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Flesh and Blood

The first time I remember hating my body, I was nine.

Oh, I don’t think I put it exactly in those terms.  It was more the certainty that I didn’t look like other girls.  I was short, for one thing, even at that age.  I was rounder, too, than my classmates.  I’ve seen pictures of myself in fourth grade, and I wasn’t even what adults would have semi-affectionately termed “chubby.”  But I wasn’t skinny, and for whatever reason, my peers latched onto that insecurity and spent the next several years calling me fat.  Taunting me about my hips and thighs.  Pinching me to show where I could “lose a few pounds.”

People say that girls today learn those lessons earlier than in previous generations.  No, they don’t.

When I reached high school and chose to reinvent myself through conservative evangelical religiosity, I thought I’d found a place where I wouldn’t be judged on my body.  How very wrong I was.

Instead of using beauty as the standard by which  I was judged, it became “godliness.”  I lost track of the number of times some well-meaning person asked me if I “really needed to eat that.”  It didn’t actually matter what I was eating; I could have eaten anything and I still would’ve been asked.  No one said it to my skinny friends under any circumstances.

As shaming as that was, that wasn’t the worst of it.  It was the way in which preaching spoke of “the flesh” as a dirty, evil thing that must be overcome.  I learned that my body was bad—not bad merely for being the wrong shape but bad because it wanted things.

In that graceless spiritual bubble, the mind, the body, and the spirit were disconnected.  The body had sinful desires to overcome.  The mind had sinful thoughts to overcome.  But the spirit was of God and trumped all of our sinful nature if we prayed and asked Jesus in to fix our broken humanity.

I’m sure some of my conservative evangelical peers must be saying, “It’s not like that!”  Perhaps it isn’t, for them.  Maybe they didn’t already go into faith believing they were broken simply by virtue of existence.  Or maybe they just can’t see it even though it’s right there in front of them.

It never occurred to me to medicate my shame.  Food, substance use, sex, even suicide—none of those were options because they were all “temptations” to be deal with through prayer and reading the Bible.  I didn’t touch drugs or alcohol or cigarettes because that would have been fleshly sin.  Eating the wrong things or in the wrong way was sin, too.  I stayed away from boys just in case my body betrayed my spirit and wanted more than hand-holding and innocent pecks on the cheek.

None of that stopped my body from wanting things, of course.  I used to hide my Easter chocolate in my room and make it last for six months by eating just a tiny bit at a time.  I would nibble, and then I would feel guilty—both for hiding and for eating.  Chocolate was sinful for bodies like mine.  I wasn’t disciplined enough.

I made sure I was covered, not out of modesty, but out of hiding.  It functioned both ways, though, and I was safe from the bodily sin of “causing my brother to stumble” in lust.  Not that I believed for even a moment that any boys were looking at me that way; I knew they all liked pretty girls with skinny waists and big boobs.  Privately, I could barely admit to myself that I wanted someone to look at me that way.

My language was clean, at least on the outside.  I pretended to be outraged once on a trip with some other Christian teens.  A boy from another city said “shit.”  I joined the others in telling him that wasn’t God’s best.  Secretly, it gave me a thrill to hear such a word on the lips of the faithful.  I wished I were that brave, but I felt ashamed for it.

I monitored my thoughts to make sure I wasn’t harboring resentment, anger, or lust.  There was a boy I liked.  I imagined what it would feel like to kiss him, maybe to have his hands on me.  But I remembered that I wasn’t supposed to be thinking about that.  I never asked him out because I was afraid both my body and my mind would betray me.

Alone at night, sometimes, I touched myself, all the time trying not to think about anything so I wouldn’t be guilty of lusting.  Except the very act of giving myself pleasure seemed to fall into that category—not to mention the impossibility of keeping my mind blank, separate from my body.  Orgasm and guilt became inextricably linked.

Everything was about overcoming the “desires of the flesh,” emptying myself of me so that I could be filled with the Holy Spirit.  The more Spirit-filled I was, the closer to God.  If I just let Jesus in far enough, he could make all the things my body—and my mind—wanted go away, replaced only by the desire to love and serve God in near-perfect holiness.

It didn’t work.

