The one looked at suspiciously for taking second helpings at the dinner table, or snagging a piece of candy in the middle of the afternoon. (“Do you really need that?”) The one veritably forced into “exercise”, because, “it’s good for you.” The disobedient one – for daring to be, well, not a size 6.
I have heard lectures about dreaded diseases that come from “being fat” and when I’ve politely asked the lecturers to butt out, I’ve been told that this harassment is “for your own good” and “because we love you.”
I have seen the shame in my family’s eyes at the fact that I “refuse” to “take my weight seriously”, at the fact that I wear a size 14, at the fact that they have to live with a fat person.
I have heard how all of my problems will be solved if I can just “drop some weight”…that the reason I’m not married, not successful in my career, not athletic enough to make the team, is because no one likes to have fat people around.
I have been conned into buying clothes a size too small because “it looks ok, but it will look even better if you drop a few pounds. You are trying to do that, aren’t you?”
I’ve even heard, “You’re so good at everything else you do, surely if you apply yourself to this, you can be successful in this area as well.”
And for years – decades – I lived with this shame, embarrassment, and stigma of not being the skinny one. Because skinny = healthy. Skinny = obedient. Skinny = acquiescing to societal norms. Skinny = “being good.” Skinny = beauty.
Bottom line – what society, culture, family, even Christianity says: If you are not skinny, 1) you will never be happy and probably no one will love you, 2) you obviously don’t care about your health because you are basically guaranteed to get heart disease, diabetes, and cancer (again), 3) you simply aren’t trying hard enough, and 4) your body is a temple and you’re sinning by being fat.
For years – decades – I believed this. I believed that I was “bad” for not conforming to the pictures in the magazines. I believed that I just couldn’t manage to get my priorities straight enough to beat my body into submission. I prayed – yes, prayed – for the willpower to be anorexic. During my years on the campaign trail, the introvert in me hated doorknocking (spend all day having 30 second conversations with random strangers, no thank you), the campaigner in me thought it was great (it does work, at least in places like Iowa), and the shamed fat kid in me loved it (too busy to eat + tons of exercise = campaign t-shirt does fit a little looser, now that you mention it). I piously “gave up carbs” for Lent (and then made my body completely freak out when I overloaded it with chocolate eggs and hot cross buns on Easter morning). I counted calories, carbs, and grams of fat, and recorded them religiously in notebooks or even online. I ate more Splenda than any human being should ever look at, and made pretend ice cream with ricotta cheese.
If all of this sounds completely f-ed up to you, then congratulations. You are seeing what it took me decades to see.
Last summer, I was cyber-introduced (by the Holy Spirit) to the writings of Ragen Chastain, who blogs at Dances With Fat, and who, one post at a time, revealed to me just how f-ed up these ideas actually are.
See, it turns out that basically everything that “everyone knows” about health/weight/dieting is completely and totally wrong. See, it turns out that health and weight are not the same thing – that weight has almost no bearing on one’s health, and that “dieting” can, in fact, have a negative impact on one’s overall health.
For the research lovers – did you know that 95% of individuals who attempt weight loss will, within 5 years, gain all of the weight back, plus more? Did you know that this constant so-called “weight cycling” can have hugely negative metabolic effects on the body? Did you know that in the last decade, hospital admissions for inpatient treatment of eating disorders in children under the age of 12 have risen 100%? Did you know that BMI is a totally worthless measurement when it comes to determining individual health?
For the anec-data crowd – do you know skinny people who get diabetes, arthritis, heart disease and all of the other so-called “diseases of being fat”? Do you know skinny people who eat total crap all the time and still stay skinny? Do you know fat people who eat nothing but salad and exercise every day, and are still fat? Yeah, me too.
Unfortunately, we as a society have so conflated health and weight, that it is nearly impossible for us to believe that anyone who is fat can also be healthy. But it turns out that this is totally wrong. Take me, for example. I am a cancer survivor, an amputee, and I’ve been diagnosed with “high CSF pressure for no discernible reason”. I’m 5’6”, and according to the dreaded BMI chart, counted as “obese.” And yet.
