06 May 2009

body talk: part 7

read previous body talk posts:
part 1
part 2
part 3
part 4
part 5
part 6

I think a lot about that day at the gym a couple of years ago. I think about how easy it is to get so fixated in thinking that achieving the lithe and too-lean body shape that typifies the current paradigm of beauty is worth even the most extreme cost. I talked to these women briefly but frankly about the pain I had been through, about lengthy and pointless doctor's visits, about too many prescriptions, about pain and emergency room visits and not being listened to, and about being unable to engage in my own life because of all these things. I told them about my low iron, low calcium, low adrenal gland function, low red blood cell count, and watched their lips part in mild shock. This is not the answer they were expecting.

But even after all this, I still "looked fantastic", apparently.

I went and lay down in the sauna after that and cried, for them as much as for me. After subjecting my own flesh to the starvation and torture that I did, I could not judge them. I knew what it was to examine myself closely from the side in any flat object that offered even the dullest reflection. I knew what it was to obsess over calories and garment labels and to be on the eternal quest for the next five pounds. I knew what it was never to be satisfied with what I saw, to be convinced that my personal happiness and fulfillment would be found when I couldn't find an ounce of fat on my body to pinch.

There was a time at which I would have given anything, subjected myself to any regimen to achieve the ability to fit into a size 2 pair of pants like I could on that day. Anything. There was a point at which nothing was off limits. But as I looked again in the mirror and saw empty eyes staring back at me, it was hard to imagine how I ever thought that a number on a label was worth the anything I was, at one time, so ready and willing to offer. I gladly would have taken ten or fifteen pounds from anyone if it meant I could look in the mirror and really see myself again. This time it had been an illness that had consumed me, something not wholly within my control. Before that, it had been a desire for performance, for control, for perfection according to the standards of the world around me. I wanted to hear from the voices around me: you look fantastic.

And so I knew for sure now: it did not matter to me what the world reflected back to me about my body, even if it was to shower me with accolades. I was learning to attune an ear to the voice with which my own body spoke. I learned quickly because the voice had been raised to shouting: This is not right. That is out of balance. You need more of this. You need to eliminate that. You need to stretch. You need to rest. You need help. You need to be gentle with me.

As I've shared bits of this journey with people around me throughout my life, many have asked how to help someone who is starving themselves or throwing up their meals or obsessed with achieving a size that is entirely unnatural for them. And the truth is, I don't really know. I doubt there is any one approach that would work, since any number of circumstances and wounds can bring a person to alter her lifestyle habits because depriving herself to extremes seems to be the only solution.

For me, I was ripe for the damage to which I subjected myself long before I was handed a calorie content printout in my high school biology class. Thanks in part to the splashy media images, the taunts of some junior high and high school boys, my controlling and perfectionist tendencies, and living in an environment in which I received the message that it was my performance and my achievement that gave me value, I don't know how much of a chance I stood. I had been wounded and damaged by so many things around me; I had internalized the message that I was not good enough as I was, that I was not thin enough to be considered attractive, that my value as a human being was impacted directly by my ability to measure up to the predetermined standards of performance and beauty. If I hadn't started starving myself, what else might I have done? If not an eating disorder, in all likelihood I would have found other self-destructive habits to which to subject myself.

Whatever the answer is in helping her, it is not necessarily in getting her to eat more. It is not in pointing out how you recognize how little she eats, how much she exercises, or how you've noticed she has mastered the art of moving food around on her plate to make it look like she has eaten more than she actually has. I am not sure that it is even in telling her that she is beautiful just the way she is. I am no expert in this area, but as I consider what that starving girl who was me needed, the only way I can phrase it, the only thing in the way of advice I can offer is this: love her into the truth of herself. She is bombarded with lying voices. Love her to drown out all the voices around her. She thinks she is not good enough or pretty enough unless she strives, achieves, and bends herself to the standard she sees. Love her to show her performance or size is not what speaks to or determines her worth. She sees a fat girl in the mirror when she sees herself and she hates it. Love her so as to be her mirror. Love her into the truth of herself so that she is shielded from the lies that come at her. Love her so she will love herself.

