Last year Elizabeth Foss invited me to share a New Year’s guest post over at her space. It’s a timely post since so many of us are probably busy coming up with a self-improvement plan, which often translates to weight loss goals – as if losing weight will – poof! – make our lives instantly better (and make us better as well).
My primary resolution this year has little to do with my figure and everything to do with what’s going on in the inside. I really, really, really need to work on showing up for prayer more even when I don’t feel anything or see any immediate benefits of quieting myself long enough to just be still and to try to believe.
Anyway, here’s the old post, tweaked just a bit for this year. May 2013 bring you joy, fun, and peace in your heart as well as peace with yourself.
For as long as I can remember, from the moment the champagne bubbles stopped fizzing and the confetti settled lifeless and limp on city streets across the globe, I started working toward the same New Year’s Resolution: Lose weight.
Some years I didn’t spell it out so directly. I’d hide my desire to be thinner under the guise of health-happy language: Eat better. Exercise more frequently. Start strength training. Cut out refined carbs.
Most years I’d even include other important resolutions: Pray more. Worry less. Relinquish control. Trust.
But losing weight was always at the core of my self-improvement goals – and, sadly, I made it the center of my existence, primarily because I hadn’t mastered those more important resolutions.
My body loathing began when I was nine. (I have my journals to prove it.) Nine. I was a little girl who should have been thinking more about mud pies, fairies, and playing dress-up than agonizing over every inch of my skin and that Little Debbie I really shouldn’t have eaten.
When people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I had my stock response ready. “A writer, actress, and horse trainer,” I’d say.
I did aspire to be all of these things, but silently, I thought, what I wanted most of all was to be thin.
I wasn’t one of those spindly, little girls. I was chubby and people occasionally teased me because of it. But I was a good child, a creative, sensitive child, a child whose inner beauty was enough. With God’s grace and love within me, I was enough back then when I was overweight. I was enough when I was too thin. And I’m enough now that I’ve finally found a mostly healthy place. It’s just taken me more than two decades to figure that out.
I can’t remember when I officially started dieting. I do know that after some cruel boys oinked at me in middle school and others called me names like Miss Piggy, I began to vilify food.
Food was a seductive enemy, though, and I could not live without it. I felt weak and powerless when I continued to eat, when I noticed my friends were rail-thin or beautifully curvy while I was puffy with a full face and thick middle.
When I finally went through puberty at 15 (I was a late bloomer), I began to naturally thin out. You might think I’d begin to be happier with my appearance, especially when the same boys who had once made fun of me were now asking me out on dates. Instead, I turned my body into my official logo. It was the only mark of me that mattered. As I gained in popularity with my new looks, I mistakenly thought it was controlling my body that made me powerful and deserving of affirmation and attention.
So I began to pay homage to the scale and the mirror, and managing my body became my religion. How I looked was no longer important; it was all that mattered. I began to wear skirts that were several inches too short because I wanted to be noticed. I didn’t want to return to being that frumpy, little girl who got teased. If I ate what I thought was bad or too much, I forced myself to throw up. I’d do anything to expunge myself of the subterranean feelings that I was defective. I ran not because I wanted to be healthy and strong, but only because I wanted to be skinny.
Skinny – as well as sick – is what I got. There’s a photograph of me from my sophomore year of high school and I’m all angles and concave cavities. My collar bones are what you really notice – the way they jut out, looking like they’re about to rip out of my skin.
Irony is, I distinctly remember seeing that same school picture and thinking I looked fat. So I made a resolution to work out harder, eat less.
Eventually, my restrictive dieting backfired. My metabolism plummeted and when I began to eat again after pleas from my loving, worried parents, I packed on pounds. Once in college, I decided that I had let myself go and needed to shape up and lose weight again.
Once again I was “successful” and reduced my figure to a shadow of my former self.
In this vicious cycle, the high of being thinner and losing those last 10 pounds did offer me, at first, what felt like happiness. I felt like I was more in control and easier to like being thin. But my signature trademark that defined me – that body of mine – always eventually began to lose its newness. People stopped noticing how thin I was or at least they no longer talked about it. I forced myself to think of other ways to atone for being myself. Eat less. Sweat more. Purge.
