom. And though she never called me “fat” she often expressed “concern” about my weight.
And then I found Gwen Shamblin’s starve yourself for Jesus book just before Shamblin entered her cult stage. I read it several times in a few months and applied her methods consistently. I think I lost over twenty pounds the first month alone. Then, I heard that she had denied the existence of the Trinity (a core Christian doctrine) and I threw the book in the trash.
But, though I had cast off Shamblin’s book and her heresy, I got marvelous results from her eating method: never eat without first feeling stomach growling hunger and stop eating as soon as you no longer have that feeling. And I was basking in my mother’s rare approval. As a matter of fact, my mom was so impressed with my weight loss and maintaining of thinness that she went out and bought Shamblin’s book even after she knew Shamblin was a heretic, and every visit to her home from that time on included at least one conversation comparing her waist to mine and her pants size to what it was when she was in high school.
I was still adhering to Weigh Down while I was pregnant with my second daughter. And at about six months along I ended up in the ER for monitoring because I felt like I was in labor. But I did not have contractions or Braxton Hicks. And though my blood pressure was a little low, they weren’t sure why. So, they did a blood test and hooked me up to an IV. Maybe an hour later, they returned with an IV bag and a large Styrofoam cup full of a milkshake drink that tasted like the inside of a banana peel.
The diagnosis? I was vitamin and mineral deficient. I was malnourished.
“Are you eating?” they asked.
“I eat every time I’m hungry,” I told them.
And it wasn’t a lie. But my stomach was always so empty-ish that my prenatal vitamins made me nauseous and so I only took one or two a week. They admonished me to take my vitamins daily and to eat just a bit more. And I did, but still not enough for a pregnant woman of my build and activity level.
After my daughter was born, I nursed her as I had my other two babies. Previously, I had always nursed my babies to that sweet, baby drunkenness at every feeding and usually had enough breast milk left to pump and freeze. I was a Holstein among women. Had I lived in medieval times, I would have been the neighborhood wet nurse.
But it was quite different with my second daughter. She never seemed satisfied and well before she was a year old, I was having to supplement her with formula and watery cereal after nursing. My milk was drying up without any attempt on my part and when my husband asked me to stop nursing her so that we could go to a ministry conference together, I did what he asked without so much as a little discomfort.
Then, when my daughter was about one year old, I had another episode that landed me in the ER. This time, I felt like I was having a heart attack. They monitored me again – nothing. They drew blood again and a brief time later returned with that familiar IV bag and Styrofoam cup of banana peel milkshake.
“Are you under stress?” they asked in concerned tones.
I was but I didn’t say that. I was a spiritual woman and a pastor’s wife at the biggest church in town. I could not say that something was fishy about my marriage. Especially with the pastor sitting there holding my hand attentively, because that ER was a place he frequented.
“Are you eating?” they wondered.
“Yes, every time I’m hungry,” I told them.
Again, that answer was not a lie. After I had finished the milkshake and the IV bag had emptied into my veins, I went home and changed nothing about my life. Weigh Down still had a hold on me.
Of course, I know now that the holy starvation that The Weigh Down Workshop taught me was an eating disorder. And I did not get out of its grip until three years later when I joined the *godly women make everything from scratch* movement and started baking all the time. Since then, I have not had one trip to a doctor or hospital because I was malnourished. I have also never again been a wispy waif of a woman. And my mom, right up until my last visit with her, always beat me in the waist measurement and pants size competition that she insisted on having.
And the last time I was at her home, she still had her copy of The Weigh Down Workshop on her book shelf.
If you’re not familiar with Gwen Shamblin you can learn plenty through the HBO Max docuseries titled The Way Down. And just last weekend Lifetime released a movie based on her ministry. If you should ever happen across her book at your local Goodwill or yard sale, please do the world a favor and buy it, then pitch it in the nearest trash can.
Former Evangelical homeschool mom and one-time missionary and pastor’s wife, Stephanie Logan, aka Snicklefritz, writes from her life story and four decades of experience in the evangelical movement. Her views and stories are her own.
Copyright © 2023 snicklefritzchronicles.com