The Eating Disorder You Don’t Hear Much About

The thing about a disorder like anorexia is that it eventually makes you look something like what the dominant culture regards as most beautiful, and achieving that ‘look’ becomes more important than, say, staying alive.

And it’s perfectly socially acceptable–for the most part–to tell skinny people how ‘good’ they look. When I was 17 and recovering from major thoracic and spinal surgery, I returned to school fragile and emaciated from the ordeal, only to hear “Oh my God, you lost so much weight–you look so good!!!”

Only a few sane, mature adults registered the appropriate shock and concern at my wasted appearance. Our culture is so sick that we think “sick” looks “so good!!! Anorexics are even praised for their self-discipline.

Image credit here

On the flip side, it’s seldom recognized that many people who are obese are actually suffering from an illness–compulsive eating disorder–that is often moralized as a lack of self-discipline.

It’s the unglamorous eating disorder. Because while thin people are praised, fat people are scorned. There are cries of war against ‘obesity’ from the highest places in the land while the Goddess of Thin gathers more and more worshipers to herself.

One thing I know is that we are all more than we look like; that we all are beautiful, marvelous, and perfect even in our brokenness because we are made by a God who is beautiful, marvelous, perfect, and who became broken like us to redeem that brokenness.

It would be better for all of us if we could stop keeping score–my disorder’s prettier than yours!–and give grace to one another. A great place to do that is in the breaking of bread, together.

Continue reading The Eating Disorder You Don’t Hear Much About

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Is Everyone Losing Weight Without Me?

I’ve always loved books, but for a number of years–okay, for a lot of years–my reading choices have tended toward the serious. And yet few things are more enjoyable for me than curling up with some really funny reading material. And so I picked up this book at the library yesterday and finished it this morning, laughing loudly and inappropriately in the library (I started reading it before I even left the building), in the doctor’s waiting room, and while reading in bed.

I love laughing out loud while reading. It has a hint of hedonism mixed with a dab of Crazy Lady.

What surprised me about the book is how many times Mindy Kaling (perhaps better known as the actress/writer/director who plays Kelly Kapoor on The Office (which, I’m sorry, I don’t really like*) references her weight.

Really? This woman feels like she needs to explain her weight or her looks?

Yes, yes, she does, because Hollywood’s obsession with unearthly skinniness makes normal women unwelcome.

I thought this passage was particularly incisive (as my favorite kind of comedy writing is)–

“Since I am not model skinny, but also not super fat and fabulously owning my hugeness, I fall in that nebulous “normal American woman” size that legions of fashion stylists detest. For the record, I’m a size eight (this week, anyway). Many stylists hate that size, because I think, to them, it shows that I lack the discipline to be an ascetic or the confident sassy abandon to be a total fatty hedonist. They’re like: pick a lane! Just be so enormous that you need to be buried in a piano, and dress accordingly.”

And this one, too–

“My mom’s a doctor but because she came from India and then Africa, where childhood obesity was not a problem, she put no premium on having skinny kids…Part of me wonders if it even made them feel a little prosperous, like Have you seen our overweight Indian child? Do you know how statistically rare this is?”

And then her chapter on ‘Types of Women in Romantic Comedies Who are not Real’–

(THE SKINNY WOMAN WHO IS BEAUTIFUL AND TONED BUT ALSO GLUTTONOUS AND DISGUSTING)

“I am speaking of the gorgeous and skinny heroine who is also a disgusting pig when it comes to food. And everyone […] is constantly telling her to stop eating and being such a glutton. And this actress, this poor skinny actress who so clearly lost weight to play the likeable lead, has to say things like, ‘Shut up you guys! I love cheesecake!'”

It’s great how Mindy lampoons the ridiculous and double minded nature of weight and bodies and dieting in our culture while recognizing that she is enmeshed in that culture too. Because aren’t we all?

*it probably speaks to the quality of the book that I didn’t really have to know much about Mindy Kaling or The Office to find the book hilarious and enjoyable*

Oh. And Happy Groundhog Day!

