One thing I do not look forward to about a new year is the hundreds of social media posts where people, and particularly women, commit to getting “healthy” or “fit.” I have nothing against setting goals, and I believe the people who post these are sincere in what they say, but I bet if I sat down with most of them to talk about this resolution, we would eventually arrive at the underlying reality: they actually mean they want to lose weight.
It is generally more socially acceptable to say that you want to be “healthier” than to say that you would like your rear end to look a certain way in your jeans, even if the latter is your real goal. This is especially true in the church, because being a Christian adds another layer to this desire for “health.” Even a casual Christian might be able to quote to you a verse about the body being “a temple of the Holy Spirit” (I Cor. 6:19), offered to God as “a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing” (Rom. 12:1). Never mind that people in the ancient world of the New Testament were not preoccupied with washboard abs and a particular number on the scale, so these verses have nothing to do with physical fitness and weight loss.
The fact is that we live in a society where people’s bodies, and especially women’s, are supposed to look a certain way: thin. We associate thinness with health, attractiveness, self-control, and proper self-care–this is true both inside and outside the church. Even when we’re presented with evidence to the contrary, most of us still insist that thinness is healthier.
“Here I am. This is the body-like-no-other that my life has shaped. I live here. This is my soul’s address.” Barbara Brown Taylor
Where Did I Learn to Hate my Body?
I am not exempt from these false beliefs, even though I have been re-evaluating and actively rejecting them for the last few years. After all, I live in the world, too. And I grew up in a family where weight mattered.
My mother was a naturally-thin woman. As far as I can remember, she never dieted, watched what she ate or exercised regularly. The only time I can remember seeing her gain weight was when she was pregnant with my little sister–I remember thinking that she looked like a skinny lady with a ball under the front of her shirt.
I did not inherit my mother’s thin genes. I inherited her mother’s genes, my grandmother who battled her weight most of her life. Like me, my abuelita had large hips and a (let’s call it) prominent behind. I remember my abuelita constantly starting diets; bemoaning the fact that she couldn’t eat anything without it showing up uninvited on some part of her body; and attending senior exercise classes at a community center. The ironic thing is that I loved both of them, and it never even occurred to me to care what their bodies looked like.
I lived my early life between these two women: one whose body was always acceptable before society but who didn’t understand the struggles of having a different kind of body, and one who was always unsuccessfully trying to change her body to conform to a societal ideal. Inadvertently, they and the world taught me that my body was unacceptable, so I began to hate it and think of it as my enemy.
Can You Be Healthy and Not Have a Thin Body?
A few years ago I went to the doctor for a complete check-up. Toward the end of the appointment, she started reviewing the results with me, and I was preparing for her to tell me I needed to lose weight. I became so anxious about the embarrassment of it all that my hands got cold and clammy. But all she said was, “You have a vitamin D deficiency, so I recommend you either get more sun or take an over-the-counter supplement. Otherwise, you’re healthy…See you next year!”
I was so surprised that without thinking, I blurted out, “You don’t want me to lose any weight?”
“Well, if you want to, it might be a good idea. As you get older, extra weight might be hard on your joints. But thin people also get osteoarthritis.”
Bewildered, I left the appointment and considered her words. I also considered other words I had read in Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in the World:
“Whether you are sick or well, lovely or irregular, there comes a time when it is vitally important for your spiritual health to drop your clothes, look in the mirror, and say, ‘Here I am. This is the body-like-no-other that my life has shaped. I live here. This is my soul’s address.’”
I reflected on all the things I’m able to do with my body: I can walk to work; play with my nieces on the floor, stand on a chair to change a light bulb, climb the dozens of stairs at the ballpark, pick up my cat to pet her, iron laundry, and write this article!
None of these are particularly glamorous activities, but I am so grateful I’m able to do them. My body enables me to accomplish all of them. And not only that, my body connects me to Christ in a way nothing else does–it is a reminder of his own incarnation. He also took on imperfect flesh and had a body that was at times strong, tired, energetic, weak, healthy, and sick–just like mine. My own body is a way for me to identify with him.
What Does It Look Like to Love Your Body?
But loving and accepting your body in our culture is difficult. We are constantly bombarded by messages that encourage us to change it, hide it, or conform it to a certain ideal. Often these false ideals also come from the people who love us most, our friends and family. It is simply counter-cultural to love your body.
My body connects me to Christ in a way nothing else does–it is a reminder of his own incarnation.
With that in mind, I started reflecting on ways, I could practically begin to love and accept my body. And I did something I would have never done in the past: I scheduled a photo shoot for my website and author photos without any plan to lose weight. Just as I am, I will put on the brightly-colored clothes I normally wear in my size and take the pictures. It’s a small action, but it was an important one for me to take.
This step got me thinking about other ways I and others could embrace our bodies in practical ways:
- Commit to healthy habits rather than pounds lost or a specific clothes size. I have had friends who commit to eliminating added sugar or having 3-5 servings of vegetables every day.
- There’s more to people than just their weight or appearance, so don’t compliment others on weight loss. For all you know they’ve been sick or depressed. Rather, focus on congratulating them for completing that 5K, launching a new creative project, taking a risk in their personal life or celebrating a milestone work anniversary.
- Donate clothing you dream of dieting into. Styles change and so do our bodies. Buy a new outfit (or better yet) a new-to-you outfit and debut it on an evening out with friends.
- Go to your class reunion or your cousin’s wedding–without dieting. Catch up with old friends and distant relatives by sharing your joys, hobbies, significant relationships, and work projects.
- Instead of joining a gym, take up a physical activity and enjoy it in the company of others (some examples: ultimate Frisbee, softball, hiking, walking or kickball).
- Practice mindful eating, really taste and savor your food. Pay attention to your body as you eat.
And above all practice gratitude for all the things you are able to do with your body. It is a gift. Just as it is.
What are some other ways that you can practically love and accept your body?