Instead, it left a gaping, dripping wound, a hole in the place where I should have been.  I tried harder and harder to not sin, convinced I was broken somehow for not having the faith in God to keep me from doing the things a Good Girl doesn’t do.  So I prayed harder, confessed more, and begged God to make me just not feel.

That did work.  In the wrong way.

A door closed, locked, bolted.  But instead of keeping my spirit safe from my own mind and body, it kept me from feeling much of anything for anyone else.  And it didn’t stop my body or my mind from their natural inclinations; it only served to prove they needed to be separated.

I want to open that door again, but I think I’m afraid that what I unleash will be very much like Elsa in Frozen, setting off an eternal winter.  That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but not much.

Slowly, slowly, I’m unfastening the chains.  I let myself cry with someone from church who was feeling a deep, heavy hurt.  I asked after several friends coping with fresh grief.  It felt good to allow their pain in.

If only I could let mine out.

Shame, shame

There is so much shame out there for us to use against our fellow humans.  It’s so easy to claim-and-club, to bludgeon each other in the name of making others into better people.  And doesn’t it feel good, knowing that we’re doing the right thing, the moral thing, while others wallow in their guilt?

I read an article yesterday about how restaurant portion sizes can be an issue for people wanting to have healthier lifestyles.  In the article, a study was cited in which people were given cookies labeled “medium” and “large,” but the cookies were in fact the same size.  People who had the medium cookies ate more, and it was suggested that the labeling convinced them that the portion was smaller so they could indulge.  The implication is that if restaurant portion sizes were standard (a medium soda is always the same number of ounces everywhere, for example) then it could be more effective than laws restricting the maximum size.  The article went on to mention that clothing sizes have gone down in the last 50 years, meaning that larger people fit into smaller sizes because of resizing (called “vanity sizing”).

I have no problem with the research or even the thesis of the article.  It was mostly factual, providing information.  What did bother me was the comments on the article.  It was a string of people claiming to be very thin and unable to find clothing that fits.  (I find that hard to believe, as I have noticed neither an epidemic of nakedness nor large numbers of skinny people in baggy clothes.)  In fact, the majority of the comments ran along the lines of, “Let’s not make excuses for the fat people sitting around on their lazy asses stuffing themselves with supersized fast food.”

In other words, fat shaming.

I will never understand why it’s so appealing to say hateful things on a public forum.  I’m not even talking about the stupidity here, the conflating of fat and lazy or unhealthy. I’m talking about the name-calling, the character assassination of people we don’t even know.  I don’t get the desire to verbally thrash complete strangers, as though we ourselves live flawless lives.  Nor do I relate to the underlying fears that lead us to disproportionately shame fat people as though being overweight is among the worst things one can do.

I’ve never met anyone who had long-term success becoming a better person as the result of being shamed into “proper” behavior.  I’ve met plenty of people who have become fearful and depressed and have hidden some of the best parts of themselves because they believed that they weren’t worthy of love.  Not only that, I’ve seen perfectly healthy people become ashamed of their bodies because they are curvier, more muscular, large-boned (and I mean that literally), or even because they are pregnant.  Is this what we’ve become as a society?  People who are afraid of natural variation and even natural biological function?

The thing is, I’m not even laying this one on the church.  While I think that in large part the church has a role to play (Christian “diet” programs, anyone?), that doesn’t explain why there are so many people who are not now or never have been Christians who believe the same things.  In this case, it’s not necessarily the direct actions of the church but the passive failure to act that is the problem.

As Christians, we have a responsibility to end the cycle of shame.  We need to stop buying into the lie that thinness is God’s plan for humanity or that there is any such thing as “righteous” health behavior.  I don’t mean that it’s our job just to make people feel good about themselves.  But we need to separate what society says from what God says, especially if we claim to be “Bible-believing.”  (I’ve never seen a commandment in Scripture that says, “Thou shalt be thin.”)

I’m not really a “fat activist.”  I was merely bothered by the rude and judgmental comments (along with the bragging about being too small for normal clothes; if that’s not fat shaming, I’ll eat my hat).  But if you are interested in the subject, here’s a woman who does just that.  Her blog is fantastic and she regularly gets all sorts of interesting feedback.  Check it out (and especially check out her Hate Mail page if you want to read a cross between hysterically funny and rage-inducing).