What I discovered each day I grew thinner, is the fantasy of losing weight was far more alluring than the reality of it. I also woke up one day and realized I was living a rote, empty life that had been whittled down to exercise, fat grams, calories, and what I could eat and couldn’t eat.
It wasn’t that I didn’t like my body. I didn’t like myself.
This is no way to live. Not for me. Not for you. Not for anyone who may or may not resort to extremes to control his or her weight but still thinks constantly about food and weight.
Later after I’d experienced healing and had underwent treatment for a clinical eating disorder, I still struggled with wanting to weigh a certain amount. I was no longer adopting unhealthy behaviors, but I still routinely added “lose five pounds” to my list of New Year’s Resolutions. I couldn’t let it go. I wanted to, but I didn’t know how.
Then, one day, earlier in my mothering career, my husband came home from work to see me frazzled and overwhelmed. I burst into tears and confessed that I’d lost my patience with the two littles I had at the time.
“I’m not a good mother,” I lamented. “I can’t write anymore. I’m not even good at getting skinny anymore.”
He hugged me, not sure what to say (we’d been through this before; I’ve been gifted with a patient, kind husband). I thought of what I’d just said: “I’m not even good at getting skinny anymore,” and something finally began to sink in. I’d known it all intellectually for awhile, but it hadn’t made it into my heart until that moment. All those years, all that energy wasted in engaging in a never-ending war against my body weren’t about the number on the scale. I recognized a lot of my relentless pursuit of thinness had to do with control and an endless hunger for affirmation from all the wrong places. I could not make myself loved, but I could make myself thinner. But there was something else at play here. My wanting to control my weight and what I ate wasn’t really about being thinner; it was about being better – even perfect – at something, anything.
Yet, motherhood and being the imperfect mother to imperfect children has, like nothing else, taught me that this life of mine does not hinge on reaching perfection. It’s not about being what I sometimes irrationally think of as the perfect weight. It’s not about being the perfect writer who never makes a grammatical blunder or who is never guilty of using cliches. It’s not about being a perfect parent. We are not called to perfection. We are called to a perfect union with Him. We are invited, day after day, to trust in God, the only perfect parent there is. To satisfy our hunger pangs and that deep longing in our hearts to be enough, we have to accept our Father’s lavish love as well as the love of others who see us as valuable and good enough even when we slip up and yell at our children or nosh on a few too many holiday cookies.
For the past three years, I haven’t added anything remotely related to weight to my resolutions come January 1st or during any other goal-setting occasion. (Though this year – 2013 – I have set a goal of running a half marathon in April. I’ve started lacing up my running shoes again, and I feel good even if I don’t look any different.)
Yet, I suspect after the holiday binge that begins with Thanksgiving and doesn’t start to let up until the golden wrappers of those Epiphany chocolate coins are empty, many women are hoping to start anew, take better care of themselves, and to lose five, ten, twenty, or more pounds.
Maybe you’re one of them. For some of us, taking charge of our health may be necessary. God doesn’t want us growing winded after walking up our front porch steps. He wants us to treat our bodies with respect. Goodness knows, we need strength and endurance to meet the tiring demands of being a wife and mother. Perhaps some healthy lifestyle changes would be fruitful.
Personally, I’m not a fan of diets, but I’m very much aware of the fact that each of us is different and needs to pray for prudence and temperance to achieve the right balance when it comes to nurturing these God-dwelling temples of ours.
Recently, meditating on the words of St. Augustine have helped me as I work to take care of my body and soul: “Take care of your body as if you were going to live forever; and take care of your soul as if you were going to die tomorrow.” (Thank you to, Deanna, for sharing this quote with me.)
However, we must always be careful to not allow a good desire to turn into an unhealthy need. It is a noble aspiration to want to rein in gluttony, to be attractive for our spouse, and to take care of our bodies. But it is not good or productive to turn our weight or appearance into our only identity or to make them the barometer of our self-worth. We don’t need to be thinner or what society defines as outwardly beautiful to be loved, valued, or to have dignity.
It wasn’t until I began to truly believe this that I was able get over the body barbs of my past, forgive those who had intentionally or unintentionally maligned my physical appearance, make peace with food and the shape of my body, and start to treat myself with the kindness that I once believed only thin or perfect people deserved.
