Lent, as a religious practice, is a time of sacrifice. This year, that sacrifice feels compounded as we witness the ravaging effects of the COVID-19 crisis. Lent is typically seen as a time to give up luxuries and tune into what Christ had to forgo when he spent 40 days in the desert — though, often, that intention has gotten lost. There is a hyper-focus on what we will restrict, what we will not do, or how we will discipline ourselves. And the season’s focus tends to center on food.
Even amid a pandemic, I have heard a number of people continue their commitment to giving up foods that we societally understand as “bad.” In times of crisis and heightened levels of anxiety, the desire to better oneself — to feel control over certain aspects of one’s life — can increase. I witness people panic about the possibility of gaining weight while in quarantine or brag about their excessive exercise via social media. To be clear, there is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to include more fruits and vegetables into one’s diet or wanting to devote time to exercise, but many restrictive choices around food are influenced by diet culture intersecting with one’s values. My eating disorder started in that exact fashion.
I have always been someone who tried to adhere to a strict moral rulebook. I grew up in an extremely Christian (non-denominational) household that had its own set of rituals and beliefs. However, as I grew up, through media, discussions at school, and talking with friends, I started to create and adhere to values of my own. Most of my values were fairly normative (be kind, work hard). But the neutral values that I thought could positively shape my life started to mold my eating patterns instead.
I already had a number of risk factors that increased my chances of getting an eating disorder: I had poor body image, stress at home, and other issues that popped up in my adolescence. Unfortunately, my values helped enforce my disordered behaviors. My morals around kindness translated into being “kind” by not feeding myself food I thought was “harmful” (basically anything stigmatized in diet culture). “Working hard” meant doubling down on harmful efforts to restrict and shrink my body. Food became a moral issue, and my own morality and self-worth were determined by the kind of food I ate — and the quantity.
During Lent, I would use the practice of “sacrifice” to engage in disordered behaviors. I would make agreements with myself to give up food I thought would inhibit my weight-loss goal. I would interpret human behavior as moral failings: It’s greedy to indulge in treats; it’s lazy to skip the gym. Eating disorders have a way of coloring everything around us. They place food as an indicator of morality — of figuring out whether you are truly a good person.
Thankfully, I have spent the last two years actively pursuing recovery from my eating disorder, and I have separated food from being a reflection on my morality. I no longer use the restriction of food as a gateway to increased spirituality. I see that my eating disorder destroyed me physically and mentally. It was a form of self-harm that dishonored the gifts God gave me.
Now I use Lent and the notion of sacrifice to give up distractions in my life, to let go of things that no longer serve me physically, mentally, emotionally, or spiritually. I avoid looking at my sacrifice as “black or white,” whereas in the past, I would create rigid expectations and intensely shame myself if I indulged in what I had promised to give up. This year, I try and set doable goals, not aiming for “perfection” with my Lenten practice, but rather “connection” with my spirituality and the mirrored experience of Christ.
Instead of giving up a favorite food that I had somehow managed to brand as “unhealthy,” I know that there are other indulgences I can let go of that are more productive to increasing my spirituality. Especially with COVID casting a daily shadow, I have been trying to use my Lenten practice as a means to give back. Can I turn my former indulgence for coffee into a much-needed donation to a mutual aid fund? If I make a goal to my time spent on social media, can I dedicate part of my week to help make masks or some other act of service?
Moving away from the ritualism of Lent — specifically on the focus on food — and toward improving and connecting with the spiritual foundations of the tradition has made the season even more meaningful for me. Instead of using Lent as an opportunity to practice disordered eating habits, I have learned to positively challenge myself to remove clutter from my life and do things in service of myself and of my spiritual relationships.