By A.H. Shelley
As I was jogging down the street, feeling guilty about a 320 calorie cookie I had eaten after lunch today, a little girl playing on her driveway yelled out to me: “You’re really skinny!” Turning around I laughed, and she asked “Are you an athlete?”
“Not really,” I answered, and then continued jogging—no, running—down the street. Once I was out of sight I slowed down and put my hand over the fleshy bulge on my stomach. I had been examining it in the mirror just before shoving my feet into my tennis shoes and resolving to burn off as many calories as possible. I had carefully analyzed where my 180 calorie salad, 260 calorie grilled cheese sandwich and 320 calorie cookie had landed in my stomach. Add that to the two bowls of cereal and subtract 4 hours of being sedentary in a car, and I knew that I had a lot of work to do if I wanted to enjoy dinner that night.
But after that little girl’s words, I was forced to stop and remember: my perception of my body is absurdly construed. It has been for years and years. What I see in the mirror and what people see when they look at me are two different girls.
I am not the only girl struggling with body image issues. Millions of us do, and my story is just one out of many. But I believe it is one worth sharing, because I want people to know that it is nothing to be ashamed of. It is an ongoing battle, but it is not one we have to fight alone.
Beautiful people, according to the world, are those who seem to “have it all.” The winning looks, the charming personality, the dream relationships and the ability to make everything go their way. These are the people who must never be in want of anything; who others look upon in envy and sometimes even with spite. People tend to forget that “beautiful” people are people too. I don’t consider myself beautiful or skinny by any means; every morning I look in the mirror before leaving for work, and my last thought as I examine my face and stomach is, “I give up.” I go through the day feeling bloated and as though everyone knows it, and everyone is wondering where the skinny girl went and why she is letting herself go. But I also know that, although these are the thoughts in my head, the strange reality is that people think of me as a “beautiful person.”
The world’s definition of beauty is grossly distorted, yet the pressure to be a beautiful person is enormous. Too much to bear sometimes. Once we have heard, “You’re so skinny,” or “You’re so pretty,” enough times, we begin to feel as though these are the expectations we must live up to. Everyone loves beauty. They love what is pleasing to the eye. If they see that in us, heaven forbid we let them down.
My story starts in 9th grade. I was very shy, very quiet and very insecure. But due to an overabundance of sunshine, vegetables, exercise, and good genes I was also skinny as a rail. I started reading Seventeen magazines and saw that what I had is what everyone wants, and I was determined to hold onto it because it was the only thing that got me attention. I didn’t make friends with girls very easily and guys wouldn’t talk to me, but what I did hear enough of the time to make a difference was “You’re so skinny! I’m jealous!” That is one power that I had over others. It didn’t take me long to discover a second one.
A few months into my freshman year of high school, a sophomore football player who rode my bus started talking to me. I was so ridiculously giddy and excited that I lost my appetite, and for the 3 weeks he was pursuing me I hardly ate a thing. Once he stopped pursuing me I knew had lost him but I had gained a new realization: I didn’t have to eat. It was simple. I knew, now, how to get through one day after the next without eating and I was determined to hold onto that control.
Of course, I didn’t get away with this for very long. A few months later my parents noticed that I wasn’t eating everything on my plate at dinner, that I would close my door for long periods of time (and I guess they figured out that I was doing insane amounts of jumping jacks, sit-ups and squats in there) and that I was strangely stand-offish. One morning before leaving for school my dad made me step on a scale in front of him. The same scale I had hijacked from my parents’ bathroom and been hoarding in mine. I was 5’10” and 115 pounds. “The scale is broken,” I grumbled, picking up my backpack and leaving for the bus.
By the end of that week my mom was picking me up from school and taking me to see a counselor. The whole way there I defiantly ate handful after handful of goldfish, proving that I was just fine and didn’t have an eating disorder. Yet I still ended up on that counselor’s couch talking about Anorexia.
It’s a dirty word, but I’ll say it now and keep saying it: Anorexia. An eating disorder. It takes on many forms, and mine is restrictive, meaning I deal with stress and anxiety by strictly controlling my diet and steering clear of food when I can help it.
I saw the counselor a few times, cried my eyes out as I came to terms with the fact that my out-of-control feelings stemmed from the recent loss of a grandparent, and that was that. I thought that the problem was solved and I could move on with my life.
But I never moved on. I gained the weight that I needed very quickly, got back on track with puberty (kind of), and continued through high school shy, reserved and remarkably skinny. The whole time, though, I was painfully aware of what I ate and how much I exercised. I traded out chips for an apple in my lunches (which is healthy, but that wasn’t my motive), I asked my mom to stop putting mayonnaise on my sandwiches, and I counted my pretzels and cheez-its into their proper serving sizes.
