The Everyday Famine(s)

You won’t hear about it in the news because it isn’t news. It’s just what’s normal here.

Every day, or nearly so, the clanging sound of metal hitting metal lets me know that someone’s at the gate that surrounds our home, bringing vegetables or fish or charcoal or wooden carvings to sell. It happens often enough that the sound elicits annoyance from me as I leave the stove, or my book, or the couch to answer the call. And often enough, the people are so desperate to sell that if I say “not today,” they’ll plead with me, lowering the price with every word. But occasionally—at least once a week—someone comes to the gate with nothing to sell, nothing to offer at any price. They’re coming, very simply, to beg for food.

It’s summer here in the southern hemisphere, and corn is growing in every spare bit of earth in which it can possibly be grown, with pumpkin and squash vines bearing their orbed fruit between the rows. The corn will be allowed to dry on the husk before being harvested, after which women in villages will pound it to a fine flour that they’ll cook into nsima (nn-SEE-ma) the thick, polenta-like dish that forms the staple of people’s diets. Pumpkins—and their edible greens—along with okra, beans, and tomatoes will become stews to give the bland, starchy dough some flavor. It’s tastier than it sounds, and it fills you up.

But in these months—in February and March, as people are waiting for the harvest—their stored corn begins to run out, and they enter the ‘hungry months.’ What corn remains is rationed carefully, and two daily meals become one small meal, or none at all. As I walk and drive along the streets, I can see people using canes of bamboo to coax guava or papaya or avocado out of tall trees. When people pass me in the street, they often chew sugar cane before spitting them out, slowly and carefully extracting whatever sweetness might remain in the fibrous bits of plant. People walk slowly. Women in labor hardly have the strength to bring forth babies. These are the hungry months.

Despite this, corn—maize, they call it—is regarded with nothing less than reverence. “Nsima is our food,” James, our gardener, tells me. “If you don’t have nsima, you don’t have life.” Nsima—and foods like it—are to much of the world today what bread was to the ancient Near East when Jesus ministered there. “I am the bread of life” was meaningful in that context in a way that’s difficult for us to grasp. For most of us, bread is just one of many choices, and we may forgo it altogether if we’re going low-carb or gluten-free or Paleo. For them—for many people in the world—no bread, no rice, no nsima—means hunger. It means weakness. It means lifelessness. Eventually, it means death.

Every day, or nearly so, women and men look in mirrors and step on scales, count calories and worry about body fat and about their appearance. It happens enough that children as young as four begin to develop anxiety over food, or express fears of being seen in a bathing suit. Even eating healthfully can become an unhealthy obsession. And often enough, people become so desperate to get control over their eating as to spend huge amounts of money on drugs, diet plans, and surgery. Occasionally, the burden of eating; of bodily existence itself, is too much to bear, and people lose their lives to anorexia—the deadliest of all mental illnesses.

But even with the superstores filled full in season and out of season with food of all kinds in every space where food can possibly be so, many of us still struggle to extract whatever goodness might remain in God’s gift of food. We ration carefully so as not to overindulge, or we use food to comfort ourselves when we are feeling lonely or anxious. We eat thoughtlessly and on the run. In this land of plenty, we remain hungry, disconnected, unsatisfied. Those at the gates—people who are poor in America—are more likely to suffer diseases associated with poor diets because the ‘plenty’ doesn’t extend into the food deserts.

Despite all this—despite the tens of thousands of children who die each day because they don’t have enough food, despite the mothers who die giving birth because their bodies have never been nourished properly, despite those who suffer bitterly from the various ills associated with greed and overabundance—I believe we can, and should—“eat with joy.” It’s a phrase that comes from Ecclesiastes, a book that reflects, and is reflected in, a good many people’s experiences of life “under the sun.” We look for justice, and find injustice; time and chance sometimes trump hard work and intelligence. Still, urges the Preacher, even in this messy, confusing world, with hunger and poverty and injustice always with us, we should, as we are able, enjoy the good things of this life with an enjoyment tempered by the knowledge that life is fleeting, and that we have obligations to God and to one another.

And so when the sound of metal hitting metal pulls me away from my computer once again, I fill a bag with cornmeal and give it away with a smile, because that’s what I can do right where I am. But wherever you are—whether among people hurting from plenty, or hurting from want—you can do something, too.

How the Beauty Culture Blasphemes Our Bodies

this is the kind of beach image i'm okay with
this is the kind of beach image i’m okay with

In her memoir Bossypants, Tina Fey claims that everyone knows Photoshopped images aren’t real, but she also acknowledges that the culture of beauty has changed significantly since she was a girl. Back then, “you were either blessed with a beautiful body or not. And if you were not, you could just chill out and learn a trade.”

