Joan Jacobs Brumberg birthed The Body Project from years of collecting the journals of adolescent girls. In it, she compares New Year’s resolutions of two girls who were about the same age. The first, written in 1892 records the young lady’s desires to “…not talk about myself or feelings. To think before speaking. To work seriously. To be self-restrained in conversation and actions. Not to let my thoughts wander. To be dignified. Interest myself more in others.” The later, from a teenager in 1982 said, “I will try to make myself better in any way I possibly can with the help of my budget and babysitting money. I will lose weight, get new lenses, already got haircut, good makeup, new clothes, and accessories.” From this we see a stark contrast in culture’s changing values. In 90 years time, a teenage girls’s primary goals morphed from improvements in character to changes in appearance. It’s not hard to see why I have the issues that I do.
With the ever-advancing flood of technology, we have allowed ourselves to be sold a bill of goods on the “image” we should portray. We let society at large dictate to us what is beautiful and acceptable. And I do mean the collective “we”. All of us buy in to some degree. Lest you believe you are some highly evolved hold out, ask yourself why you permed your hair and teased your bangs to the rafters in the 90’s. Or why you spend money on jeans with holes in them today? I’m not saying there is anything inherently wrong with enjoying fashion or keeping up with the trends. But when the quest for the right “image” becomes so important that we dislike who God made us to be – as my friend Terri says, “We have more issues than Time magazine.”
Because we are constantly confronted with pictures and video of what other people think is beautiful, we tend to develop a set of insecurities around what we perceive as our differences. And I fear it will only be much, much worse for our children. The amount of time spent on social media and streaming videos is certain to fill them with hundreds and thousands more negative messages than just the network television shows and Young Miss magazines of my day. Even with the limited screen time of the 80’s and 90’s, it was easy for us to decide that our hair was too thin or our lips were too full, our eyes the wrong color, our butt too big or our boobs not big enough. For me, it was always my weight.
I developed early. I had breasts and hips and curves long before most of my girlfriends. By the time I was in the 6th grade, I was catching the attention of high school and college boys. That didn’t seem like a problem to me, until 7th grade athletics. When we started changing out in the locker room for sports I noticed just how different I was from the stick figures that most of the girls were. To add insult to injury, there were only 2 jerseys for the basketball team that were large enough to accommodate the blossoming figures of myself, my twin sister and one other friend who was our size. That meant the 3 of us had to share those two jerseys. Are you getting the mental picture? Every game one of us had to sport a jersey that was mortifyingly too tight. In this jersey I looked and felt “fat”. I no longer saw my curves as mature beauty. They became and forever more would be the enemy.
Through my teenage and college years, my mind waged a war against my body. I wanted to eat and I wanted to be thin. So I vacillated between indulging in “fun” foods and fad dieting – a sense of guilt and shame underlying it all. I drank Slim-Fast and ate Snackwells, took pills and swilled cabbage soup in an effort to gain the shape I thought I was supposed to have.
As a young mom I joined an exercise program to try to loose the baby weight and a new obsession (that fed into my old obsession) was hatched. I got certified to teach group fitness and spent the next several years adding certification upon certification and teaching as many exercise classes as I could. I found my identity and self-worth in being a trim and muscular example to others. But my battle with food raged on until it, among other things, landed me on a counselor’s couch a few years ago. This wise woman of God diagnosed me with 2 sub-clinical eating disorders. I was a compulsive overeater and an exercise anorexic. I ate to dull the pain of self-loathing and the things I couldn’t control in my life (like a child with a seizure disorder) and then I exercised to make sure that no one ever knew it. More than almost anything, I feared gaining weight and shattering what I thought was a perfectly portrayed image.
My counselor encouraged me to stop obsessively tracking caloric intake and expenditure and – instead – look at the real issues. After throwing out my scale and Body Bugg (a pre-Fitbit activity tracker) I hurt my back, broke my foot, tore my ACL and got diagnosed with breast cancer. These happened over several years time but each lead to changes in the intensity of the exercise I could do and some pity eating. What I feared the most, has come true. I gained more weight than even my distorted mind thought I could. So much, that I have to admit I am still embarrassed to publish. But do you know what? Nothing in my life has really changed. Being the size I am now was my greatest fear. It is realized. But my husband still loves me and is attracted to me. I still have a great group of friends – many of the same ones. I have maintained my job teaching fitness and students still want to come to my classes, and I am able to take care of my family and serve my God.
Our culture tries to sell us a bill of goods that says we are somehow a lesser person if we don’t have the right “image”. I’m here to tell you from personal experience that it’s just not true. I have found an incredible amount of freedom in realizing that my life is no worse for the extra pounds I carry. So much freedom, in fact, that I feel confident now in taking steps toward a stronger, healthier me without all the baggage I carried before. I no longer seek the “perfect body”. Habakkuk 2:18 says “What profit is the idol when its maker has carved it, or an image, a teacher of falsehood?” The WORLD has decided what constitutes a perfect body, and the WORLD has changed its mind on that many times over. So what good does this current image do us? It’s not from God, and as a believer, I am striving to care more that others see Him, not me. “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.” 2 Corinthians 3:18
It’s a daily battle for me to put aside the messages I’m bombarded with. The world still gets my attention with its diatribes on being fit and looking young and dressing a certain way to be relevant; and I do believe God made us to enjoy beautiful things, but 1 Peter 3:3 says, “Your adornment must not be merely external – braiding the hair, and wearing gold jewelry, or putting on dresses; but let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God.” I constantly pray now that I would be pleasing to God’s eyes and care less about the watchful eye of man – that more and more when I look in a mirror, it will be His face looking back at me.