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


Using God as Backup for White Middle Class Standards of Beauty

Usually for your weekend reading I post something of interest from around the web. This week I enjoyed reading the HuffPo listing of the 10 most polarizing foods–foods that people either love or hate–but some of your responses to this weeks’ earlier posts made me think you might enjoy this one, originally posted in August, on using God as backup for enforcing white middle-class standards of beauty and grooming.

Recently I read back through just a bit of Disciplines of the Beautiful Woman by Anne Ortlund–because I vaguely remembered that there was something in there that had once had a grip on my mind–and I only had to suffer through 43 pages until I found it:

“ advice to all is: when you first become conscious in the morning, get decent. I know some people say [pray] first, but don’t you sort of feel sorry for God when daily he has to face all those millions of hair curlers and old robes? What if you were the Almighty, and got prayed to with words spoken through all those unbrushed teeth? It seems to me like the ultimate test of grace.”

(Hm, so I should have compassion on God and look good before I pray?)

She goes on to pose a number of questions like these:

“How are your hips, thighs, tummy?”

“Do you need to get into that jogging suit and run?”

“How is your hair?”

“What kind of program are you on to stretch, bend, and stay supple, to stand tall; to be a good advertisement of God’s wonderful care of his children?”

(So I have to look good not only for God but for everyone else, too?)

From about age 15 or so, I used to get up early to use the NordicTrack or to do some idiotic aerobics routine before school, for 2 reasons:

1. I didn’t think I deserved to eat breakfast until I’d exercised


2. I didn’t think God wanted to hear from me unless I was ‘disciplined’ enough to exercise regularly.

Being a typical American teenager, it didn’t even occur to me that God might have bigger things to worry about than whether I reached my target heart rate or ate too many grams of saturated fat. I’m pretty sure 1996 had enough injustice, war, natural disaster, famine, and other stuff going on that God wouldn’t have minded hearing the prayers through unbrushed teeth or from girls who chose to do something with their spare time besides fitness and beauty maintenance.

surely I’m not the only one who had a caboodle?

I’m pretty sure that somewhere, deep down, I knew that God didn’t care what I looked like. Nonetheless, pleasing God by looking good was bound up in my mind and body with actually doing good in the world.

In The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf argues that the pressure on women to attain to an unrealistic standard of beauty has  increased along with women’s freedoms in other areas of society. A study of archived letters from students at Smith College suggests that women before suffrage (1920) were more likely to worry about needing to GAIN weight, while women after, almost universally, worried about needing to LOSE weight.

{Why? To take up less space? To look better in the ‘flapper’ style? To eschew feminine curves for a more androgynous appearance?}

This problem, it’s not unlike my Audrey Hepburn problem. But it’s worse in some ways, too, because claims like Anne Ortlund’s use God as backup for enforcing white middle-class standards of beauty and grooming.

And her book isn’t the only one to do that. Lots of the ‘Christian’ diet books out there do the same thing. And that’s what had me so upset about the article in Relevant last week.

Because what’s good? And what does God want from us?

{100 sit-ups and 100 push-ups every morning? Detoxification ‘cleanses’?}


To do justice.

To love mercy.

To walk humbly with God.

{I’m no longer posting on Sundays. See you all on Monday!}

Speaking Out, Part Two

{I’m away this week. In addition to the delights of being with family & friends, I had the opportunity to speak to a MOPS group in New Jersey. I’m going to share some of the talk with you here. If I get my tech stuff together, I might even go all fancy and post it as a podcast so you can hear my squeaky little voice. Here’s the second of three parts.}

I have to condense the story here, but I want to tell you two things that helped me get to the place I am now, which, admittedly is not perfect, but which is undoubtedly a much, much happier place, a place where I can have the occasional chocolate croissant with a cup of coffee with cream and not feel “dirty” or like I need to go run 6 miles to “get rid of it.”

OK, first thing. First thing, I started reading the Bible with an eye toward what it said about food. Not in the, you know, Ezekiel Bread kind of way, as in, “And you, take wheat and barley, beans and lentils, millet and emmer,  and put them into a single vessel and make your bread from them. During the number of days that you lie on your side, 390 days, you shall eat it.” I love it that you can find, you know, Ezekiel 4:9 bread in the health food store, but the lying on your side for a year plus one month? So weird, and no one is going to build any kind of health practice on that!

But, in seriousness, I began to see how food in the Bible is this powerful symbol of God’s love and care and provision for people.

God sets up the garden of Eden with great food ripe for the picking.

God feeds the Israelites in the desert without their having to work for it.

God’s word, God’s love, is described again and again like sweet, rich food–like milk, like honey

Jesus actually feeds people–think of the five loaves and two fish. Think of the wedding at Cana.

Jesus says He is the Bread of Life.
The end of all things: the vision of God’s renewed, restored, perfect world is a party with great food.

“Come, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
hear, that your soul may live.”

This was not a God that wanted to punish me for enjoying food. This was a God who wanted me to taste and see that His gifts are good. That enjoying them, and giving thanks for them was NOT unspiritual. That eating and enjoying food might actually be a way of connecting with God. This was something to think about.
The second “thing” that happened, after that, was that my son was born. And in the process of being pregnant with him and nursing him (and realizing that in feeding myself, I was actually feeding HIM) I came to realize that what I ate influenced more people than just me. And somewhere I read some article that really scared me, about how mothers with disordered thoughts and behaviors around food and eating were likely to pass that on to their kids.
(And, by the way, some studies estimate that 3 out of 4 American women are disordered in their eating behaviors.)
I came to realize how much I wanted to protect my son from that sadness and struggle. I wanted him to enjoy his food and love his body in that carefree way that children do. In that carefree way that I once did.
Like I said, I’m not perfect. And there is no one single path to finding peace with food, peace with your body, peace with God. This has been my path. Yours is probably somewhat different. But I will say this: I’m really certain that eating together–as families, as friends, as women–and enjoying food–is powerful, powerful stuff.

The last part of the talk will appear tomorrow.

Am I too thin to say “accept your body”?

Last week, I received a comment on the Audrey Hepburn post–in which I urged that one can be beautiful no matter their size–that gave me something to think about. You can read the comment in full on the original post (here), but this snippet sums up the basic point:

“This is a message that is very lovely, but I have to say…you look beautifully thin in all of your pictures. It seems to me that it is somewhat easier to share the epiphany now your figure is closer to Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

I have already responded, and you can read my response in full, but the question implied in the comment has continued to pester me. Would I be as happy/contented with food and my body if I were NOT thin?

This is what I’ve concluded: that THIN does not = the source of my happiness.

(Not to mention, there are PLENTY of ways in which I fail to meet our culture’s standards of beauty. I do believe I actually WEIGH MORE than Audrey Hepburn ever did–and I’m, what, ten inches shorter than she was?! I’ve even got me some visible attributes–low muscle tone, spotty-lookin’ teeth (the front ones are caps), scoliosis, blue sclera, skin that’s thin and easily bruised–of a bona-fide genetic disorder! My “defects” are in my DNA, people!)

But you know? We all carry marks of our brokenness–whether visible or not.

These days, though, I’m pretty much comfortable and content with my body, scars and bumps and all. I have a healthy relationship with food and I’m reasonably active and things like {food/exercise/my body} don’t take up an inordinate amount of my time or my mental space–my contentment is NOT because I’m a certain size, a certain weight, or a certain level on some index.

Here’s the strange thing: my body hasn’t really EVER changed all that dramatically (you know, except for the pregnancies). Yet ten years ago, this body was a torment to me, and I had no idea how to eat without overdoing it or under-eating or just plain feeling guilty all. the. time.

I was terrified of food, terrified because LIKE ALL NORMAL HEALTHY PEOPLE, I liked food. I thought that indifference to food was ideal, and all interest in food was gluttonous, possibly sinful, and would make me fat. Thing is, it’s kinda hard to avoid eating. So I would eat, but because I felt so disconnected from my body and my appetite, I never could seem to feel contented and satisfied. I was also terrified that I would lose control and eat too much, which happened too, sometimes, because, again, I was so disconnected.

Now here’s an important point. I don’t think that this way of thinking is particular to me or in any way unique. Rather, I think it is a way of thinking that is particular to a consumerist culture. This is not to evade responsibility for my own thoughts and actions, but instead, to put those in a bigger context.

Think of all the ads for weight loss products and programs and gym memberships and everything else. They always carry with them the promise (the lie) that YOU YOU YOU can change your body–that it’s raw material for shaping any way you desire–if only you’ll buy this, do that, have enough control, pray enough, or whatever. And think of food advertising and the general culture surrounding food today: it’s all about having it YOUR way and making things suit YOUR taste and shaping YOUR identity through what you consume (I AM a vegetarian, I AM an organic consumer, a dieter, an overeater, or whatever.)