Today, however, “if you’re not ‘hot’ you are expected to work on it until you are… If you don’t have a good body, you’d better starve the body you have down to a neutral shape, then bolt on some breast implants, replace your teeth, dye your skin orange, inject your lips, sew on some hair, and call yourself Playmate of the year.”

I understand this implicit cultural expectation so well; for years, I struggled to remake what I was in the image of all I thought I should be. As I’ve written in my new book, Eat With Joy: Redeeming God’s Gift of Food, for years,

I absorbed magazines, TV, and movies uncritically and prescriptively […] everything about my appearance seemed wrong. But in America, the possibilities of individual determination are endless—you can become as rich and as thin as you determine to be!—and so I sought to change my body through all the ways that advertisements teach us is possible: the chromium picolinate supplements, the protein shakes, the NordicTrack, the chirpy aerobics videos, the Velcro-fastened ankle weights.

All that effort toward getting a certain look adds up to big business—more than $20 billion annually in the U.S. on cosmetics alone. It comes at a high price in terms of mental health, as numerous psychological studies have suggested what discerning parents have known for a long time: the more media images of stylized, retouched models a woman views, the more likely she is to become depressed and disordered in her eating.

That was me.

{Read this piece in its entirety at Christianity Today, where it originally appeared on Feb. 19}

Doing Good or Looking Good?

How I terribly misconstrued and made poor use of a talented actress’s work.

{An edited re-post of what has, strangely enough, become one of this blog’s most popular posts. So in case you missed it…}

From about age 15 or so, Audrey Hepburn was my idol. I worshiped the iconic film star, watching her movies again and again, poring over books about her life, and searching for images of her online.

I could have done worse. Hepburn was, by most accounts, an extraordinarily lovely person, both inside and out. In Roman Holiday–my favorite Audrey movie–she’s lovely without trying to be, and the beauty and dignity of her character is apparent even as she portrays a very convincing princess in disguise. In her later years, she was a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF, having once herself been on the receiving end of emergency food aid as a child in post-WW2 Europe.

Sadly, although I admired Audrey’s humanitarian legacy and reputed grace and kindness, I was most inspired by her thinness. In the days of my Audrey obsession, her brilliant film performances were less important than the visibility of her long, lovely bones in her various stunning Givenchy and Edith Head designs. That her thinness was likely due to an eating disorder rooted in the wartime starvation she suffered as a child did not dissuade me; neither did her struggles with depression and self-loathing (which are demonstrated side effects of starvation.)

No. I saw a thin, beautiful, kind person who didn’t need to eat AND STILL had the energy to save the world. I wanted to be thin, most of all, and then be kind and save all the starving kids with the food I didn’t eat. After all, Audrey herself loved a poem that seemed to make this connection (“for a slim figure, share your food with the hungry.”) When I looked in the mirror, I saw broad shoulders and curves. I berated myself for being unable, like Audrey, to subsist on next to nothing.  ‘That’s the end of me doing anything worthwhile,’ I’d think–‘what good can I do if I don’t look like Audrey? Surely that figure was the fount of all her goodness?’

The Audrey-style of this dress only pointed out to me my (real or imagined) flaws.

Of course, this sounds crazy now. It didn’t then, partly because I was not incredibly well nourished (needed some brain food!) and partly because the idea that “you are worth something only if you look great” is a message that’s broadcasted endlessly and ubiquitously–especially to girls. Do a little experiment–listen to what people say to girls, even little ones. How many comments do you hear that are related to appearance (whether of clothing, hair, or whatever)? Do the comments that affirm (or simply call attention to) character outnumber the ones doing the same for appearance?

There are all kinds of beauty, and all kinds of ways of doing good in the world. I still like Audrey Hepburn’s movies, and I can enjoy them now without obsessing about the difference between Audrey’s figure and my own, but I still regret Hollywood’s move (beginning, some say, with Audrey) toward ever-increasing unreality in the area of women’s bodies. And so, for years now, I’ve actively looked for female role models who embody beauty that I find compelling and unusual and unrelated to body size, like Wangari Muta Maathai–women I can imagine sitting down to a meal and eating with–with gratitude and goodwill, and no guilt.

Because I want people like this girl to know that she can save the world, be beautiful in every way, and eat a great meal–and maybe all at the same time.

my niece Elli, helping pick an early spring salad

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…}