Mireille Guiliano begins her book French Women Don't Get Fat with this story: She went on an exchange to America. She got fat. After returning to France, she relearned how to eat, the French way.
I did the opposite: The year before I was a senior in high school, I went on an exchange to France. I got skinny. When I returned to America, I felt great, looked great, and received high praise. That post-France pinnacle of svelteness is where my troubles with food began in earnest. Any more pounds represented failure, a deviation from "my best self." I began eating emotionally. I gained 10 pounds.
At New Year's I decided to get serious about getting back to the "right" size. In good-student fashion, I read reputable books and magazines and followed all the rules. I was the ideal dieter. I ran and lifted weights. Mathematical tricks of weight-loss became second nature: The calories in an apple (small, medium, or large); which foods satisfy most for the fewest calories (pancakes are great for this). I steadily lost 1.5 pounds a week for eight weeks and was in better shape than ever. My dieting was officially healthy, nutritionally balanced, and utterly obsessive.
BODY-IMAGE TROUBLE seems to be rampant in America: An estimated 80 million people will go on a diet this year, many eating in a literally "disordered" way without realizing it; 80 percent of American women and 45 percent of American men are dissatisfied with their bodies; 24 percent of women and 17 percent of men say they would give up more than three years of their life to attain their weight goals. Diets fail to produce long-term results as much as 95 percent of the time, according to the National Eating Disorders Association.
Each day, the media and pop culture confront us with a barrage of "perfect" bodies. Even for those who know the models are airbrushed, the body types genetically improbable, psychology studies show the images still leave their mark: dissatisfaction.
Christians are not immune, of course. Jacqueline L. Salmon recently noted in The Washington Post that "no faith has seized on the religious approach to weight loss as emphatically as Christianity." Diet books, plans, and Web sites "have attracted millions by using Christian imagery and theology." Yet few links exist between these Christian dieting programs and actual long-term weight loss, according to a 2004 University of Texas study.
The effects of body obsession range beyond individual self-esteem problems. Eve Ensler, creator of the play The Good Body, asks us to consider the "time and attention [we spend] on fixing ourselves when we could really be directing that out to serving others." Noting that we spend $40 billion a year on beauty products, she remarks, "It's a capitalistic distraction, and keeps women hooked on this hate-myself, consume, hate-myself, consume treadmill. If women actually loved their bodies, how much more energy and time and money we would have to enter into power in the world."
How do we escape the snares of body image neurosis and yo-yo dieting? The framework we use to think about food and our bodies is broken. Trying to drag God into the mess doesn't seem to help. Is there any hope?
"THE IDEA OF FIDELITY is perverted beyond redemption by understanding it as a grim, literal duty enforced only by will power. This is the 'religious' insanity of making a victim of the body as a victory of the soul. Self-restraint that is so purely negative is self-hatred," writes Wendell Berry. But the faith I had in my own self-restraint made it impossible for me to conceive of it as self-hatred, or as anything negative at all.
Being a perfectly disciplined dieter for eight weeks didn't end my food and body woes. Soon I returned to emotional binge-eating. That fall, I left for college; stress and insecurities heightened. Now I can laugh about the lethal effect of a dining hall on my struggle. Then, it wasn't so funny.
During winter quarter I reached the nadir of my journey with food and with God. I felt inadequate and disgusting. I desperately wanted God's help in ending this vicious cycle, but God never seemed to fully deliver. When I was stuffed, bloated, and incapacitated from a binge, I would pray, weeping: Take this from me. Help me. I don't want to be like this. I believed salvation would come from obeying the legalistic idol of strict self-control and self-improvement that I thought God endorsed. As I wrote in my journal:
God did not create me to consume my time worrying about calories. I know how sick it is ... so why don't I stop? Why do I create my own problems? ... Am I afraid of perfect happiness? … Why else would I sabotage all the gifts that I've been given, keep myself from thriving? … My thoughts disturb and distract me in lecture, in church, in conversation. … I count every calorie that goes into my mouth; yet it doesn't stop me from eating an entire package of cookie dough.
Perfect happiness. I thought it was mine for the making—and that God expected nothing less.
FOOD IS A GIFT from God to be enjoyed, especially with others, creating communion and fellowship. It's not meant to be an idol. Like sex, like work, like material comfort, if we seek to satisfy the hunger of our souls with food alone, we will remain empty. I used food to cope with the spiritual void of an "estrangement" from God, created by my own conviction that I could perfect myself, given enough determination and discipline. Disordered eating was my symptom of accepting neither grace nor my need for it.
I went to the university's psychiatric clinic to see if I qualified for research counseling for eating disorders. Sorry, they said. I didn't meet the criteria for having bulimia—I had only purged two times. On my way out the door, I ran into the girl who lived across the hall from me. We smiled at each other politely. Funny meeting you here! Later that night, we began to talk.
At first I doubted whether two confused people sharing with each other could possibly make either one of us better. But exposing our secret thoughts and behaviors robbed them of their power. By offering forgiveness and compassion—and always, laughter—to each other, we learned to be gentler with ourselves. Grace crept in, unnamed but almighty.