All Dressed Up

Since I’ve already (twice now) addressed the problem of how men treat women, it’s only fair that I make a point about women. While I don’t believe it’s reasonable to blame women for male shortcomings, it’s equally unfair to blame men for the things women do.

I don’t get my panties in a bunch because a woman wore a low-cut blouse or showed a lot of leg. I think this is because I have a much more narrow definition of lust than most conservative people. Conservative Christians often define lust much too broadly, allowing it to encompass absolutely everything that even remotely seems “dirty.” That may be why we’re so anxious to absolve men of their “problem” by pointing fingers at women and what they are wearing. Let’s face it, this issue has been around since forever, and what women are wearing isn’t what drives it. If it were, then we should have no problem with cultures that expect women to be covered head-to-toe. I strongly suspect that it wouldn’t matter if some women wore sweat pants and didn’t wash their hair for a week. There are still men who would try to make a case that they’re using “pheromones” or something to attract men because they don’t cover up their natural scent.

That said, I do think modesty is important. But I don’t mean in the sense that girls and women should just “cover up.” (Because I think it’s perfectly acceptable to wear shorts to the gym or a bathing suit to the beach.) I mean in the sense of how she herself treats her body and how she treats men. Immodesty comes more from motivation than from the garment in question. I’ve seen women look immodest in t-shirts while others look appropriate in above-the-knee skirts and low necklines. But somehow, we’ve cultivated the bizarre idea that the percentage of flesh showing is directly proportional to the degree of sluttiness possessed by the woman.

This is the very same stupid logic that leads people to claim that public breastfeeding is improper. The idea that there is a nipple somewhere under that baby’s lips, and that a little flesh might show around the baby’s head, is just plain horrifying to some people. The irony isn’t lost on me that in cultures requiring head coverings, public breastfeeding is relatively common and no one blinks.

We’ve grown into a society that values women for their looks. From an early age, girls are coached on how to look good. Young girls are encouraged to look (and dress) like little adults, and adult women are encouraged to look like prepubescent girls. We’re all supposed to base our self-worth on how pretty our faces are and how thin our bodies are. Is it any wonder that so many women and girls dress themselves in ways supposedly designed to make men drool? We’re taught to believe that our value rests on whether or not we can successfully catch (and keep) a man.

Strangely, culture has become fixated on the most fleeting of female traits, her physical appearance, and has dictated which characteristics are the most attractive. What we are to find beautiful today will change tomorrow. And the other side effect of all this is to fail to give real men credit for being better than that. We tell them they “can’t help it” when confronted with “hot” women. But the fact that real men are marrying real women betrays the lie. Real men love their significant others for a lot more than what can be seen.

Instead of teaching our daughters that they ought to be careful how much cleavage, back, shoulder, or leg they show, we should be helping them love their bodies no matter what they wear. We’re aiming at the wrong thing. It’s not about trying to figure out where the modesty line is and how not to cross it. It’s about having a healthy concept of ourselves without needing external proof. It’s about dressing for ourselves instead of someone else.

We also need to encourage our daughters to treat their male friends with respect. I know a lovely (read: kind, sweet, charming, intelligent) young woman who has a lot of male friends. They all treat her with respect, even though she is pretty and dresses in ways that flatter her figure. Why? Because she knows the line and doesn’t cross it; because she treats them with respect; because she expects them to return that respect; and because she doesn’t place her worth on whether or not she is dating any of them.

It’s not an insurmountable problem. For every degrading beer commercial, there is a woman striving to help us become body-confident and see ourselves in a positive way regardless of our shape. If you’re a woman in the business of helping other women love and respect their bodies, I’d love to hear from you. Let’s raise a generation of young women who don’t buy into the commercialization and exploitation of their bodies.

Medical Judgmentalism

When we set ourselves in the place of God, judging the condition of other people’s hearts, we set ourselves up for God to knock us down.

There has always been a somewhat fringe health and wellness movement in the Church.  Sometimes, that can be very good.  There are excellent resources for people who want to lead healthier lives to do so within a Christian context.  I do not want to blame the leaders of those excellent ministries for the shortcomings of the purveyors of snake oil that can be found in pockets of Christianity.  As for the rest, their particular brand of “health and wealth” gospel takes many shapes, frequently masquerading as legitimate healing ministries.