I’m over the belief that there’s nothing to respect within me unless I weigh a certain amount or look a certain way. I’m also working on making peace with my extra seven pounds because I’m healthy. That’s what matters. I refuse to hate myself if I’m not at what some twisted part of me thinks is my ideal weight.
God did not create any of us to relentlessly attempt to lose the same five, ten, twenty, or more pounds. Goodness and loveliness are not only possible to attain without hitting that “magic weight” that you’re convinced will make you happier, better, and more fulfilled; goodness and loveliness are you. You personify all the beauty that God, in His perfect artistry, has created. You, made in God’s sublime image, personify Him.
You don’t have to be a prisoner to food, the scale, or broken resolutions. God is a revolutionary. He came to us as a helpless babe and grew into a man who would save us all. He transforms ashes into beauty. He changes the conflict within you into peace. He takes what is dead and gives it new life.
Turn to Him if you really want a makeover. You were created to be a reflection of God’s love and beauty, and it is prayer – more than another fad diet – that will restore you to His likeness.
Yes, keep striving to be the woman God calls you to be, but this person may not look like your neighbor-the-marathon-runner or that silver screen starlet. She may not even look anything like the younger you – and that may be a good thing. She’s going to stumble. She’s going to goof up again and again. But none of this makes her bad or unlovable. It makes her – you – human.
2013 is a new chapter in our lives. It may offer us the opportunity to make some positive changes. But happiness in this new year doesn’t require a new you. Need to lose some weight to arrive at a more healthful place? Then pray for the will to do it, but don’t despise yourself during the process. Wherever you are at, whatever you weigh, whatever your age, whatever your past, remember this: You are your Father’s beloved, and you are perfectly lovely in every way.
This is the time of year when throngs of people have made the decision to finally lose those last few pounds. This year their resolutions will not fall by the wayside. You will exercise regularly. You will reach for fruits and veggies instead of potato chips. You will fit into those skinny jeans. This – you know it, you feel it! - is the year of change.
You are vulnerable right now. You need a plan to back up your resolutions and good intentions. The health and beauty industry knows it, too. Now’s the time to capitalize on us making our litany of self-improvement goals. How nice of them. They only want to help us along with our resolutions, right?
Personally, I resist the temptation to make goals related to my weight or health given my body image history, but after sifting through one of my email accounts that is susceptible to a ridiculous amount of SPAM this morning, I began to see just why it is so very difficult not to buy into the belief that a “new” me is dependent on looking swell. First up: A message about a teeth whitening product that was guaranteed to make my smile brighter. Delete. There were discount coupons for the Nutrisystem program as well as a set of portion control containers that help you eat the right amount because, you know, listening to my internal cues isn’t enough. I can’t be healthy on my own. I need the help of plastic containers and restrictive calorie plans. Delete. Then there was an email promoting a cute baby contest. Snag ‘em while they’re young! Delete. Oh, and I discovered the secret to spotless, smooth, and elastic skin. All I have to do is invest a few hundred bucks in an anti-aging “miracle.” Delete.
The messages are ubiquitous and powerful, too.
Want to be happier? Want to live a more fulfilling life? Want to feel better about yourself? Want 2012 to be the best year ever? Forget cultivating virtue. Forget prayer. Forget taking care of your temple because it is a gift of God. Forget loving your spouse and children. Forget simplifying your life. Here’s the real secret to a better, happier, more beautiful future: Brighten your smile. Capitalize on your kids’ cuteness. While you’re at it, capitalize on your own potential for cuteness. You’re not there yet, but you do have POTENTIAL! Control your portions. Slather on miracle skin cream. Pretty up. Slim down. Buy these boots, this flattering sweater, and this lipstick. Smile!
Don’t buy into it, my friends. Feel free to exercise and eat more veggies. Don’t feel guilty about using Crest whitening strips or applying a good skin cream. But as I wrote in a guest post for the lovely Elizabeth Foss (talk about real beauty!!!), don’t allow an honorable, hopeful desire to morph into an unhealthy need.
Turn to Him if you really want a makeover. You were created to be a reflection of God’s love and beauty, and it is prayer – more than another fad diet – that will restore you to His likeness.
Please join me over at Elizabeth Foss’s place where I share a part of my soul and my hope for all of us in finding a healthy, Godward path to wholeness in 2012.