{I really should tell you about the time Tim and I were stranded with a broken car in Punxsutawney (in Februrary, no less) eating popcorn at the car repair place where they told us it would take 2 days to fix the car, so why didn’t we find a place to stay? We jury-rigged the car ourselves and drove it back to Chicago and then to California, and it never did need to be properly fixed again.}

Is Hating My Body a Sin?

I love seeing the search terms that bring people to Eat With Joy. Some of them are strange, some are creepy, some are funny, some are sad. Sometimes, the search terms inspire posts, like this one, which landed someone here last week:

“Is Hating My Body a Sin?”

And so I’d like to attempt to answer that question.

To begin, we might ask “What’s sin?” I’m aware that there are about a thousand disputed ways to answer that question–and so no one ‘perfect’ way–but I like this one:

Sin is the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation.

And I’d add that the people who make it easy for all of us to hate our bodies (through relentless idealization of unreal bodies, through profit-motivated manufactured discontent) are more ‘guilty’ than the teenager who thinks there’s something wrong with her thighs.

Then we might ask “what’s meant by ‘hating my body’?” There’s no answer in a catechism, of course, but we could try something like this:

Hating one’s body is the disrespecting of the body God has given us, which in itself is worthy of respect and honor, being made in God’s image, the fulfilling of desires in ways God not intend, to believe lies about human bodies in general and ours in particular, and to covet for ourselves a body not our own.

So I would say that, yes, hating one’s body usually involves sin: a distortion of the relationship God desires to have with us, and the relationships God desires for us to have with others and with creation.

And, like any sin, hating our body means a loss of freedom and liberty that God desires for us.

Hating our bodies is a great handle for marketers to grab onto–which is why I see body hatred as a corporate ‘sin’ as much as an individual one. Untold billions are made off of people’s hatred of their bodies.

Body hatred might be regarded as a form of ingratitude for the life and body God has given us. It may lead us to fulfill certain desires in ways God doesn’t intend (for example, self-starvation or gluttony.) It may lead us to covet what we don’t have–as when we look at someone else’s body and wish we looked “like that.”

As always, the ultimate remedy is the grace of God shown to us in Jesus. I think of the communion table as a place of grace and healing in particular for this ill.  Supplementary remedies include:

  • Love & Gratitude

Give thanks for your body and for your life! If you’re reading this, chances are that you’re breathing. Start with giving thanks for that breath. And the next one. And so on.

  • Be Extra-Kind to your body–enjoy your body!

Loving your neighbor “as yourself” presupposes that you love yourself. Eat well. Sleep enough. Move some. Put lotion on your dry skin. Dress so that you are comfortable and confident. Doesn’t mean endless primping. I’m talking about making the time to treat your body as well as you would treat the body of someone you really love.

  • Starve the Beast!

Interrupt the cultural messages that encourage you to think there’s something wrong with YOU, instead of with the airbrushed images of anorexic people they present as ideal.

Answer the inner voice back if it’s telling you that you’re ugly, too thin, too fat, too jiggly, whatever.

Remind yourself that you are God’s handiwork.

For me, starving the beast means I don’t look at certain catalogs or magazines or shows. Do you need to cancel certain subscriptions? Stop watching certain movies?

  • Prayer and Meditation

Ask God for mercy and help to see yourself and others as God sees them.

  • Find Support

If you suspect that you may need professional help for an eating disorder or for a body image disorder, please get help. You can even contact me if you need help looking for a professional in your area.

But even if your problem does not warrant the care of a mental health professional, it is a good idea to find support in a friend or confessor who has a healthy body image and can encourage you to embrace yourself as God made you.

What has helped you accept your body? What has stood in the way?

How Patriarchy Gave Me an Eating Disorder, Part 2

My husband says I forgot to point out that not only did Ruth pursue Boaz, pretty much proposing marriage to him, but she also went and lay down next to Boaz at night. When he was sleeping. After he’d been drinking.

How’s that for some ‘Biblical’ Passion & Purity!?

{And yes. I totally love and adore my scholarly husband for pointing that out.}

Anyway, OK. Brief recap from part one–

Things I learned from evangelical culture:

Be Pure.