One common thread that can be overlooked is the degree to which these so-called healing ministries attempt to blame the very people they claim to serve.  Some examples, from (unfortunately) real ministries: Your weight problem stems from lack of organization in your home; your disease process has been caused by your marriage failing to live up to God’s standards for husbands and wives; your illness is the direct result of sin in your life; specific sins lead to specific health problems.

I suppose that there might be some truth in the idea that holding sin in your heart can lead to breakdown of bodily function.  Certainly there is correlation (not causation) between a healthy spiritual life and positive outcomes following a hospital stay.  But drawing parallels between particular sins and various diseases seems dubious at best, downright evil at worst.

There are three things wrong with this.  I will cite the Biblical refutation for blaming sin for illness first.  In  John 9:1-3, Jesus speaks with his disciples regarding a blind man they have found:

As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (NIV)

In Jesus’ day, at least some people would have believed this very thing—that a person’s health was bound up in either his own or his ancestral sin.  Jesus lays this one to rest by assuring them that this was not so.  He also effectively demonstrates that his miracles have as much to do with instruction for us as with healing an individual.  In ministries that blame the victim, both of those truths are lacking.

The second problem is judgmentalism.  This morning, our church had a service along with four other local congregations.  The pastors of all five (total) churches delivered a great message about judgment and freedom.  Our pastor gave the definition of judgmentalism as assuming you know someone else’s motives.  When someone tries to make claims of personal sin as the cause of illness, that is bald judgmentalism.  If one believes we are all sinners, then how does one person’s “hidden” or “unforgiven” sin cause illness, while another’s does not?  Or while another’s overt sin does not?  We simply do not know what is in another person’s heart.  We cannot know that fear or anger or lack of submission are causing disease, because we cannot know that those are the sins someone is enslaved to.

Third, the claim that specific sins equate specific diseases can be easily refuted by reality.  A few small “studies” or annecdotal evidence are not enough to prove such a claim.  This becomes even more pronounced when we add in things like healing.  If the root cause of (I’m making this up) peanut allergy is really the sin of resentment, then why are people not cured when they repent?  Are they not praying hard enough for forgiveness?  Are they not really sorry?  We are promised forgiveness whenever we confess.  So if that is what is needed, then why does it appear to work for some people and not others?  And why are there lots and lots of people who are resentful, but not suffering from any kind of allergy at all?  It becomes clear that this is no more than an attempt to control others through pseudoscience.

We need to be wary of any ministry that claims we must clean ourselves up before approaching our Heavenly Father, even if that takes the form of purging our sins before asking for healing.  We also need to be wary of anything that pretends that the Bible is a medial or a science text.  It isn’t, and it was never meant to be taken that way.  What a gross misuse of our holy Scripture.

 

Food Fight

I have posted before about body image and the expectations placed on some Christians regarding body type and healthy lifestyle.  I want to explain why this is such a touchy subject for me.

I grew up in a household in which both of my parents suffered from disordered eating.  My mother had spent her entire life binging and dieting in order to achieve a “perfect” body.  Ultimately, she destroyed her body that way and died of the resulting complications.  My father eats nearly nothing and equates extreme thinness with perfect health.  He has had periods of time in which he has consumed nothing but very strange and specific foods, such as watered-down tomato juice laced with hot pepper sauce.  (No, I am not making this up.)  He chronically fails to consume enough calories and has virtually no muscle mass left.  Eventually, despite his claims of peak health, he too will succumb to the ravages of his illness.

In this country, we have stopped viewing food as sustenance and have replaced that with treating food as a weapon.  We use it to control, reward, coerce, and judge each other and ourselves.  While some people eat themselves sick, others deprive themselves of vital nutrients.  We believe we can tell a person’s faith, morality, or even their worth as a person by what they do or do not eat.  We obsess endlessly about what is in and on our food.  We claim “allergies” as a thinly veiled form of food snobbery.  We deem foods to be “good” or “bad,” based not on actual nutritional value but on where the food came from.  We eat in secret to avoid the stab of someone else’s self-righteous sword.  And when others don’t conform to our version of food purity, we shake our heads sadly and hope they eventually realize the gravity of their sin.