And yet, all of the metabolic indicators of my health are perfectly normal. If anything, my blood pressure is low. My resting heart rate makes me proud and happy. My blood sugar is normal. My cholesterol is in excellent shape. As previously noted, I do not have a brain tumor or MS. The contents of my CSF are normal. Every blood test you could possibly think to run is normal. I eat a wide variety of foods, including fruits and vegetables. I go running 2-3x per week, working up to a 5K, and I’m planning on some Black Hills hiking this summer. I drink one cup of coffee in the morning, and almost exclusively water thereafter. I brush my teeth, and usually remember to floss. Bottom line: I am one of the healthiest damn people you know. :) And you know what else? People come in all shapes and sizes, and this is the size I come in.
This is still a journey, no doubt. I have so many years of disordered eating patterns to break (it’s been 10 years since I drank milk with any regularity), I’ve viewed “comfort food” as a “guilty pleasure”, by definition loaded with calories and carbs, instead of “what I think sounds good right now”. I’m trying to practice intuitive eating (learning to hear what your body wants and needs, because it knows) instead of guilt-and-shame based eating. And it’s hard.
But it’s also a spiritual journey. It’s learning to see my body as a good thing, as a gift from God, as beautiful because it was created by my Creator. Right now, for example, instead of being a lazy body with “bad” metabolism that “needs” to risk life and limb driving to the gym in a foot of snow to satisfy the Health Overlords at Portico or the U.S. Government or whoever, I can recognize: to be able to sit here and type this, my eyes are working, scanning the screen (and even putting up with the way-too-much-screen-time-I-ask-of-them), my fingers are working, and my brain is remembering 8th grade typing class. My heart is circulating blood throughout my body, and my lungs are dutifully exchanging carbon dioxide and oxygen. My sinuses are draining properly, and my tummy is telling me that I shouldn’t have skipped breakfast. Thank you, body, for doing all this. And thank you, God, for giving me such an amazing body that does all these things.
Actually, it kind of looks like this:
I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my limbs, my reason, and all my senses, and still preserves them; in addition thereto, clothing and shoes, meat and drink, house and homestead, wife and children, fields, cattle, and all my goods; that He provides me richly and daily with all that I need to support this body and life, protects me from all danger, and guards me and preserves me from all evil; and all this out of pure, fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me; for all which I owe it to Him to thank, praise, serve, and obey Him. This is most certainly true.
Of course, it is hard to believe that this is most certainly true, when you (we all) have been taught from a very young age to hate our bodies. But think about it this way: is there anything else in your life that you hate? Possessions, personal property, even (I hope not) other people? Do you take care of those things that you hate? If you hate your carpet or your car, and can’t wait until you can justify buying something different, are you particularly concerned about stains or flaws or door dings? No, of course not.
Our bodies may be temples, but we can’t learn to love them and treat them like temples until we first get it out of our heads that they – in and of themselves – are awful and hateful, deserving of shame and mistreatment and ridicule. This is the temple that God gave me – I can either starve it and mortify it until I decide that it’s really what a temple should look like, or I can love that this is the temple He gave me, and trust that it is already a loveable temple because He says it is.
And as I said above, yes, I’m still working on this. But. From the moment I realized just how f-ed up everything I’ve been told and believed and done all these years really is, it was like a giant weight was lifted off my shoulders. Despite the emo-blog posts and marginally coherent FB rampages you all sometimes see, actually, my mental health is worlds better. My failure to “drop a few pounds” hundreds of times over my life is not my failure – it’s how all bodies work - it's how they are designed to work, in fact. My single state is not because I’m not a size 2 (and even if it is, why would I want to be with someone who needs me to engage in manifestly unhealthy behaviors to warrant his attraction?). I’m learning to run because I like being active – not because “thou shalt exercise or thou shalt die immediately”. I’m eating amazingly delicious vegetables and yummy homemade soups because they taste good and are fun to cook – not because they are “low calorie” (hint – when you roast them with bacon, they’re not) or low carb.
This, I truly believe, is Gospel freedom. To love what you have been given – your body, and all that preserves it – and to enjoy it, trust that it is good because God says it is, and then to go about your life and your vocation in life secure in the knowledge that God has given you all that you need, your daily bread, and still preserves your life…yeah, that’s freedom.
It’s hard, sometimes, to step into that freedom. When you realize that you’ve only had a carton of yogurt and a cup of coffee all day, and it’s 4 pm…when your tendency is to ignore the low-blood-sugar headache and spaciness, and instead congratulate yourself on consuming only 150 calories…it’s hard, and takes a ton of effort to ponder what I really want to eat, what my body really needs right now, and then do the work to make that happen.
It’s hard, but I’m trying. And slowly, slowly but surely, God is teaching me to love myself, because He loves me.