You may have recently heard of Gwen Shamblin Lara, a recently deceased cult leader and weight loss author, because of the HBO Max documentary, “The Way Down: God, Greed and the Cult of Gwen Shamblin.” Three episodes of the docuseries are available now, with two more slated for 2022. The series follows Gwen Shamblin Lara’s former church members in Brentwood, Tennessee, The Remnant Fellowship. It chronicles Gwen Shamblin’s rise to fame, money and power. It highlights the trauma suffered by members under her leadership, including how she contributed to the abused death of a little boy in her congregation. It’s horrible.
But this is not a story about the documentary. It’s a story about the teachings of Gwen Shamblin and how they devastated a 12 year old me.
Before Gwen Shamblin Lara started her wackadoodle church / cult where members aren’t allowed to be fat, built a multi-million dollar estate in richest Tennessee county, and adopted the craziest hairstyle in the world, she was a dietician. Instead of using her training for good, she created a truly despicable religion-based weight loss system.
gwen shamblin’s hair in the 90s and in its final shape pic.twitter.com/ocXFWWeb1v
– taylr (@taylr) May 31, 2021
I’m not lucky enough to know Gwen Shamblin Lara because of a posthumous documentary.
I first heard of Gwen Shamblin (she had not yet married Joe Lara) when I was in college in the late 90s. Her weight workshops were very popular in religious circles in which I grew up, and his book, The Weigh Down Diet, was selling like hot cakes.
My parents bought a copy of the book, and using Gwen Shamblin’s approach, my dad lost about forty pounds. My mom was plus size and on a constant quest to slim down, so seeing my dad’s success made her a believer. Instead of just reading the book and trying to implement Gwen Shamblin’s methods, she decided to attend a workshop in person. She also decided to take me, her chubby seventh grader.
It was during these Weigh Down meetings that I first discovered the concept that being overweight was the result of sin.
At the meeting we sat in a circle and introduced ourselves, then we prayed and watched a video of a very confident and confident Gwen Shamblin stating that obesity was a direct result of the sin of greed. . Obese people confused their “hunger for God” with a desire for food. It meant that overweight people made food an idol. Fat was the result of greed. Greed is a sin. Sin separates us from God. My body therefore separated me from the God who was supposed to love me.
I remember very well how I felt when I heard this for the first time. I looked at all the adults in the room, including my own mother, and didn’t see a single person who seemed to be as shocked or terrified as I was to hear this news. To me that meant it was the absolute truth. I was devastated.
Until then, I felt very confident that I was “good”.
Being a good girl, a rules follower, a successful student, these things have defined me. I was chubby, yes. I knew people didn’t think it was okay, but if I had to be chubby I could at least be good. Virtuous. I could please God, even though I disappointed a lot of people.
Gwen Shamblin’s workshop shattered that image for me. I wish I could say that the guilt I felt didn’t last through this meeting, but in the meetings that followed I heard these messages repeated over and over again. My ability to be “obedient to God” depended on my ability to “put down the food idol” and make my chubby little body into a lean one. In those meetings, I went from feeling like being fat just meant I wasn’t up to the mark that society had about beauty to feeling like my body was deeply ashamed.
This idea was reinforced for me in other church circles throughout my teens and twenties, but it was Gwen Shamblin who planted the seed.
For the next twenty years, I continuously strived for obedience, kindness, and righteousness, and never felt like I hit the mark.
I felt my body was a sign that I was greedy, gluttonous, and a disappointment to the Lord. And that doesn’t even matter how Gwen Shamblin’s post affected the way I viewed food. At these meetings I heard things like, “Take as much as you think you want to eat, then immediately put half back. “Do not eat the first time you are hungry because it could be a spiritual hunger, not a physical craving for food.” Wait, and this hunger will pass. When he comes back, then you can eat.
Gwen Shamblin taught that no food is forbidden, but that one should gently balance eating only to satisfaction, and never to satiety. My twelve year old body had no idea how to determine this distinction. All I knew was that I had a tremendous sense of guilt every time I finished a meal and wasn’t hungry yet.
Physical hunger made me feel upright and fine. Ignoring this hunger made me feel even better. Ultimately, this notion led me down a path of messy eating that never led to being slim, but at times brought me a little closer. When I was less fat, I felt more precious, not only in the world, but to God himself.
Food and morality have become almost inextricably linked for me.
Thanks to Gwen Fucking Shamblin, I have endured the shame of this feeling for decades. I can’t even begin to imagine what the people who actually witnessed his cult of diet culture nightmare must feel about their bodies.
It wasn’t until I started to move away from religion in my early thirties that I started to feel some food freedom. It’s been about five or six years since I decided I was going to forge my own path by discovering what I believe about God, spirituality, eternity and the here and now without the limits of an organized church that tell me what to do. I spent a lot of time healing from the bullshit ideas presented to me by Gwen Shamblin and her Weigh Down Workshop of Horrors.
When I learned that Gwen Shamblin Lara’s plane had crashed into Percy Priest Lake outside of Nashville, Tennessee, just minutes from my home, I was relieved.
Call me heartless, but this woman’s job was to make people like me feel horrible enough to starve us to thinness. Literally. She’s well known for appearing on Larry King’s show and saying, “How during the Holocaust did you get all these people to get really skinny? They ate less food.
I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m relieved that his reign of terror is over. I know his daughter is determined to carry on his legacy, but I just have to hope that the Remnant Fellowship / Weigh Down empire evolves into something less disgusting or completely crumbles under his leadership.
Gwen Shamblin Lara has spent her entire life inflicting pain and encouraging horrible abuse, all in Jesus’ name.
I’m not really happy about her disappearance, but I don’t shed a tear for her either. In the end, all the money, power, and notoriety she earned by shaming innocent people couldn’t spare her life or keep her plane in the air. I wonder if she regretted it on the way down.