When I got to college and had more control over my own diet I skimped out on meals even more, especially since my diet was composed of whatever processed mutations the cafeteria had to serve. I was terrified beyond belief of the “freshman 15;” I thought that must be something that happens to everyone and it would happen to me too if I didn’t watch out. When I stepped on my roommate’s scale one morning and saw the horrible number “151” pop up (I’m 6’0” by now) I literally had a panic attack. I remember eating nothing but slices of bread, peanut butter, and 90 calorie breakfast bars for days.
This cycle continued throughout college. Something would trigger me to panic about my weight and I would take control over it again. I ate the smallest meals possible, felt powerful when my stomach growled and defeated when I gave in to it by feeding it. I was also jogging, biking or walking as much as possible, convinced that my metabolism would give up at anytime. People thought that I was healthy; they saw how much water I drank and how much fruit and salad I ate and they admired it. But I wasn’t doing it to be healthy; I was doing it to be skinny. And with every bite that went into my mouth I swallowed a spoonful of guilt as well.
This is hardly anyway to live.
I moved out of my parents’ house after graduating from college and was excited because, after being sick for several months, I had dropped down to 138 pounds (still 6’0”). By the time I moved out I was still at that weight, and I was at peace because I was so happy with it. If the number on that scale started to creep back up again I would merely pull back on my eating. It was easy: absent-mindedly forget to pack lunch when going to work, or eat a bowl of cereal for dinner when I didn’t feel like cooking. When I went out to eat I hardly finished what was on my plate. Or if I did I punished myself the next day by skipping something. I could see my ribs, hip bones and shoulder blades. But if my stomach was anything but flat, nothing could cheer me up.
It didn’t take long for my loved ones to catch onto what I was doing. I was called out on it after too many nights of “chips and salsa,” “cereal,” or “peanuts” as my dinner menu. I loved the control it gave me. I loved seeing the number 137 on the scale in the mornings—my lowest weight yet. I loved that I not only managed to graduate from college, move away from home, and get a job, but also managed to maintain a wicked low weight. And by golly I was determined to hold onto that victory. Guys desire it, girls envy it, and Seventeen magazine makes sure everyone knows this.
Now, though, I know that this is wrong and that I want to stop it. Thanks to the guidance of my support group I am finally able to seek out the help I need to overcome this. I am talking to my family, friends, and pastor and meeting with a counselor. I do not want this to take over my life anymore.
Maybe your story is similar to this. Maybe it is worse. Maybe it isn’t quite as bad.
It isn’t very hard for those of us who live this way to come down on ourselves with the law. Starving our bodies is a sin against the flesh. It is not respecting the temple of Christ, it is throwing away God’s gift of food, and it is worshipping the idol of our own bodies and succumbing to our vanity. It is finding our identity in how we look rather than in Christ, who purchased us with His own precious blood.
Just like all sins, though, it is something that we cannot control. We cannot stop ourselves from seeing flabby flesh in the mirror, or from adding up calories consumed at the end of the day, or from doing jumping jacks and sit-ups to shed the guilt with the pounds. We cannot convince ourselves that breakfast isn’t the best meal of the day because it is the only one we don’t feel guilty about eating. We want to, but we can’t.
I hope that the media, the magazines, the movies and the make-up ads realize that “beauty,” as the world sees it, is a cross many girls are forced to bear as they try to live up to impossible standards. Beauty, as it has been distorted by the world, is a tremendous burden, and not something that we see in ourselves no matter how much we want others to see it in us.
Yet beauty as God sees it is different. Each and every one of us is beautiful in His eyes because of the salvation given freely onto us in our Baptism. Beauty, in God’s eyes, is the washing of rebirth poured out on us when our names are written in the Book of Life. When God looks at us He doesn’t see someone skinny as a rail or rotund as a house. He sees His Son. The beauty of God’s Son is spectacular and everlasting, and not what we will ever find in a Seventeen magazine. This is beauty that really matters, and not a beauty we have to work for.
Therefore we do not have to be slaves to our flesh, vanity, or sin. God gave us life and formed our bodies to be His temple, and then His Son died on the cross to buy us back from our sin; even the sin that drives us to torture the precious body He lovingly created. God has made us by hand and loves what He has made; Satan is the one who wants us to worry about our bodies. He wants us to worry about our “image” in this life, and to see ourselves in the mirror as distinct from Christ instead of seeing that we are complete and beautiful in Christ.
None of us want Satan to win, but we cannot fight him alone. Thanks be to God none of us has to. Christ is victorious even over this sin, and He wins even this battle.
So we can stop hiding our shame, and start talking about our struggle and seeking ways to overcome it. We can stop starving ourselves (there are people who can help). We can confess to our pastors and seek out professionals who are trained to give us the strategies we need to stop feeling guilty about food and to start enjoying it. We can embrace the cross that Christ has given us to bear knowing that we do not bear it alone. Christ shares not only in our joys but in our sorrows and struggles too.
We are now free to live, confident in the faith that Christ has risen from the dead but that our sins—even the ones we are afraid to talk about—are still buried in the grave.
“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” John 16:33
Title Image: "The Mirror" by William Merritt Chase, c. 1900