It needs to stop.  This fixation is leading to a grotesque combination of rising obesity and rising eating disorders.  My parents together represented both of these extremes.  Is that what we want?  And like me, the child of parents at both ends of the spectrum, those of us in the middle won’t know where to turn for the truth.  We know we don’t want to put our health at risk with obesity, but which version of what is healthy do we trust?  And how do we achieve “perfect” diet without putting ourselves at risk of developing another kind of disordered eating?  We will no longer have faith that our food will sustain us; instead we will live in fear of our food.

As for me, I am trying to find healing from my own fears about food.  I am trying to listen to my body, trust myself, and make the best choices I know how.  I am raising my children to allow themselves to enjoy their food rather than living in terror that they might ingest the “wrong” thing or that their food will “poison” them.  My hope is that they will have a more balanced experience than I did.  I am also teaching them to make their choices and let others make their own.  It isn’t our job to judge or control what others do.

The food fights have to stop.

Bodies of Christ

A few days ago, I posted about the way some Christians talk about body shape, especially women’s bodies.  For the most part, this takes the form of criticizing any form or type of “fatness,” real or perceived.  Good Christian women should be thin, in order to demonstrate that their faith is real and active in their lives.  After all, fatness is a sign that you’ve given in to gluttony.  (I am not making this up.  An acquaintance of mine once said that eating meat is gluttonous.)

I suppose, being a woman myself, that I thought the idea that you can tell if a person is really a Christian by body type applied only to females.  Not so.  I just read a very disturbing comment from a father regarding his deceased son.  The son in question is a fallen Marine, stationed in Afghanistan.  He overcame many personal challenges in his young life.  I have no doubt that he was a fine individual.  In no way do I want to take away from his accomplishments or speak ill of the dead.  I do not want to cause further grief to bereaved family members.  That said, here is the quote that bothered me: “‘He was my hero before he joined the Marines,’ Dr. Rivers said. ‘He overcame so many obstacles to transform from a thin child into a ripped warrior.’”  (You can read the full article here.)

This disturbs me even more given the fact that this young man (and presumably his family) was a professing Christian.  Here we have a good example of the male version of body-as-evidence-of-faith.  In order to be a “real man,” and possibly a real Christian, one must be “ripped.”  Being thin and less muscular is apparently a sign that you haven’t drawn on God’s power to be physically impressive.  After all, real Christian men need to be able to beat down the enemy.  Heaven forbid that a man should be peaceful and gentle.

This actually goes right along with the idea of Jesus as a macho hero.  Eugene Cho has an excellent take on fitting Jesus into our cultural notions of masculinity.

Apart from Christ

I was recently lamenting the fact that so many of my friends, family and acquaintances have what I consider an unnatural obsession with food, bodies, and “health.”  Another friend commented that the ultra-specific, restrictive diets that have become all the rage are an attempt at obtaining righteousness apart from Christ.  While I definitely agree with this, another thought also occurred to me.

Some of the people I know fixate not only on “eating healthy” but on other aspects of health and nutrition.  Some examples: Eating only organic produce, grass-fed beef, and free-range chicken/eggs; eliminating entire categories of food, regardless of allergy (e.g., grains); spotting and avoiding  “allergens” everywhere; non-vaccination; high doses of vitamins; avoidance of “allopathic” medicine; and the list goes on.

It isn’t really what people choose to do or not do that bothers me.  People are free to choose as they wish.  What bothers me is the attitude behind it. I can recall one incident when I was a teen.  I had a friend over for dinner.  When I reached for a second serving of dinner, this friend asked me, rather rudely, if I thought I really “needed” to eat any more.  This friend now herself, as an adult, has a strange obsession with health and her body.  But even then, it was clear that she had learned to pass judgment on others for their choices.

What finally dawned on me is that I believe people, even Christians, fear not only death but their own bodies.  Any number of things could be causing such widespread fear, but there is no question of its presence.  This saddens me.  I do not believe that anyone who lives with fear in his or her heart can possibly ever experience true joy.  I don’t even mean happiness, although I think people can intentionally deprive themselves of this, too.  But real, pure, unadulterated joy, flowing from the Father to us and through us can only be felt when we empty ourselves of our burdens.  It is a lie that we will have a better life if we eat or live in a certain “healthy” way.  No doubt, we can cause ourselves grief when we don’t care at all for our bodies.  However, it does no good to go to the opposite extreme, either.

Let us stop this death of joy, this death in our hearts, and begin living again–joyfully, in Christ.

~Sela