In mid-March, I was caught facing the toilet by a stranger who walked in on me in a bakery bathroom. He probably thought nothing of it, but I felt incriminated: Through a stranger's eyes, the sick nature of binging and purging was magnified. That was the last time I self-induced vomiting. I knew enough by then not to promise instant reform. I still needed to construct new ways of thinking about God, food, and how the two were related.
This spiritual breakthrough came during spring break. I picked up C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters and found an idea—a word—that illuminated my misdirection: My greatest offense against God wasn't eating 48 cookies; it was the excessive, inordinate attention to food, body, and self-perfection. My new favorite word became "inordinate."
I had made an idol of my diet. In effect, I was asking God to help me do a better job of serving my other god. Despite my prayers, I didn't expect to experience unconditional love and peace. I believed those would come only when I was finally thin and happy and had my eating under control. My theology was based on the unbiblical assumption that first I had to "be ye perfect" and then, and only then, would I "know abundant life." Somehow I overlooked that I was orienting my life by the truths of magazines rather than the Bible.
I thought God wanted me both to be the perfect eater and exerciser (thereby achieving the perfect "temple" for God's service) and not think about food so much (because that wasn't conducive to good service). I couldn't work my way out of this conundrum.
After 18 futile months, I learned that embracing grace was my only escape—in all areas of my life, not just eating. I had to accept that I wasn't going to be perfect by the world's standards—and to the extent that it distracted me from God's two great commands, I needed to stop trying.
Grace is an abstract theological term that I still struggle to understand. My one handle on grace is how it worked in my life that spring. Accepting grace meant not trying to fix my mistakes when I ate too much and not counting calories. I trusted that God forgave me when I overate. I relearned how to honor my hunger, my fullness, and my body. To reduce stress, I took long walks and the minimum number of course credits. I laughed with friends. I remembered that I was created for a higher purpose than a size 6.
"ONE CANNOT BE GOOD, anyhow, just by not being bad," writes Wendell Berry. "To be faithful merely out of duty is to be blinded to the possibility of a better faithfulness, for better reasons." This concept of "better reasons" led to my second spiritual breakthrough, when I finally accepted my heaviest-ever body weight as permanent, and even beautiful. I threw out all of the "skinny clothes" I had been saving for a thinner day.
I moved to El Salvador for three months and ate beans, rice, corn tortillas, eggs, and fruit. I ate three times a day to my satisfaction. When I craved sugar, I bought a can of pineapple juice or a chocolate-covered banana and felt no guilt. Free from thoughts of weight loss, I could be truly intuitive about my hunger and satisfaction. After mental and emotional space cleared, a new understanding of what it might mean to nourish my body well, not just ordinately, crept in. I acknowledged the power and importance of food that is fresh, unprocessed, and close to the source.
Today, I trust that when I listen to what my body is telling me before, during, and after I eat (the same goes for exercise), my healthy weight comes—unbidden and unwatched. I'm about 30 pounds lighter than when I left for El Salvador, but I try to avoid knowing the number—scales are a temptation now, not an ally. I try not to compare my body to those in magazines. I try to think about loving my neighbors and loving God, and eating and exercising in a way that facilitates rather than hinders such love.
I remind myself that there are seasons of the body. When I first told my mother, with trepidation and shame, about my binging and purging, she said, "Oh, honey—there will be times in your life when you will be fatter, and times in your life when you will be thinner. That's okay. In the end, it doesn't really matter."
This simple proclamation was liberating; it directly contradicts what society tells us about a healthy weight. We are offered an ideal of health that is measured, writes Berry, by "the exclusive desirability of a certain physical model." It's an artificial distraction to try and stay at one number on the scale—an instrument woefully incapable of assessing our health holistically. When people grieve, they often eat less. When people celebrate, they often eat more. Sometimes it works in reverse. Unwittingly, when my mom died two-and-a-half years ago, I lost 10 pounds. After I had moved through the initial stages of grieving, I slowly gained it back. For my sister it was the opposite. In the end, it doesn't really matter.
WE ARE TOLD that religious-like adherence to diets and all the tricks in magazines will save us from our fat, ugly, and unhealthy selves. Most often, though, we are being trained to serve the god of weight loss and self-determined perfectionism, not the God of love. Discipline has a place, but it is corrupted when used to please a false idol. And next to discipline must be room for grace. Paul says the Lord told him, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Corinthians 12:9). I used to dismiss this verse as nonsensical, as irrelevant to me as Paul's instruction to be a good slave.
Now I wrestle with the idea that sufficiency and abundance flow from God only when I first acknowledge how weak and in need of help I am. I try to let grace replace a desire for control.
Some of the greatest metaphors in the Bible for God's provision and love are those involving food: the manna in the desert, the loaves and the fishes, the first miracle at the wedding in Cana. We are told, again and again, that God will provide for our physical needs; our job is to seek God first for satisfaction.
When I am stressed, anxious, or bored, with a gallon of chocolate ice cream sitting in the freezer, it's hard to remember that Jesus is the real "bread of life." Sometimes the ice cream seems much more rational. These days, though, I usually opt for God: in the quiet, in prayer, in a walk, in a conversation with a friend. Not because this self-restraint is a "victory of the soul," but because there is "a better faithfulness, for better reasons." Later, when I can eat the ice cream with friends or family, with celebration, joy, and gratitude, I do. And praise God for it.
Laurel Rae Mathewson was an editorial intern at Sojourners when this article appeared.