This will be quick. I’m really enjoying my break from blogging. This morning I wrote in my sorely ignored journal. I felt happy sitting at my daughter’s desk in her room while the girls played and I scribbled away. Despite the technology-laden world I live in and usually embrace, the most soothing way to write for me is still often the old-fashioned way with a pretty notebook and slender pen in hand.
Our weekend was magical, joyful, and exhausting. That’s just the way it is with littles underfoot. Mary Elizabeth and I were fighting colds. Now Thomas is bit on the snotty side.
Anyway, I just wanted to pop in here really quickly to let you guys know about an interview I have scheduled for tomorrow. I’ll be on Radio Maria chatting about Weightless with Ken Huck on the Meet the Author program at 3 p.m. EST. I hope some of you can tune in.
Related to this and my anti-dieting position, the Brave Lass (AKA Kamilla) recently brought an interesting article from the New York Times to my attention. “The Fat Trap” explores why so many people lose weight only to gain it back again. In the first few paragraphs the article discusses a study that involved obese people going on a low-calorie diet. Most of the participants were very motivated to slim down and lost an average of 30 pounds 10 weeks in to the diet. Yet, despite their efforts to maintain the weight loss, they slowly gained the pounds back, and many reported feeling hungrier and being more preoccupied with food than before.
The dieters experienced significant biological changes as well:
“…a gastric hormone called ghrelin, often dubbed the ‘hunger hormone’ was about 20 percent higher than at the start of the study. Another hormone associated with suppressing hunger, peptide YY, was also abnormally low. Levels of leptin, a hormone that suppresses hunger and increases metabolism, also remained lower than expected. A cocktail of other hormones associated with hunger and metabolism all remained significantly changed compared to pre-dieting levels. It was almost as if weight loss had put their bodies into a unique metabolic state, a sort of post-dieting syndrome that set them apart from people who hadn’t tried to lose weight in the first place.”
What seemed odd to me is the diet these poor people embraced to lose those 30 pounds was only around 500 calories a day. Of course, their bodies felt starved. Of course, they couldn’t maintain that kind of restrictive meal plan (they weren’t asked to maintain it and while it might make sense that they wouldn’t gain weight if they were simply burning the same amount of calories as they were taking in, other factors were clearly at play).
I’ve never been obese. I understand there are some very real physical and oftentimes emotional obstacles to overcome, and genetics can play a big role in how much weight we carry. The article delves into genetic factors as well and shares a study that involved twins embracing an “experimental binge,” and discovering that the weight gain varied widely among the participants, suggesting a sort of “biological determinism” that “can make a person susceptible to weight gain or weight loss. However, I also didn’t understand why the author and researchers purported it to be so surprising that participants gained their weight back and appeared to have altered their metabolisms and hormone levels even a year after the low calorie eating plan. I don’t care how much weight a person has to lose; limiting someone to 500 calories – many consumed as liquids – is no way to set him or her up for long-term weight loss success. Nor does it seem overly shocking to me that such a restrictive plan would mess with the body on a physical level.
To be fair, the article later mentions that researchers are conducting a study using slower weight-loss to see if this is more sustainable; however, a quote from the article points out that “…the pace of weight loss is unlikely to make a difference, because the body’s warning system is based solely on how much fat a person loses, not how quickly he or she loses it.”The pace isn’t what concerns me so much as the extreme deprivation. On the other hand, as the author concludes in the last paragraph, it might be “somewhat liberating to learn there are factors other than [your] character at work when it comes to gaining and losing weight.” This is something I passionately believe. We have to separate our self-worth from our ability to lose weight.
I’m not a nutritionist or scientist. Much of what I believe is based on anecdotal truths I’ve mined in my own journey from having an eating disorder and struggling with how to eat the right amount. I’ve said it before, but I’ll keep repeating myself: Until we learn to eat real food, to listen to our bodies’ physical cues, to heal emotional wounds of the past that might be causing us to reach for more food than we need, and turn to God to satisfy our hunger pangs, to stop expressing our despair in food binges or extreme diets, we’re going to keep struggling, losing and gaining those same pounds over and over again.
Just some food for thought for you as we begin to look forward to a hopeful and healthful 2012.
I’ll be back with more regular posts soon.