And so be afraid of your own desires.

Be Pretty.

And so be afraid of eating, excreting, and everything bodily.

Be Perfect.

And so walk the fine line between looking great, being ‘nice,’ and pretending that you don’t even care about ‘the physical.’

{Because you have a crush on the cute boy with nice hair who plays guitar for youth group talks piously about wanting to date only ‘spiritual’ girls. And ‘spiritual,’ in the theology of the evangelical youth group, means ‘not physical.’ That’s why the really ‘spiritual’ girls are always ‘dating Jesus.’ Which unfortunately translates, too often, treating the smitten guys around them, with whom they’re ‘just friends,’ like crap.}

My own understanding of growing up Christian, then, meant shutting down everything that was God-given, normal, and healthy.

I was terrified of ‘liking’ boys because that might lead “someplace” sinful. So I was choked up, found it hard to talk to boys unless it was to listen to how much they liked my friends.

I was terrified of getting a womanly body. Not just because women were dangerous temptresses, all curves and sensuousness and endangering to a young man’s ‘purity,’ though that was part of it.

Part of it, too, was that I was afraid to take up space. Because, after all, in the evangelical version of womanhood I’d pieced together for myself, a woman’s passive perfection entailed unobtrusiveness.

Let me tell you, I’m not really naturally unobtrusive. Oh, I might be a little shy when we first meet in person. And I’m told my personality is more ‘sweet’ than not. But I also can be a bit of a Scrappy Doo, or, if you prefer, a bit of an Anne of Green Gables kind of girl. One time I smacked a boy in my Sunday School class on the head with a hardback Bible. (Sorry about that, Tommy!) I rather enjoyed debates as a young’un. And none of that’s really conducive to the whole “gentle and quiet spirit” thing that I took to mean passivity.

Somehow, in my mind, cultivating a passive, pure, perfect Christian girl persona got tied in with remaining physically petite. Not being ‘weighty,’ not being a contender. Something to be pursued, not someone to be reckoned with.

And then, too, there was the food side of things. Oh, food. Until a certain point–I think about age 14 or 15–I enjoyed eating and didn’t give undue thought either to food or to my weight. Sure, I was aware of dieting, aware that ‘someday,’ when I was a woman, I’d hate my body just like most of the grown-up women I knew. But I liked food. Not that I was particularly adventurous, but I remember relishing the sweet and sour chicken my dad would cook for my every birthday at my request, the simple pleasure of perfectly steamed white rice, and the lemony explosion of a cold Granny Smith apple behind my teeth.

Somehow, though–and it’s all mixed in, I think, with the passivity and the perfection, the prettiness and the purity–I began to fear my appetite. Just when my appetite should’ve been growing–when I was growing, both in mind and body, more rapidly than I’d ever grown since babyhood–I recoiled from it in fear.

Gluttony was a sin, after all. The body’s desires were suspiciously sinful: “put a knife to your throat if you’re given to gluttony”?!

You combine that with a food culture like ours, where food is plentiful, cheap, and everywhere, and I began to harbor a secret, shameful fear: what if I eat everything? What if I just start eating and can’t stop? If I can never stop? How would I know how to stop?

Obviously, eating was too complicated and dangerous.

Not eating was easier. Of course, then the problem was my hunger would overtake me, eventually, and I’d break down and eat and eat, always, it seemed, too much–enough to trigger fear, panic, guilt; terror over letting my physical ‘desire’ get the better of me.

After all, where might that lead?

And so I was afraid: afraid of wanting to eat, of eating, of liking boys, of boys, of accepting my body, of my body, of going out and of being seen.

I would get dressed under my bath towel, hiding nakedness from myself.

And in all this time, all this was a shameful secret.

Because, after all, this wasn’t the behavior of someone pretty, perfect, pure, or passive.

But that–a tortured, circumscribed, turned-in-itself, endlessly abstemious life–is not the flourishing, fully human life God desires for God’s daughters.