I am continuing on this journey and in so many ways, am still healing from it. I'm still in the process of discovering and internalizing the truth of who I am and what it means to love myself in a right and healthy way, to love the body I have instead of longing for one that I don't. In the course of assessing my body's changing needs, I recently returned after more than a year's absence to the practice of Bikram yoga. As I lay on the floor in savasana (corpse or resting pose) yesterday, the instructor encouraged us in our practice and in our rest. How many people are sitting at home on the couch right now, smoking a cigarette, drinking a Coke, and neglecting and even abusing themselves? You're doing so much good for your body right now. So many people hate their bodies. But you're here, you're working to your absolute best for you, and now you're engaged in total rest. It's like you're telling your body, thank you. I haven't always been good to you. But you're doing so much good for yourself right now, working to your absolute limit and then engaging in one hundred percent relaxation. It's as if you're saying, thank you, Body. You've done so much for me. Thank you for carrying me through my life.

Sweat dripping out of every pore in my body and on to the towel underneath me, it might not have been noticeable to anyone else. But I was crying. In a few seconds, the instructor had encapsulated for me what I have wanted not just to say to myself, but to say to myself and know with every fiber of my being that it was true: Thank you, Body. I haven't always been good to you. You've done so much for me. Thank you for carrying me through my life.

Part of the reason I wanted to write this series is that I've been re-examining my relationship to my body as I prepare for marriage and for sharing it with another. In one conversation, I described recent frustrations with my health and how desperately I longed to get an advance on my resurrection body, how much for I longed for a new one that worked as it was meant to work. I felt a lump rise in my throat when he said to me, "I'll help you love the one you have."

And that's what this is about for me: learning to love the body I have -- listening, accepting, adapting, and letting go of my ideas of what "should" be. Breathing into it, engaging with it, challenging it, being gracious and kind toward it. This is all a part of loving myself in a right and healthy way, in a way no one else can do for me.

Thank you for joining me for the journey. Namaste.


  1. Oh. My. Goodness.

    This is all so powerful, I don't know that I have words to respond. And I know a response is not required or expected, but it is so powerful that the desire to respond is strong.

    The paragraph about loving her into the truth of herself was so incredibly beautiful. Everything in me responds with the strongest yes imaginable. This is so what it's about ... what everything in life is about ... what all of us need every single day.

    Being perfected by perfected love. That is our deepest need and desire. I'm so thankful to Jesus for demonstrating that love, offering it so personally to each one of us, and then filling us up inside with more and more of himself so that we can't help but start overflowing it to others. It is this kind of love ... the learning of it, the receiving of it, the eventual giving and flowing over of it ... that I want to make my life's work.

    The other part that brought the lump to my throat was your postscript. I loved learning what it was that motivated this series for you, but I also loved James's response to you. So tender and beautiful and humble and honest.

    I love you, my friend. I'm so thankful God brought you into my life.

  2. I don't know what to say. Love does so very much...I'm so thankful it touched you.

  3. Thank you for sharing your journey, for being vulnerable in order to help others. You--your physical, emotional, spiritual, intellectual--hold the image of God. You were created by him. And you are beautiful.

  4. i cried when i read about the words of that meditation and then james' words to you. you deserve this kind of goodness and care. love you.

  5. Ah, Kirsten. Namaste. The light in me sees the light in you. The words your yoga instructor shared and you've echoed to us are so good. Good. Light. Thank you. Reminds me of Anne Lamott's kindness to the "aunties", her jiggly thighs, lathering lotion with tenderness, smiling at them affectionately. We must cherish these bodies. We are who we are, and that is beautiful. You are beautiful!

  6. LOVED this series, Kirsten. