For instance, I can say that I think it is important to pray naked in front of a full-length mirror sometimes, especially when you are full of loathing for your body. Maybe you think you are too heavy. Maybe you have never liked the way your hipbones stick out. Do your breasts sag? Are you too hairy? It is always something. . .You have gotten glimpses of your body as you have bathed or changed clothes, but so far maintaining your equilibrium has depended upon staying covered up as much as you can. You have even discovered how to shower in the dark so that you may have to feel what you presently loathe about yourself but you do not have to look at it.
This can only go on so long, especially for someone who officially believes that God loves flesh and blood, no matter what kind of shape it is in. 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.”
These words from Barbara Brown Taylor’s newest book, An Altar in the World, reduced me to tears. It was a deep but unexpected emotional reaction that left me confused. What is it about those words that touched so deeply, and what exactly is it in me that they touched?
Like the majority of women (and many men), I have a love/hate relationship with my body. In my mind, I am still the skinny girl that I used to be. In reality, I haven’t been skinny for years. And speaking of skinny, I look back now at pictures of me in my teens and early 20’s and realize that the skinny I was so proud of was anything but a healthy-looking skinny. I looked like a skeleton. I looked anorexic. In retrospect, I believe I was.
As a junior in high school, I was my current height – 5’5″. My weight dropped to 89 pounds at one point. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to eat. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t keep most food down. For almost a year my diet consisted primarily of Carnation Instant Breakfast Drink, Ensure, milkshakes, and mashed potatoes. I wasn’t worried about my weight. I was worried about not being perfect. I had to make A’s. When I auditioned in band or orchestra, I had to make first chair. The problems started when I discovered that an A in chemistry under Mr. Phail (yes, pronounced ‘fail’) wasn’t likely to happen and first chair belonged solidly to my best friend. It was stupid. Earning a B (or even a C) in Mr. Phail’s class was nothing to be ashamed of and second chair was still an honor. But I felt like I was failing. As the 3rd child in my family, I followed my sister who was a whiz kid and my brother who is musically gifted. I didn’t feel like I was measuring up.
I remained skinny into early adulthood. I weighed about 105 pounds when I got pregnant with Rosemary. I gained far more weight than I was supposed to during pregnancy. Still, I have pictures from a beach trip when Rosemary was 7 months old and I was skinny again, back down to 107 pounds. I didn’t lose that weight because I was disciplined or determined or dieting. I lost it because of stress. My husband left me when Rosemary was just 10 weeks old. Before he left, he firmly imprinted in my mind that I was ugly and undesirable. I believed him. After all, I heard it from him so often and so long how could it not be true?
It took about 4 years of failed efforts to reconcile before the divorce was finalized. By that time, I didn’t care anymore. I didn’t love me. I didn’t believe that anybody else would love me. I threw myself into motherhood and seminary and work. For 2 years I lived in a little rental house in my hometown while I worked and finished my degree. Try as I might, I cannot remember eating a single meal in that house sitting down at the dining room table. I usually ate standing up in the kitchen, or behind the driver’s wheel, or at my desk. Slowly, my weight crept upward. I was too distracted to notice.
In my mind, nothing had changed. Imagine my shock when I finally woke up and saw myself in the mirror looking far different than I expected. You know that feeling you get when you first hear a recording of your voice? You think, “That’s not me! I don’t sound anything like that!” But you do. It’s you. That’s what this epiphany felt like. “That’s not me! I don’t look anything like that!” But I do. It was me. It is me.
It is a constant battle for me – a major mind game. I flip flop between self-loathing and self-acceptance. I exercise regularly, or try to. I try not to focus on numbers on a scale or on tags in clothing. Instead I seek to be healthy and strong. I try to accept my body, to love it, to believe that someone else could love it too.
Then the images and mixed messages from the media try to convince me how off-base I am. There are all the skinny, fit, pretty stars who set the bar hopelessly high. And then there are countless TV shows dealing with weight loss. For the second season in a row I’m hooked on Biggest Loser. I see bits and pieces of other shows like Ruby, Diet Tribe, Bulging Brides, and Last 10 Pound Boot Camp. Some of them make me feel okay about where I am right now. Others, well, not so much so. When a bride-to-be who weighs 35 pounds less than I do breaks down over her weight, I have to admit I slip back into the self-loathing.
And then I read these words:
After you have taken a good look around, you may decide that there is a lot to be thankful for, all things considered. Bodies take real beatings. That they heal from most things is an underrated miracle. That they give birth is beyond reckoning.
When I do this, I generally decide that it is time to do a better job of wearing my skin with gratitude instead of loathing. No matter what I think of my body, I can still offer it to God to go on being useful to the world in ways both sublime and ridiculous. At the very least, I can practice a little reverence right there in front of the mirror, taking some small credit for standing there unguarded for once.
Thank you, BBT. I needed that.
“Here I am. This is the body-like-no-other that my life has shaped. I live here. This is my soul’s address.”