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.}

Should healthy living be a spiritual discipline?

An essay at RELEVANT yesterday made some good points: first, that “the obesity battle isn’t an individual responsibility; it’s a community effort,” and, second, that the church can (and should) play a role in shaping America’s food culture for the better. Both of these are very, very true.

this book gives a great history of American Christian diet books

But to my mind, the rest of the essay exemplified a shallowness of thinking about food and eating that has surfaced again and again in the 100+ years since Christians first began linking healthy diets with spiritual health. The typical logic goes like this:

The Bible teaches that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit.

Fat and/or unhealthy bodies are not pleasing temples.

Therefore to be a pleasing temple for the Holy Spirit you should not be fat or unhealthy.


Therefore doing what you need to do to not be fat or unhealthy is something that you do for the Holy Spirit’s benefit.

A few things irk me about this kind of thinking (to be clear, I am not singling out the RELEVANT piece; I just see it as representative of many Christian writings and utterances on diet and health). In no particular order:

1. Fat is inevitably made to = SIN!

And it just isn’t necessarily so. Further, even APART from Christian ethics, American culture already demonizes fat and worships thinness. Claiming that people who are overweight are therefore sinful isn’t only unhelpful, it’s also unfair. Body types vary greatly: some people are just plain bigger than others. Some people can’t exercise due to disabilities. Some people have hormonal imbalances that keep them overweight despite their efforts to the contrary.

[Besides, lots of things that Americans love are ‘sins’ that no one seems to get too enraged over. Like loving money! And gossiping. But getting upset over fatness? That’s for people of every faith and no faith.]

2. Eating + Health are not necessarily connected in the ways you might think.

French people eat triple creme cheese, drink loads of coffee with cream and lots of wine, eat tons of white bread baguettes and wouldn’t dream of leaving off the butter–and they are healthier, on the whole, than Americans. We’re tempted to call this the “French Paradox,” but as Michael Pollan points out, it’s probably more accurate to speak of an “American Paradox“–a notably unhealthy people obsessed with the idea of eating healthfully. All our fretting and our reduced-calorie products and skim milk and butter substitutes and egg substitutes and sugar free candies and cleansing diets and nutrition supplements and fitness regimens and food weighing and fad diets and ‘sensible eating plans’ and calorie free sodas have done us no measurable good–in fact, levels of obesity have RISEN along with the availability of diet foods and fitness obsession.

Further, as any good nutritionist will tell you, nutrition is a young science. We can’t even know for sure what an ideally healthful diet looks like–people live and thrive on diets that are as wildly different from one another as can be. Inuit people have traditionally lived on mostly seal meat and fat; indigenous peoples in Guatemala on corn, squash, and beans. Some people live on blood and meat; others on milk and cheese.

Inuit people eating a traditional food--Maktaaq (frozen whale skin and blubber)

We can know this: the typical American diet isn’t it doing anyone much good. But that may be connected to things we don’t usually consider, like WHEN to eat, WITH WHOM, and WHERE. (We’d do better to eat at the table, with others, and at reasonably regular intervals–3x each day.) Plus, “healthy” eating has as much to do with ATTITUDE as anything else–see this post about dietician and therapist Ellyn Satter. I don’t know if she is a person of faith or not, but her way of eating aligns beautifully with the heart of a Biblical theology of food: that we should eat with gratitude and JOY. (It makes you healthier, for real!) which leads me to…

3. The Bible has so much more to say about food BEYOND “eating for health.”

Actually, the Bible says almost nothing about eating for health. (Yes, that includes Daniel’s vegetarian experiment, but that’s a post for another day.)

Food, in the Bible–and in our lives–represents God’s gracious gift. In the beginning, in Eden, God delights to feed the people he has made. A Biblical understanding of food recognizes that food doesn’t come from the store, or from money–it comes from the soil, the sun, and the sustaining, gracious hand of God. Eating it together binds people together in unity and love (see yesterday’s post) and making sure that everyone has enough–feeding the hungry, in other words–is a crucial aspect of “love thy neighbor” and an aspect of what James’ epistle calls “true religion.”

In today’s complicated, globalized world, eating with love for God and love for neighbor means seeking food that is raised in ways that build up and enrich rather than destroy and break down the soil, animals, and people involved in its production, remembering–and seeking to help–those who do not have enough to eat. And it means eating mindfully, with awareness that food is NOT fuel but a gift from God.

