Like too many women, body angst has been a stubborn companion of mine. I suffered from bulimia and anorexia as a teenager and later had a relapse in college that landed me in counseling for over a year. But even when my clinical eating disorder was reigned in, the scale – instead of my God – was too often a barometer for my self-worth.
During my first pregnancy, I found respite from my body hatred. Throughout this nine-month interlude, the way I looked was far less important than the new life growing inside of me. I did everything I could to take care of this gift from heaven. I exercised because it felt good, not because I liked the effect it had on my appearance. My broadening hips and newfound curves made me feel beautiful, not fat.
Then, a few weeks after the birth of my daughter Madeline, I discovered my first set of stretch marks traveling across my bottom, and all the relics of my unhealthy body image suddenly came rushing, falling through me like an avalanche of hate.
But, like He does so often, God gave me a wake-up call, an “Ah-ha” moment that forced me to take a good, hard look at something other than my new butt graffiti. One day I was staring at Madeline’s naked body and admiring all of her dimples and rolls. She grinned at me, looking up with bright eyes. Something about that innocent smile crushed me. I began to cry as I realized that for the first time in my life my body angst wasn’t only hurting me, it was hurting my daughter. Each time I punished myself for not being thin enough, each time I shed tears over stretch marks, each time I stood in front of the mirror just to berate my body, I was transferring my hate to Madeline and failing to be a healthy role model.
My preoccupation with my postpartum body also made me realize while I’d put an end to my self-destructive behaviors and was physically “recovered,” I was still spiritually sick. It was time for a body image makeover and this time, instead of turning to counselors or my husband or family for help, I looked to my God for inner healing.
Although I still occasionally grapple with body image problems, the following mediations always help me to reclaim my inner peace and to stop destructive thoughts and behaviors before they have an opportunity to take a hold of my life. May they help you as well.
God formed my inmost being.
As moms, we have a responsibility to be healthy role models – to eat well, exercise and take care of ourselves. But we should focus on health and happiness – not flat abs or narrow hips. After all, our children are not concerned with our body shape or the amount of cellulite on our thighs. We are beautiful in their eyes. My physical imperfections have no power over Madeline’s love for me. She loves me because I feed her, cuddle with her, wipe her hinny, read Dr. Seuss to her and tend to her every need. She could care less about what size jeans I wear.
God is like our children, except He doesn’t throw tantrums and loves us with an even deeper unconditional love. Remembering that God not only loves me always, but that He designed me, goes a long way in silencing my inner demons. He “formed my inmost being…knit me in my mother’s womb” (Psalm 139:13). God knew me long ago and He really wanted me just the way I am. “Wonderful are your works!” (Psalm 139:14) And I am amazingly one of His works. That should be enough to make me see my body in a new light.
My body is a temple.
We all have ugly days. Days when that zit on our nose looks like Mount Kilimanjaro or days when we feel bloated and blimpish. However, I’ve learned that it’s in these moments, above all, that I must remember that my body is a “temple of the Holy Spirit who is in [me], whom [I] have received from God…Therefore, honor God with your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). My body isn’t really mine. It’s on loan from God. That’s humbling enough. (Think about if God lent you a car. Would you not do everything in your power to take care of it and make sure it was running properly?) What’s more, my body is only a vessel for a far more valuable good – my soul. I should be devoting more energy into making sure my soul is in good shape than worrying about whether or not I have sculpted arms. At the evening of life, this body – love it or hate it – while deserving of respect, is ephemeral, something I’ll trade in someday, if all goes well, for a new “look” that will be like Jesus’ “glorified body.” (Philippians 3:21).
This is my body.
Every time we make love to our husbands, we carry an infant in our womb, nurse a baby or hold an older child until our arms begin to ache, we’re saying, “This is my body. It has been given up for you.” This is a powerful Eucharistic analogy, but it can also be disconcerting if I think of it in terms of when I berate my body. Whether we eat too much or too little, ignore the dignity of the body by partaking in physical acts outside of marriage, or abuse drugs or alcohol, we are sinning. We’re saying, “This is my body. It has been given up for things other than you, my God. It’s been defiled, dishonored and disrespected.”
There are still times when I’m tempted to obsess over my body, especially now that I am pregnant again and gaining weight. But if I meditate on the Christ’s words, I’m reminded that weight gain and stretch marks are really badges of honor. They’re sacrificial signs I’m using my body for what God intended me to – to be a mother and to be a wife.
Made in the image of God.
Here’s something that can help all women who sometimes wish they were thinner, curvier, taller, shorter, etc. We were made in the image of God, not the media. My body may not share the measurements of Hollywood’s ideal (and often distorted) view of beauty, but it does share in the dignity of the image of God. When I’m feeling particularly vulnerable to body angst, I’ve learned to fast on media and to instead focus my attention on my God by reading the Bible or reflecting on this statement from the Catechism: “Being in the image of God the human indvidual possess the dignity of a person, who is not something, but someone.”(CCC 357).
He who comes to me will never be hungry.
When I use to starve myself, eating only shards of plain lettuce, I was, no doubt, physically hungry. But eating disorders are not just about being hungry for food or wanting to look a certain way. They are an external and measurable scale of self-worth that offer a means of coping with fears and insecurities. For me, being a master of what I ate and the number on the scale was an easy way to feel like I was in control and “good enough.” It also helped me feel accepted to conform to a certain size. Looking back, I know I was trying to fill a void I saw in myself that couldn’t be filled by anyone or anything other than God. The best way to fully recover from an eating disorder or body image problem is to fill up on the on the Lord. He offers all the sustenance we’ll ever need. He truly is the bread of life and if we “feed” on Him instead of food, negative thoughts about bodies or a preoccupation with fitness and dieting, we’ll be filled with peace and never be hungry.
Eating Disorder/Body Image Resources on the Web:
(This essay was originally published in the March 2007 issue of “Canticle: The Voice of Women of Grace.”)