Hungry for Healing, Part II
For almost as long as I can remember, two physical features have been identifying features about me. Someone might ask, Melissa? Which one is she? and in a room full of people someone would simply have to say, she’s the skinny girl with the long red hair.
Those two terms have been about as defining to me as my homeschooling, my love of books & music, and my Christian faith. How’s that for a slippery position?! Skinny and redheaded. Because now at 34 years old, I am no longer skinny and the number of greys in my locks increases regularly (just ask my tweezers – we can’t quite keep up anymore).
How is it that I have allowed secular media and modern American culture to speak so broadly into my life?
Why is it that I have not been able to overcome this temptation, this struggle, this idol, this sin?
Where in the world did all of this hurt and pain and shame stem from in the first place?
The first time I viscerally remember feelings of shame surrounding my body was in a ballet class I adored, standing at the barre in front of the wall-sized mirror. Rather than my usual teacher, Miss Tammy, who was soft, sweet, and relaxed, the studio owner was teaching my class that day. I don’t even remember her name, I just remember the feelings of stress and shame I felt when she walked near me or gave me directions. On this particular day that stands out in my memory, she was adjusting my posture and probably some position, but all I really recall is her finger pressing into my abdomen and saying getting a bit chubby… I was eight years old. Eight.
After that, I remember really paying attention to my mom’s exercise routines and Jenny Craig diets. I picked up on the fact that she ate differently than the rest of us did – she ate “diet food” but cooked “regular food” for the rest of us – and I came to believe that that was a goal to tuck in my pocket for womanhood. Skim milk and diet soda were the norm, and the reasoning behind it in my head was to stave off fatness. My grandma always called me her “skinny granddaughter.” These were not things that happened out of purposed negativity – it was simply my life, and they are the things I remember about my childhood.
Then in my teen years I became entangled with a boy. A boy who wanted to be a man and continually fell short. Who manipulated me into believing him when he made compliments like, “you look pretty today – pretty and skinny.” I literally have journals full of these manipulative comments. Sneaking notes to each other in homeschool classes or after church, gigglingly talking about turning 21 someday so we could get married, me listening to turns of phrase that I did not even realize at the time were harmful, manipulating, controlling. It brought me multiple levels of shame and suffering which still infiltrate my life on a regular basis. Not the least of which is the skinny factor that he pressed into me. And as I felt more controlled and manipulated by him over the course of about six years of secrecy, the feelings of being spun out of control turned into actions of grabbing for control over the only thing I thought I could grab with both hands – my body. If I could not control anything else in my life, I was brought low enough to think that at least I could control the number on the scale and the size on my clothing tags.
While I don’t honestly know when I really gave in to letting the spiral control and pull me under, the seed was planted when I was eight, it was watered and fed in my preteen years, then sprouted and cultivated between about 14-18. By the time I entered college the temptation and struggle had taken root enough that I can now say it became a besetting sin and garnered enough of my focus to be an idol.
There are years of my life that are basically gone from my memory banks. I don’t know if it’s from a lack of nutrition and sleep or PTSD or a lethal combination thereof.
My tendency toward anxiety and OCD grew. I cared about a facade of perfectionism, straight A grades, and size 2 jeans. Maintaining the physique that would draw people toward my pretty clavicles, hip bones, wrist bones, and long red hair. Eating just enough in front of people so they wouldn’t question my habits. But flat out refusing to eat when I could, and coming to the point where I would eventually just forget to eat. Even now, I could definitely go 24 hours without anything but coffee before noticing it (and that’s only because I can’t get away from the comfort of holding a warm mug of aromatics). Old habits don’t die easily.
I was telling someone recently that it absolutely astonishes me that as a conservative Christian woman I am flabbergasted by some of the bad words I let take over my life. Want to know what those bad words are? Old and fat. That’s right: three letter, commonplace words that are as abhorrent as ugly itself.
That is where I have allowed our culture and mainstream media to infiltrate my worldview, to my own destruction. And I will be hogtied and hamstrung if I allow it to go on to the next generation and hand it down for their destruction.
In biblical culture – heck, in much of all culture, historically speaking – old and fat are words of goodness, blessing, prosperity, honor.
I want to see through that lens. I want to embrace that worldview.
In Rachel Stone’s book, Eat With Joy, she says, “it doesn’t help that images of extreme thinness are everywhere. Even the most seemingly mundane objects show the trend: the girl on the Morton salt container or on the bottle of White Rock water is thinner than she was twenty or thirty or fifty years ago. My children’s Candy Land game (made in 2010) shows highly idealized, thin female characters and muscular male characters, whereas in the 1984 version I grew up playing the characters were, if anything, a little chubby.” (p90)
Where are the role models for my children to show them the beauty of a wheat-heaped belly? that your navel is beautiful when in a rounded bowl rather than sunken between two jutting pelvic bones? that Song Of Solomon was right in praising the rounded beauty of the beloved bride?
Song Of Solomon 7:1-2
…Your rounded thighs are like jewels, the work of a master hand.
Your navel is a rounded bowl that never lacks mixed wine.
Your belly is a heap of wheat, encircled with lilies.
And here is what I realize now. I am their role model. It must begin with me. It must begin with the things I bring to them. And it can’t just be the words I say, the books I read them, the videos I let them watch. It also starts with my very own body. This physical set of flesh and bones and blood and fat and freckles that God has given me, where I grew these children in my belly, where I nursed them on my breasts, where I carried them on my back, where I cradled them in my arms; where I still snuggle them tight, hug them, kiss them, lift them up; where I teach by example what health, beauty, and loveliness are.
“The words we use to talk about food and bodies matter, as well, because they nourish and shape and feed us — or poison, warp and starve us — every bit as much as food does. Who can eat gratefully and joyfully while thinking, I’m an ugly pig who doesn’t deserve to eat? I couldn’t. Who can eat with real pleasure when the table talk centers on dimply thighs, flabby bellies, calories, cholesterol, and what’s ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’? No one can and such talk actually fuels disorder…” (Rachel Stone, Eat With Joy, p101)
My children make me hunger to be whole, to find healing, to shed the shame.
They make me long to love and embrace things like getting older and getting softer around my corners.
I want to stop plucking out my grey hairs. I want to stop worrying about my muffin top.
I want to focus on truth, goodness, and beauty.
And this is my next step along the path of how I pray to get there.
“As Christians dealing with human hurts,
we have to remind ourselves again and again
that we are not called to be successful,
but to be faithful.
Our first directions come from the way Jesus told us to live,
not from what we think will work.”
(Doris Janzen Longacre, More-with-Less)