It’s a new year–a time when many of us vow to eliminate ALL THE SUGAR and banish ALL THE FAT to lose ALL THE WEIGHT.
“This is my year!” we announce, fist raised to the sky. “I will exercise 2 hours every day! I will eat only tasteless legumes! I will have the physique of an Olympic soccer player! My thighs will be chiseled tree trunks! Look out, Michelle Obama–my arms are toning as I type!
I can relate to that rally cry, that desire to be more physically fit, to lose the badonkadonk that makes my hardwood floors squeak. To be skinny or at least skinny-er.
Though I have always hated exclusion in any form, ironically, I’ve struggled to welcome my body as my own. I’ve spoken hateful words to and about my body–words that I’d never say to another human.
My poor body image began when I was a young teenager. I cannot remember a traumatic experience or hurtful word that led to this negative perspective–it seemed to tag along with my bent toward perfectionism and my residence in America, where it’s more acceptable to resemble a stick insect than, say, an ox beetle. While I never had an eating disorder, my thoughts on food and exercise have been all-consuming at times. Embracing my body was usually contingent on hitting the ‘right’ number on the scale or achieving the ‘right’ look. Even as a mature, (relatively) well-adjusted adult rooted in her faith, I’ve struggled to belong to my body, to receive my God-given frame as a gift.
Since the 4th grade, my hair has been unruly, course, thick, and dry. Each strand is like actual wire. Not even kidding. As if one calic weren’t enough, I have two–on either side of my forehead. #Symmetry. My hair was an out-of-control “orange on a toothpick” kind-of-fro that failed miserably to be ‘cool’ when I was a tween.
Try gel, they said. Use hair spray, they said.
Pull it back.
Leave it down.
The suggestions to fix Badfro were endless. But Badfro would not be tamed. Unlike the smooth, moisture-laden locks of my friends, Badfro was more like a nest of Muppet hair haphazardly arranged above my disheveled eyebrows.
Speaking of eyebrows, the first time I went to have mine waxed (a luxury I no longer indulge), the tech announced, “I have NEVER seen eyebrows like this!” I didn’t know whether to laugh or take offense. Eyebrows like what? Like fuzzy caterpillars? Strips of steel wool? Misplaced mustaches? The tech didn’t elaborate but she didn’t need to-somehow I already knew.
I see my arms as shapeless logs hanging from my shoulders. Sometimes I wonder if I’ll extend my elbow and accidentally smack an innocent bystander with one of my cylindrical rolls. (Would that be assault?) No number of burpees or push-ups or chair dips have given my arms the kind of definition that begs to be seen in a tank top. I just don’t think it’s in the cards for me.
When I was 11, I started running XC, a sport that elongates the leg muscles. I also played basketball, which contracts the muscles. My legs seemed confused by my choice of sports or maybe family history overruled and I developed thunder thighs BECAUSE GENETICS? The verdict is still out on this one.
To reinforce my point, while in London as twentysomethings, my girlfriend and I chuckled each time we hopped on the tube (subway train). Instead of advising riders to “watch your step,” the English warn folks to, “Mind the gap.” My friend & I just laughed and laughed–we knew we had no gaps to mind.
Just like there is no specific moment or person to blame for my poor body image, there is no specific time when I became aware of my need to give thanks for my body. This evolving acceptance has been a slow process of absorbing this powerful truth:
We are made in the image of a perfect God.
I was well into my twenties before this message finally began to take root in my mind and heart. Choosing to believe that I bear the image of Divine perfection, regardless of my weight or whether I eat vegan, has helped nudge me toward gratitude for His design in making me.
While the truth has been instrumental in adjusting how I think about my body, connecting with people who live with disabilities has helped change how I feel about my body. Their resilience and joy have quietly convicted and encouraged me over the years, causing a shift from chronic negativity and discouragement to healthy acceptance and appreciation. Though I still fight self-criticism at times, I am no longer plagued by it. I’m learning to welcome my body, as these friends have learned to welcome theirs–to gladly embrace it, rather than fixate on its perceived inadequacies.
In addition to slowly absorbing the Truth and learning from my beautiful friends, I remember what my body has experienced over the years.
It has housed 3 babies, two that I got to birth naturally without pain intervention, one that I gave right back to God after carrying for just 10 weeks.
It has run 2 marathons and 3 half marathons, countless 5ks, and thousands of miles besides. It has felt the relief of completing the American Berkebeiner, a 52k XC ski race that took 6 hours, two more than it planned. It has toddled through the jungles of Venezuela, walked the lively streets of Paris, hiked the western beauty of Yosemite, and snorkeled the turquoise waters of Key West.
It has endured severe sunburns, icy water, blistered heels on back country trails, frostbite, and temporary deafness from a whitewater rafting spill.
What a delight to re-discover what my body has enjoyed and endured these past 40+ years.
When I get irritated with my less-than-defined arms, I rejoice that they’ve snuggled new babies, carried the painful stories of friends, and gently lowered the lifeless body of our 14 year-old pup into the dirt.
Then I remember my friends with cerebral palsy, arms folded into their chests, their hands curled into tight fists.
When I get annoyed with my hair, I celebrate my spunky, determined grandmothers and mother who gave it to me.
Then I remember my friends with Down syndrome who struggle with the added social stigma of alopecia.
When I wrestle these thighs into my jeans, I choose not to ‘mind the gap’, knowing they can chase giggling tots around the house.
Then I remember my friend with multiple sclerosis, bound to his wheelchair, slowly losing the freedom of his arms.
Can I choose to embrace my body, despite all the ways it fails to meet my own (often unreasonable) standards?
Can I choose to thank the One who gave it to me?
And can I stop making ridiculous jokes about my body? Can I quit using humor (like I did in this post) as my default attempt to hide my frustration and shame over my physical appearance? Ouch.
I’m convinced that our bodies are Divine gifts that allow us to do meaningful, eternal work–work that matters and makes us come alive as we serve others. We can’t effectively use our gifts and passions when our limited energy is used to manage our body image issues, wrestle our perfectionism, and fight the habits that ensnare and distract us from the truth that we are loved–just as we are.
I wonder, dear reader, if you need to take any steps toward belonging to your body?
Admit your body image issues?
Work through your perfectionism with a trusted counselor or friend?
Release unhealthy habits?
Choose a sustainable routine that leads to a healthier you?
Practice daily gratitude for what your body can do?
Or maybe you’ve discovered deeper, more painful parts of your story and you need a professional to help you work through them?
Wherever you are on this journey, may you move away from the shame, discouragement, and unrealistic expectations that have plagued so many of us (for far too long) and may you move toward the truth that you are celebrated by a redemptive Creator who sees you, delights in you, and welcomes you.
**Disclaimer: I am not professionally trained to advise or treat anyone who identifies with legitimate disorders related to body image. Issues of this nature often require the help of a trained therapist who offers a holistic approach to treatment, and a supportive team. If this is you, please connect with a trusted friend and contact your doctor.
Main photo by ivanovgood at Pixabay.