Although I have been around my “goal weight” for almost 3 years, I still deeply struggle sometimes with food and body issues getting triggered in me. A “trigger” occurs when a body experience or food experience translates into a negative emotional state for me, like loneliness, shame or self-hatred. For example, if I feel full, I automatically feel ashamed. I never have to think about it, it’s just waiting for me, like an unseen ingredient in whatever I’m eating. In my “former life” of overeating and especially going to sweets for comfort, my experience of shame became ingrained and predictable: eat too much, feel ashamed and alone, repeat. The layers of fat I saw in the mirror only reinforced this shame story.
Holidays like Thanksgiving which revolve around food are still a huge struggle for me. I desperately want to be free to enjoy these occasional celebrations, to enjoy good foods that I normally don’t eat anymore. Though I have seen some deep signs of progress, I rarely if ever experience any food celebration without some hint of shame. Further, I must make intentional efforts to expose myself to these situations at times. I know that if I never allowed myself to experience “indulgences” then I would never have opportunity to work on these issues (though I have to be careful here!), to try and address these emotional echoes and residual shame issues.
Sometimes it’s like I come to a holiday dinner and say, “Ms. Loneliness, meet Mr. Feast; Mr. Feast, meet Ms. Loneliness.” Then they have a bunch of rowdy shame children who ransack my soul. How can I break free?
The past 2-3 years I have been growing in much more intentional work re-interpreting these events, with the result of finding the underlying causes slowly being healed. Reinterpretation is key here; my experiences of food and shame have been interpreted a certain way for so long that it feels like reality. It has become my “mind-map.” For example, my habit of buying a few candy bars after work (1-2x a week for many years) as a means to deal with the stress of work and my rampant feelings of worthlessness was quite literally transformed by bringing God into that habit in a different way. I didn’t try to change it at first, (tried that a million times before) although I was making healthier commitments and choices in other areas of my life (e.g., calorie counting, exercise) which helped me gain a vision for my life in which indulging in sweets might not be good or necessary.
As I tried practicing the presence of God in these times when I felt so, so alone, I would often pathetically cry out, “Jesus, I know you’re here; I don’t want to turn to these sweets, but I thank you that you will love me regardless. Help me find rest in you. I thank you that these candy bars remind me of your sweet grace and mercy always available to me.” I would then eat them, trying to receive his love (instead of shame) through the food. After a while, I felt less and less tempted to turn to sweets for comfort, until now it’s rarely even on the horizon.
Today, as I deal with the aftereffects of “the shame of feeling full,” two new interpretive categories have been bouncing around my mind and I want to tease them out a bit.
First, I thought of my body as a quite literal boundary for my sense of self. I have borders where my skin stops; this is me. It used to be much bigger. Now it’s slimmer but full of lots of unattractive loose skin (that looks a lot like fat, sad to say!). I thought, “This body is my address; this is where I live with God and he with me.” The underlying issue for me (and many others, I imagine) is acceptance of myself as I am, not as I should be. Whether fat, thin, weak, disabled, or physically strong, God’s loving presence in and with does not change.
Second, and related, I saw Jesus’ words in John 15 in a new way. I saw once again how I need, as Brennan Manning put it in one of my favorite books (Lion and Lamb), the healing of the image of God and of myself. They stand or fall together.
“Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you. In the same way that a branch can’t bear grapes by itself but only by being joined to the vine, you can’t bear fruit unless you are joined with me. . . . “I’ve loved you the way my Father has loved me. Make yourselves at home in my love. If you keep my commands, you’ll remain intimately at home in my love. That’s what I’ve done—kept my Father’s commands and made myself at home in his love. (John 15:4, 9-10 MSG, emphasis mine)
As the adage goes, “being at home in my own skin” has as much to do with loving this vessel, this body of mine with a particular history (much of it heartbreaking, sinful and silly) as it does with my trust in Jesus who is with and in me.
Brennan Manning writes,
“Christianity happens when men and women experience the unwavering trust and reckless confidence that come from knowing the God of Jesus.” (Lion and Lamb, 18).
“Tenderness is what happens to you when you know you are deeply and sincerely liked by someone. If you communicate to me that you like me, not just love me as a brother in Christ, you open up to me the possibility of self-respect, self-esteem, and wholesome self-love. Your acceptance of me banishes my fears. My defense mechanisms – sarcasm, aloofness, name-dropping, self-righteousness, giving the appearance of having it all together – start to fall. I drop my mask and stop disguising my voice. You instill self-confidence in me and allow me to smile at my weaknesses and absurdities. The look in your eyes gives me permission to make the journey into the interior of myself and make peace with that part of myself where I could never find peace before. I become more open, sincere, vulnerable, and affectionate. I too grow tender.” (ibid., 23).
Centuries earlier Paul had written a letter to a bunch of rowdy disciples who regularly used their bodies for things other than God:
Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price.Therefore honor God with your bodies. (1 Corinthians 6:19 NIV)
I used to read this verse as a veiled threat coming from a gloriously annoyed God who tolerated my presence. I’m beginning to see it through a different lens, as an invitation from Jesus to a place of shared habitation where we can grow together in union and communion in every moment and circumstance of life.