It was the summer after my freshman year of college. I no longer thought I had an eating disorder (just two years later I would relapse and discover just how entrenched I was in the pursuit of thinness). I was studying journalism and theatre in Italy. I felt independent, young, free, inspired – and fat. I convinced myself that these feelings were in line and that I was just being vigilant about keeping tabs on my health.
After arriving in Italy, I morphed into a total sybarite, soaking up amazing art and architecture as well as eating plates full of rich pasta and savoring creamy gelato every night for dessert. Everyone else on the trip was doing the same thing, but no one else seemed to harbor any guilt for the overload of flavors and calories.
I’m not sure how I could be paying more attention to the size of my stomach or the extra weight I was sure I’d gained (when I returned to the States, I learned that I hadn’t gained weight but had actually lost five pounds probably because I walked everywhere) when such history and beauty surrounded me, but I spent inordinate amounts of time catching a glimpse of my reflection in the glass of a passing shop or in the water of a fountain. And I didn’t like what I saw. I glance at the photos from the trip now, and I look healthy and happy. I can’t see why I was so wrapped up in my appearance, but I can see just how distorted my view of myself was.
One night I was walking with a group of friends in Venice. It was Bastille Day. We’d just witnessed a glorious display of fireworks shimmer in the night sky before the colorful sparks sunk into the dark waters of the Grand Canal. I’m not sure why I started to blabber about this – probably because I’d recently called my boyfriend back home and sensed he wasn’t really missing me. My feelings were prescient – he ended up dumping me the day I returned from my trip – but I started bemoaning the extra weight I was sure I’d gained.
“Ugh. I just feel so gross,” I said aloud. I continued to complain about how I looked as we tripped our way along the cobblestone alleys.
A friend walking next to me tolerated my body diatribe for a few minutes and then finally said, “Okay, you skinny, little #@$%!, would you just shut up already? Look at me, okay? My thighs are chafing right about now.”
She shut me up alright, and years later a part of me really appreciated her intolerance for my irrational thoughts spoken out loud. Yet, I know that she didn’t completely understand where my vocal distaste about my body came from either. Nor did she know that I wasn’t trying to make anyone else feel badly about themselves. This was completely about me and my own self-loathing.
Although I was ashamed of my comments even as they poured out of my mouth, I also was hungry for reassurance that I was wrong about the way I saw myself – and about the fact that my boyfriend back home might not be living up to adage that absence makes the heart grows fonder.
On the outside, I appeared to be the epitome of confidence. I was 19-years-old touring around a foreign country. I was making A’s in my college’s honors program. Everyone said I was going places. And I was, but my mind and hurting heart were going places, too, and these places were dark and full of doubts. The truth is, I really and truly wasn’t fishing for compliments about my appearance. I really didn’t intend to make people who perhaps weren’t as thin as I was feel badly about their bodies. What I was really doing was seeking acceptance.
I was asking, “Am I good enough?” and, “Do you think he [that boyfriend of mine] still loves me?” “Do you think anyone will love me for me?”
While most of us may have certain physical characteristics we’re less than thrilled about, many women who constantly bring up perceived or real imperfections related to their appearance are hungry for more than a physical makeover. They’re wrestling with much more than body angst. They’re controlling and talking about what’s on the outside to cope with dark or sad feelings on the inside.
They have lost their true selves. They have lost touch with the fact that God made all women beautiful. Maybe not beautiful by Hollywood’s standards but beautiful all the same. Beautiful because they have the power to bring forth new life and nurture it. Beautiful because women are relational creatures who naturally are drawn to others. Beautiful because they have the power to allure lovers, children, animals, friends, and society. Beautiful because they have the mark of God on their hearts, on their souls, and are created in His glorious image.
When we have friends who continually comment on their big, flabby thighs, or how fat they are, there’s a good chance what they’re really doing is wondering about their worth as a friend, a wife, a girlfriend, a daughter, a mother, a person. It doesn’t matter how they really look to us or to others. They are convinced they are ugly and have nothing to offer to the world. There are some thin women who are convinced they are fat. They relentlessly pursue beauty and thinness even when it’s in their possession. They are terrified of losing it because it – their outer shell – is what defines them and makes them feel valuable.
On the other hand, there are other women who just give up. They don’t feel like they have anything to give or that the world will ever notice them. They are convinced that they are not beautiful; they never will be. So they let themselves go. They wear what we call frumpy clothes. Maybe they eat to soothe the pain. Then, when they gain weight, this gives them further evidence they are not very worthwhile. So they hide their true, beautiful selves away.
This is a tragedy. We shouldn’t stand for it. So when a friend does berate her appearance in any way, let’s remind her of her beauty. Even if she could stand to lose some weight and to nurture herself better, let’s remind her that she doesn’t have to hate herself until she gets to her healthy goal weight. Let’s remind her, too, that she is not alone in her own struggles or insecurities and in this spiritual battle against the flesh and against a world that either exalts physical beauty or tells women to hide it away when, in fact, God created women to be an incarnation of beauty. We may all not be glorious, red roses, but we are all flowers that will captivate others when we bloom with God’s love.
If you have a friend who is struggling with her body image and complains about her looks, validate her feelings.
Then look her in the eyes and say things such as:
“I don’t see what you see.”
“I think you’re lovely.”
“What can I do to help you feel more worthwhile?”
“I will pray for you.”
“Do you want to start walking together, so we can talk and honor our bodies together?”
It will take courage to say these kinds of things. It may even feel funny or unsettling. And your friend may be taken aback. Say them anyway. Fight for your friend’s beauty and dignity. Keep telling her she’s lovely. Even if maybe she should lose some weight for the sake of her health and so she can better meet the demands of her busy life, remind her to love herself enough to make those changes. Support her. Love her. Pray for her. Be patient with her. Her complaining may be bothersome, but it’s evidence that she’s wounded and you have the power to help stop some of the bleeding though she’s ultimately the one who must heal from the inside out.
Be a mirror that does not chastise but honors. Reflect God’s complete love for her – all of her, physical imperfections included.
And remember, even if she is drop-dead gorgeous, for some reason you may not ever understand she feels ugly. However she looks on the outside, she’s likely not just ferreting compliments. She’s craving acceptance. She’s searching for the knowledge that she is worth something and that she is beautiful in her own right. Give these gifts to her. Make her day. Make her shine. Love her into loving herself. While you’re at it, be sure to do the same for yourself.
I recently addressed a question about comparison from someone who had ordered my book. This same individual also posed another question to me:
“What is a good answer to give to someone who thinks they are not attractive/ugly because they have a big nose or crooked teeth, etc. I’ve had this happen to me, and I didn’t know what to say.”
Her question inspired the above post.
I do want to add that I focused on how someone might respond if a friend repeatedly bashes her body or appearance. However, the answer to this question might change depending on who is asking the question. If, for example, one of my daughters commented on how ugly she was because of some real or perceived imperfection, I might react a little differently than if a friend said it. I’m actually working on a series of posts/articles geared at raising daughters who are strong in mind, body, and spirit. Speaking of which, please do read this series of posts written by a courageous young woman who shares her struggles with her weight and appearance and her journey to beauty – the kind of beauty found in Truth, not in cosmetics or being at the “perfect” weight.