Date: August 24, 2021
By: Jessica C.
This Sunday I looked in the mirror wearing a dress I bought two years ago, but never wore anywhere. It was a good colour, had pretty embroidery, it fit well, and… you know what I’m going to say next, don’t you? It had pockets – the perfect dress.
“Why didn’t I wear you before?” I asked the dress. And the dress said – well, no, the dress didn’t say anything. But I did realize something at that moment: that my body in the dress was good and loveable exactly the way it was. Two years ago, when I bought the dress, I didn’t think that at all. What changed exactly? Two years ago, I was a year post-partum with my fifth baby and I still hadn’t lost all the weight I’d gained. Now that I’ve dieted and exercised, I have lost the weight and I feel way better about myself, and hence, I look better in the dress.
No, no. Nope. That’s not it at all. The dress I bought two years ago fits exactly the same, because my body is pretty much the same. The difference is that I have stopped believing the lie that I am more lovable and more capable of loving in a different body than the one I have now.
I’ve had a few conversations lately that have reminded me of this fact. A friend who gained pandemic weight can still serve God, and is still worthy of love. A friend who will undergo life-changing surgery is still inexorably loved by Jesus even if her life isn’t going to be quite what she had dreamed of. Those of us who are born with disabilities, visible or invisible, still exist in the inexhaustible love of a Father who cares for us as we are today.
There is a pervasive message within Christian culture that a healthy, fit person is glorifying God with their diet, their exercise, and their health. One need only do a quick search to find a plethora of Christian diet and fitness books available, not that I recommend you do. While there are truths in these ideas – certainly God gave us our bodies and it is loving to treat them well with nourishing food and movement – the idea that thinness or strength are the pinnacle of glorifying God is a lie. Just as God doesn’t need us to earn His love, God does not need us to be thin, fit, or strong to enter His Kingdom. We are called to make healthy choices and treat our bodies with care without turning to the extreme of making an idol of our body.
We need only look to Jesus and the saints: Christ Himself allowed His body to be bloodied and weakened before He died. St. Therese of Lisieux died of tuberculosis, which she happily accepted, serving God by offering up her bodily suffering until death. Blessed Miguel Pro suffered severe stomach pains from ulcers as he served as a priest in hiding during the Cristero War in Mexico in the 1920’s. It is said he would joke to cover his pain. Along with the ill, fat people aren’t excluded from heaven either. It is well known that St. Thomas Aquinas was rotund, and it would be silly to assume that he was the lone fat guy who made it there. Catholic journalist and author G.K. Chesterton was also fat, but his writing still influences Catholic apologists and points people toward God today. The word “fat” in the same sentence with a saint is rather jarring, isn’t it? We know this word primarily in a negative sense, don’t we? “She called me fat!” – a common insult in junior high (and maybe adulthood?) It hurts when we think of all the negative ways the word has been used, doesn’t it. “Does this make me look fat?” we ask, because the pressure (on women especially) to not look fat is pervasive in our culture. As I think about other descriptors of bodies – short, tall, thin, wiry, husky – the word fat is the one that nobody wants. But what if it isn’t the word that is the problem? What if being fat wasn’t the worst thing that could happen to a person?
For me, accepting that I could be fat and loved was a huge step toward more happiness. It was also a step toward actual physical health. I can be fat and ride a bike. I can be fat and swim with my kids. I can be fat and do good things for myself – things I enjoy but was putting off doing until I lost the weight, trying to do “safe” things like home workouts and diets behind closed doors. I’d been burned a few times by medical professionals (not all, but a few) who saw only a fat lady. Because I was afraid of the judgment, I put off life-changing physiotherapy for an injury I suffered during one of my 5 births – one that made it painful even to walk sometimes. I thought that if I just lost the weight, then I’d be treatable. Thankfully, I’ve found good care-providers. The first step forward though was allowing my fat body to be truly loved by God. It began when a friend on Instagram started posting about intuitive eating: the idea that we can trust our body’s cues of fullness and satiation to regulate our intake. For me the pieces began to fall together like a puzzle. I’d been on so many diets trying to control my body’s size to no avail or only temporarily. Along the way I kept questioning where my body fit into God’s plan. Every day I’d ask God, “Why this body? Why can’t I have a different one?” I picked up a few books on the topic and it clicked: God gave me this body. He didn’t give me a different one. He wants me to trust in Him, and so of course I can trust that He gave me this very good body for His purposes. It made so much sense to learn to listen to what my body (God’s unique creation) needed to sustain itself.
One of the books I read is “Lovely: How I Learned to Embrace the Body God Gave Me” by Amanda Martinez Beck, and among many, this particular passage struck me:
"Jesus was a man who lived with a body, healed people with his touch, who got dirty and took baths and went to the bathroom daily and blew his nose! And there is no way we can see his body as anything but good. If the physical body of Jesus is good, what does this mean for our physical bodies? In the Incarnation, God affirmed the goodness of creation. Our bodies are part of that created goodness."
God made us so very good. Each and every one of us. He made us with genetics that would dictate our physical appearances, and He loves all of us – our spots, our scars, our unruly fly-aways, our hook-noses, our love handles. These bodies He gave us are gifts that He has entrusted to us.
But what about our urges that are less than holy? Gluttony, or the inability to say no to ourselves is a real thing. Intuitive eating (and prayer) turned that around and introduced me to listening to my cravings so that I could be satiated by them, give myself permission to have them, and eventually detach myself from those things. Detachment happened because I allowed myself to render those foods neutral by not restricting them temporarily, thereby taking away their power over me and the urge to overindulge when those things were in my grasp. Restriction created a stronger desire in me than simply allowing myself to find my natural limit. As I journey toward God with this body, I now know I can trust Him and the tangible practice of listening to the instruments He gave me to be moderate and nourish myself without guilt and shame.
Now, I’m still on the journey, but I never thought I’d learn detachment and self-control from allowing myself to eat. God is healing a wound in me that has its roots in diets, in my body image, and in the culture that enshrines certain bodies over others. I was allowing the culture – the almost-worship of the healthy, fit, body- to cloud my vision of God’s real call for me. We are each uniquely called by God in the body that we are in. Certainly, taking care of our bodies is important, but in a world where so much value is placed on thin and fit and a state of physical health, it is easy to forget that: the fat, the thin, the young, the old, the fertile, the infertile, the able, and the less able are each uniquely called. As a people who support life from conception to natural death, we can’t forget that God has a plan for those with mental illness, developmental challenges, and those who are profoundly disabled too.
Accepting that all bodies are good doesn’t take away from those who strive for physical prowess, or those who got the tall-thin genes that our society loves. God in this moment loves you with cellulite and a post-partum pooch, with surgical scars, with a hip replacement or a hearing aid. This doesn’t mean we stop striving to take care of ourselves, it just means that a person who has suffered a debilitating injury doesn’t serve God in the same way as the marathon runner. It might mean that my friend who spent her years being called a “stringbean,” is doing the exact same thing to serve God with her life as my friend who descended from big-boned peasants, and that God immeasurably loves them both.