Guest Post: It’s Not Just, “I’m Beautiful”

Hey darlings! Today’s post is a guest post by one of my favorite people: Sarah. I had the good fortune to cross paths with Sarah and Lindsey on several different occasions in the great churning ether that is the Internet; first on Gay Christian Network, then via our mutual friend Heidi Weaver, who is the boss lady of LOVEboldly. Sarah and Lindsey and I finally met in person a couple of weeks ago over overpriced chocolates and vodka cranberries near Metro Center in downtown DC, and in person they exude every bit of grace and dignity that comes across in their writing. Sarah and Lindsey have a unique and beautiful calling as an LGBT couple who are living out their mutual calling of celibacy in a committed and covenanted relationship, which has drawn both praise and ire from all angles of the LGBT-Christian conversation–nevertheless, these two have borne the joys and challenges of accepting their callings with grace I only hope to emulate. Sarah and Lindsey blog about their story at A Queer Calling. Today’s post is by Sarah.

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I always begin the Christology lecture in my freshman Intro to Theology course by performing a brief Google Images search for the term, “Jesus.” I do this as a means of segue into discussing how diverse our own mental images of Christ can be. You can probably imagine the variety of pictures my students see projected from the classroom desktop. We find traditional depictions of Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, the Sacred Heart, and the Pantocrator icon interspersed with modern depictions of Jesus laughing, playing soccer with children, or welcoming souls into heaven—and there are always a few irreverent images too (a smoking Jesus with a gun???). This exercise has never failed to produce insightful discussion, so I thought doing something similar in preparation for this guest post might relieve my writer’s block…and as it turns out, my first couple of search results for the phrase “body positivity” were scarily close to what I had supposed they would be: a photo of women with different body sizes proudly modeling underwear, and right next to it a set of “before and after” shots of a woman who had lost a significant amount of weight.

Daily, we receive conflicting messages about how we should view and treat our bodies. We hear from medical professionals, nutrition experts, and even the government about dangers associated with unhealthy food choices and larger body sizes. The diet and fitness industries take this message to another level, training us to believe that we’re fat, lazy, wastes of space unless we’re as toned as Jillian Michaels. But oppositely (some will disagree with me on this), we hear an equal abundance of “Love your body!” messages, especially from women’s organizations, the fat-positive movement, the eating disorder recovery community, and various nonprofits aimed at building self-esteem and healthy body image in young girls. We get both types of messages both in the media and in daily life. Within a single hour-long dinner, I’ve heard both, “You’re beautiful just as you are” and, “A moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips” from the same friend. It’s little wonder that many people find themselves perplexed about what “body positivity” even means. I’ve never considered myself particularly good-looking, but I certainly don’t see myself as unattractive, and I have many friends who would say the same about themselves. Does body positivity require being able to say, “I am beautiful and I love my body no matter its size”? Does it mean making “healthy” changes in order to adjust one’s body size or improve physical abilities? Or is it something else entirely?

Perhaps I’m not the best person to be discussing body positivity, but I feel that I have a certain degree of competence in this area just from lived experience. On my own blog, I’ve shared openly about my struggle with bulimia (link: http://aqueercalling.com/2014/02/27/encountering-the-mirror-of-erised/), and though I don’t see body dysmorphia as a cause of my eating disorder, in addressing the condition I’ve necessarily had to explore questions of body image. In the world of eating disorder treatment and recovery, it is assumed that a people dealing with these conditions have severe body image disturbances. In many (though not all) cases, this is true. One doesn’t spend more than an hour in a residential eating disorders facility without hearing, “I’m fat and ugly,” or “I hate my body.” That’s why anorexia and bulimia treatment programs usually involve a significant amount of activities designed to increase body positivity or at least get clients thinking about body-related beliefs. Seven years ago during one of my stints, I spent many a day drawing pictures of my body, evaluating magazine ads for the messages they send about acceptable body types, constructing body positivity collages, discussing the impact of Barbie dolls on self esteem, writing letters to my body, and so forth. A Christian treatment facility where I once received treatment actually had us searching the scriptures for positive body image messages, and therapy groups often ended up being informal proof-texting sessions. As a result I’ve never forgotten Psalm 139:14, “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.”

Though I participated fully in treatment (while admittedly being a terrible patient at times), I don’t think any of those activities had even the most miniscule of impacts upon how I viewed my body at the time, or how I view myself now. Ultimately, I’ve come to see most of them as impractical efforts at putting a Band-Aid on a wound that requires far more than superficial healing. You might be stopping at this point to suggest that maybe these exercises just weren’t the best for my situation, or to remind me of how in the last paragraph, I admitted that body dysmorphia was not a factor contributing to my eating disorder. But the truth is, while I’ve never wanted to change my body in any serious way, I’ve never acquired the ideal sense of body image either. I don’t think too many people have, even most who claim absolute, unmarred love for their bodies…even therapists specializing in eating disorders. I’ve never met a person who hasn’t had a bad body image day at one time or another—whether it’s brought on by general insecurities about size, a clothes shopping excursion, a critical remark from mom, or a vague sense of, “I’m not feeling so confident this morning.” Such days are part of life, and there’s nothing that will make them go away permanently. There is no silver bullet for forcing a person to believe that he or she is “beautiful,” and even if there were, I’d not be convinced that it would bring about true “body positivity.”

As I see it, the presence of body positivity does not necessarily indicate the absence of occasional body negativity. Body positivity does not require thinking you’re beautiful—as the old adage says, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and there’s nothing wrong with having a sense of neutrality about one’s body. Unlike body acceptance campaigns would like us to believe, “I look okay,” and “My body is alright,” are not dangerous words. They are not the same as, “I hate myself.” To me, body positivity means being able to accept the limitations of one’s body, whatever those may be. Not everyone can be thin, or even “normal” as far as weight goes. I’m still working on accepting that after years of damaging behaviors, my body is currently larger than it has ever been, and despite workouts and healthy eating, that’s probably not going to change much because my metabolism is so irregular. I believe that sometimes, body positivity can involve standing up for oneself when a medical professional uses one’s body size to assert, “If only you ate better and exercised more, you wouldn’t have the health problem you’re currently experiencing.” At the same time, body positivity can be expressed in seeking help and support, or listening to a doctor’s unpleasant-yet-true words of advice about living more healthily. It can mean deciding to alter one’s body for any number of reasons, or contentedly accepting one’s body for what it is despite external pressures to make changes. But most importantly, body positivity is accepting oneself as a beloved child of God, created in his image and likeness. It means approaching Christ’s Body and Blood in the Eucharist with awe and wonder, treasuring the intimacy we experience with God as he enters our bodies and uses his own to bring us to wholeness.

Body Image and Eating Disorder Resources:

Something Fishy (link: http://www.something-fishy.org/)

Grace on the Moon (link: https://www.graceonthemoon.com/home.html)

Eating Disorder Hope (link: http://www.eatingdisorderhope.com/)

ED Bites (link: http://edbites.com/)

About Face (link: http://www.about-face.org/)

The Body Positive (link: http://thebodypositive.org/)

Finding Balance (link: http://www.findingbalance.com/)

New ID (link: http://www.newid.org/)

Rock Recovery (link: http://rockrecoveryed.org/)

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