James Tissot, French (1836-1902) The Gathering of the Manna

We DON’T need “spiritual” reasons to pursue a “healthy” diet.

We DO need a new food culture, and there’s plenty of wisdom–in the Bible and elsewhere–that’s ready to help us shape one.

Of course, it has to begin where all change begins–with us.

Is it all just navel gazing? (and sometimes literally?)

I used to be a literal navel gazer.

Well, almost. I didn’t sit around looking at my navel, but I did pinch it. A lot. Because I was checking for pinch-ability. I wanted to be able to pinch nothing.  And so, for years of my life, I arranged my interests and activities around my navel–the over-exercising, the under-eating, the hours in front of the mirror and on the scale. Sad, no? Let me tell you, I have cried actual tears about the years I missed because I was obsessed with the adipose tissue around my navel.

By God’s grace, good things came into my life anyway. And while the story’s too long to tell here, my world expanded beyond my own navel. I forgot to care so very much about things like my tummy, every last crumb of what I ate or didn’t eat and whether or not I had spent enough time exercising at my optimal heart rate. Somewhere in that time, my abdomen expanded quite dramatically behind my navel–twice!–and behold, two new navels! (See above.) 

But there are two other things that are important in my life that are sometimes derided as “navel gazing”: writing (and particularly blogging) and food. I remember hearing a book club discussion on Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma in which the critics were complaining that Pollan’s locally grown and gathered meal was a “decadent” use of time; that his approach to food was a “fussy yuppie thing.” Writing that’s of a personal nature is also sometimes dismissed as navel gazing, but that’s often unfair–even in writing about his or her own experiences, a good writer aims to say something that’s beneficial to someone else in some way.

                                                      I have GOT to stop hunching my shoulders like that…

Okay, but food? So many people are talking and writing about–and marketing–the whole local-organic-sustainable-green-artisanal-smallbatch-blahblah that it’s easy to start to think, “I’m so tired of hearing how heirloom-whatevers have more flavor–why not talk about something THAT MATTERS?”

Thing is, it does matter. The choices we make every day–several times a day–regarding food–add up. And not just for you, your family, your food budget, your waistline. Nope. From what you spend to what goes to the farmer, to what goes to the processor, to what goes to packaging, shipping, advertising, and on, and on, multiplied across millions of households, these choices add up to a whole food culture. (Which is why you don’t have to stress if you eat junk food once in a while–we’re talking big picture here.) Why does my grocery store carry a bazillion brands of squishy loaves of white bread and NOT ONE GOOD BAGUETTE? Why do stock watery strawberries from California when there are farms all around growing rich, sweet ones? Why do we feed our schoolchildren crap at school as we spend lots of $$$ on everything else?

Diseases caused by diet are America’s top killers, but we talk about food choices as if they are all about us, us, us. (I’m pretty convinced that obesity is largely a creation of Big Food, the drones of which speak in all seriousness about the “problem” of the “fixed stomach”–they want you to eat MORE and to think that your weight is YOUR problem.) The amount of fossil fuels used to bring us all everything ALWAYS from everywhere is outrageous. Our way of eating–super processed, super packaged, and super shipped–creates problems for people here (not least, small farmers) but creates devastation for people (and, yes, especially farmers) in other places.

For me, spending time growing, preserving, and procuring good food (and writing about it) is anything but a navel-gazing venture. Food touches so much–it connects us to one another and to God’s creation in so many ways. Our choices at home add up, home by home, meal by meal, to a national food culture a GLOBAL food culture. The current one is killing people–not least, children–through equal parts starvation and overfeeding as it slurps oil and belches carbon dioxide.

                                   (sure beats looking at my navel–organic plants and free range kids!)

Okay, that’s really depressing.  But here’s the good news. A better food culture–one that’s better for you, your neighbors, the planet–everyone!–is tasty, too. And fun. And you don’t have to change everything all at once. Even little steps–ONE local meal a week, say–add up significantly. (If everyone in the USA would do that, we’d reduce our national oil consumption by 1.1 BILLION BARRELS that week. Really!) So the next time you hear some folks going on endlessly about the heirloom tomatoes or the artisanal bread, don’t make fun of them. Ask them where they bought it, and if they know where you can get some local ice cream. Support better practices and better taste, bearing in mind the needs of the least of these. 

And experience some revolutionary joy.

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