Gwen Shamblin Lara, Subject Of HBO's 'The Way Down,' Led A Weight-Loss Cult That Devastated Me

by Katie Cloyd
Originally Published: 

You might have recently heard about recently-deceased cult-leader and weight-loss author Gwen Shamblin Lara because of HBO Max’s documentary, “The Way Down: God, Greed and the Cult of Gwen Shamblin.” Three episodes of the docuseries are available now, with two more planned for 2022. The series follows former members of Gwen Shamblin Lara’s Brentwood, Tennessee church, The Remnant Fellowship. It chronicles Gwen Shamblin’s rise to fame, money and power. It sheds light on the trauma members suffered under her leadership, including how she contributed to the child abuse death of a little boy in her congregation. It’s horrifying.

But this isn’t a story about the documentary. This is a story about Gwen Shamblin’s teachings 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 the wealthiest county in Tennessee, and adopted the world’s most bonkers hairstyle, she was a dietician. Instead of using her training for good, she went on to create a truly despicable religion-based weight loss system.

I’m not lucky enough to know about Gwen Shamblin Lara because of a posthumous documentary.

I first heard about Gwen Shamblin (she hadn’t married Joe Lara yet) when I was in middle school in the late nineties. Her Weigh Down Workshops were wildly popular in the church circles I was raised in, and her 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 father lost about forty pounds. My mom was plus-size and on a constant quest for thinness, 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 an in-person workshop. She also decided to take me, her chubby seventh grader, along.

It was at these Weigh Down meetings that I was first introduced to the concept that being overweight was a 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, self-assured Gwen Shamblin declaring that obesity was a direct result of the sin of greed. Fat people were confusing their “hunger for God” with a desire for food. That meant that people who are overweight have made food an idol. Fatness was a result of greed. Greed is sin. Sin separates us from God. My body, therefore, separated me from the God who was supposed to love me.

I remember vividly how it felt to hear that for the first time. I looked around at all the adults in the room, including my own mother, and I didn’t see a single person who appeared to be as shocked or terrified as I was to hear that news. To me, that meant it was absolute truth. I was devastated.

Up until that point, I had felt very confident that I was “good.”

Being a good girl, a rule-follower, a successful student—these things defined me. I was chubby, yes. I knew people didn’t think that was acceptable, but if I had to be chubby, I could at least be good. Righteous. I could please God, even if 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 outlast that meeting, but in the meetings that followed, I would hear these messages repeated time and time again. My ability to be “obedient to God” hinged on my ability to “lay down the idol of food” and make my chubby little body into a thin one. In those meetings, I went from feeling like being fat just meant that I didn’t measure up to society’s idea of pretty to feeling that my body was deeply shameful.

This idea was reinforced for me in other church circles throughout my teens and twenties, but it was Gwen Shamblin that planted the seed.

For the next twenty years, I would continually strive for obedience and goodness and righteousness and never once feel that I was hitting the target.

I felt that my body was a sign that I was greedy, gluttonous and a disappointment to the Lord. And that isn’t even counting the way Gwen Shamblin’s message affected how I viewed food. In these meetings, I heard things like, “Take as much as you think you want to eat, then immediately put half of it back.” “Don’t eat the first time you’re hungry because that could be a spiritual hunger, not a physical need for food. Wait, and that hunger will pass. When it returns, then you can eat.”

Gwen Shamblin taught that no food was off-limits, but you had to delicately balance eating only right to the point of satisfaction, and never to fullness. My twelve-year-old body had no idea how to determine that distinction. All I knew was that I was left with a feeling of immense guilt every time I finished a meal, and I wasn’t still hungry.

Physical hunger made me feel righteous and good. Ignoring that hunger made me feel even better. Ultimately, this notion led me down a path of disordered eating that never led to thinness, but sometimes got me a little closer. When I was less fat, I felt more valuable, not only in the world, but to God himself.

Food and morality became almost inextricably linked for me.

Thanks to Gwen Fucking Shamblin, I suffered the shame of that feeling for decades. I can’t even begin to imagine how people who actually attended her diet culture nightmare cult must feel about their bodies.

It wasn’t until I began 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 decide that I was going to forge my own path in discovering what I believe about God, spirituality, eternity and the here and now without the confines of an organized church telling me what to do. I’ve spent a lot of that time healing from bullshit ideas that were introduced to me by Gwen Shamblin and her Weigh Down Workshop of Horrors.

When I heard that Gwen Shamblin Lara’s plane crashed into Percy Priest Lake outside of Nashville, Tennessee just minutes from my home, I was relieved.

Call me cold-hearted, but this woman’s life’s work was to make people like me feel horrible enough to starve ourselves into thinness. Literally. She is well-known for going on Larry King’s show and saying, “How in the Holocaust did you have all these people getting down real skinny? They ate less food.”

I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m relieved that her reign of terror is over. I know her daughter is committed to carrying on her legacy, but I just have to hope that the Remnant Fellowship/Weigh Down empire will evolve into something less repugnant or fall apart completely under her guidance.

Gwen Shamblin Lara spent her entire life inflicting pain and encouraging horrific abuses all in the name of Jesus.

I don’t exactly delight in her demise, but I’m not shedding a tear for her either. In the end, all the money, power and notoriety she gained by imparting shame on innocent people couldn’t spare her life or keep her plane in the air. I wonder if she regretted any of it on the way down.

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