And think of all the cultural baggage surrounding eating and dieting and thinness. This quote from Harriet Brown, author of Brave Girl Eating, a memoir of her daughter’s anorexia, seems to me particularly true of our culture:

“We…have fallen for the notion that food is a regrettable necessity. As if the ideal, the holy grail we are all working toward, is to do without food altogether—and as if we not only should but could attain this state, were we good enough, determined enough, strong enough. As if that’s what we should want.”

But you know what?

All of this stuff? It’s very ME focused. And THAT–not overeating, not being overly fastidious, and certainly NOT loving food–is the essential definition of gluttony: your stomach gets in the way of loving God and your neighbor.

I no longer see my body as a raw material to be shaped by my own willpower with the help of consumer products–I see it as the handiwork of a wise and wonderful Creator.

And I no longer feel guilty admitting that I LOVE food!–Because I see it as a gift from God and the fruit of rich and complex histories involving both nature and culture.

Am I only able to feel this way because I’m a certain size and shape? I don’t think so. Truly, I no longer buy the lie that only THIN is beautiful. I’ve known too many truly beautiful people who didn’t conform to any standard of beauty in any way.

And I’ve known too well the ugliness–within myself, an ugly self-centeredness–that comes from an obsession with thinness (and looks in general). If God had seen fit to build me big instead of small–or if the years see me growing rounder (which they probably will)–I really hope my message would (will) be just the same:

~Your body is a gift, but who YOU are does not = your body.

~Your beauty does not depend on your looks.

~Food is a gift meant to be eaten–WITH JOY.

{Of course there’s more to my story than this, but I’m saving other parts for other days. Meanwhile, Thank you for your comments. I welcome them eagerly and treasure each one.}

Weekend Eating Reading: Ellyn Satter

…the Saturday post!

Weekend Eating Reading briefly discusses at least one good book that’s somehow related to ‘joyful eating,’ and is, throughout the weekend, updated with links to notable or newsworthy articles on topics relevant (I hope!) to readers of Eat With Joy. Feel free to point out (and link to) others in the comments!

This week I’d like to highlight the work of Ellyn Satter, a dietician and counselor who’s a recognized authority on the issue of “feeding,” particularly when it comes to feeding children and families. However, her model of “eating competence” is also highly relevant to adults. It is based on the twin concepts of permission and discipline–in her words–

“The permission to choose enjoyable food and eat it in satisfying amounts.”


“The discipline to have regular and reliable meals and snacks and to pay attention when eating them.”

(Bet that’s not the kind of “discipline” you expected…)

Weight, for Ellyn Satter, is not the big issue: comfort with eating is.

Her diet plan–which is no diet plan at all–looks like this:

  • Context: Take time to eat, and provide yourself with rewarding meals and snacks at regular and reliable times.
  • Attitude: Cultivate positive attitudes about eating and about food. Emphasize providing rather than depriving; seeking food rather than avoiding it.
  • Food acceptance: Enjoy your eating, eat foods you like, and let yourself be comfortable with and relaxed about what you eat. Enjoying eating supports the natural inclination to seek variety, the keystone of healthful food selection.
  • Internal regulation: Pay attention to your sensations of hunger and fullness to determine how much to eat. Go to the table hungry, eat until you feel satisfied, and then stop, knowing another meal or snack is coming soon when you can do it again.

[from Ellyn Satter’s website]

Remarkably, people who follow Ellyn Satter’s “eating competence model”–whether intentionally or by natural inclination–are happier and healthier, according to published research. Her therapeutic model–which is easily accessed in her clear, easy to read books, is as relevant to those who overeat and binge as it is to those who diet and otherwise restrict.

Much of Ellyn Satter’s work focuses on feeding children, and, in particular, on the feeding relationship between parents and children–parents, she says, get to decide the when and what of eating; children, the whether and how much.

My impression from reading Ellyn Satter’s books is that her approach aims to return people to the instinctive joy that most of us have in food. Food is good! Most cultures appreciate that and nurture joyful trust in eating, but ours–for reasons too complicated for this post–doesn’t. However, gratefully and joyfully accepting and enjoying food is, to me, what people are created by God to do. Eating is pleasurable–one of the great pleasures of life “under the sun,” as the writer of Ecclesiastes put it.

In fact, that’s why this site is called “eat with joy”–it takes its name from Ecclesiastes 9:7-10. Life’s hard–and one of the delights God has given to us is eating. Our right response, then, is joyful gratitude!

my competent eater

I don’t know if Ellyn Satter is a person of faith or not, but I think her work does a great job of helping us get to that place of joyful gratitude. To my mind, it is a ‘Biblical’ diet.

{You can see Ellyn Satter’s full catalog of books here; you may also be able to find them at your local library.}