You are God’s. God made you, you are beautiful, and God loves to feed you and to see you flourish–you, as God made you–not you, pressed down and rolled out and cut to fit some other shape.

You, as God made you, are beautiful.

{of course this isn’t the end. there’s more to my story. and to yours. looking forward to sharing and hearing more…}

How Patriarchy Gave Me an Eating Disorder, Part 1

Disclaimers:

1. This title is, of course, hyperbole.

2. My parents didn’t teach or embody patriarchal attitudes. {Not blaming you, mom! Not blaming you, dad!}

3. I might have to add more disclaimers later.

maiden with unicorn--a symbol of chastity

Criticizing fairy tales for being relentlessly patriarchal is well-trod ground, I know. It’s been nearly 20 years since Ani DiFranco first sang:

i am not a pretty girl

that’s not what i do

i ain’t no damsel in distress

and i don’t need to be rescued

so put me down, punk

maybe you’d prefer a maiden fair

isn’t there a kitten stuck up a tree somewhere?

why is the skinny, conventionally pretty Fiona the 'real' Fiona here when she's NOT in the film?

But I didn’t discover Ani until my senior year of high school, the same year that I saw Shrek and realized the power of the anti-fairy tale. Before that, I uncritically absorbed things that I learned in youth group, from Focus on the Family’s Brio magazine, from I Kissed Dating Goodbye, from the stories and tales swapped at Christian camps. So much of these things, these folklorish bits of pseudo-Biblical wisdom, reinforced the fairy-tale narrative:

1. Be pure

You know. Don’t have sex. Better yet, don’t even kiss. And better still, don’t get emotionally involved. Because any of those things might scar you, mar you, soil you for your “future husband.” Even a crush is a potential slippery slope toward some kind of emotional fornication. Or something. In other words, everything that adolescence awakens is fraught with the potential for irreversible self-destruction.

2. Be pretty

Yeah, yeah, yeah, Proverbs 31:30, “beauty is fleeting,” blah, blah, blah in between pictures of wholesome, all-American looking girls and Focus on the Family-approved hair-and-makeup tips and vague references to weight being one of the things a person can control about his/her looks. Not to mention that you should exercise regularly, watch what you eat, and floss, and look for those things in a potential mate. Don’t skimp on the cardio! Your potential mate might be evaluating you!

look how skinny and pretty these people are! look how she's looking UP at him! THIS, THIS here, is what you get IF you're godly enough.

3. Be passive

The book of Ruth? Not actually about a powerful Moabite go-getter of a woman who commits herself to the mother of her loser dead husband and works her a$$ off to make sure they don’t starve in a time and place that was notoriously harsh for women on their own without men. No. It’s about Ruth keeping busy while waiting for Mr. Right to notice her. (Never mind that Ruth goes to Boaz and pretty much proposes marriage to him.) The ‘godly girl’ waits for God to write her love story, which means waiting for some guy to write it.

So then there’s me, 14 or 15 years old, outgrowing my American Girl doll and growing out of my GapKids clothes, realizing I’d never be a ballerina and resisting admitting any crushes on any boys anywhere.

Could I admit to myself (let alone my parents, LET ALONE the boy I had a crush on) that I had a crush?

No. That might be some kinda emotional fornication. Or something. Not pure.

Could I accept the changes in my body as good, as normal, as God-given?

No. I could not. My body was now, in Ani DiFranco’s words again, a

“breakable, takeable body/an ever-increasingly valuable body/…a woman had come in the night to replace me/deface me.”

My body was now a “temptation” to boys, something to be well-hidden, well-covered, well-controlled. Oh, but beautiful. And pure. And passive.

Putting those things together in a culture that’s already pretty well body-obsessed and eating-disordered? Meant that somehow, pleasing God got tied up in my mind with exercising enormous control over my body. Excess/loose flesh signified sin and was certain to displease God and horrify potential suitors. Furthermore, since my whole feminine duty was summed up in “waiting purely & patiently” for life/love/whatever to happen to me, my endless project of self-perfection was, to my mind, righteous rather than self-absorbed.

{More to come tomorrow…}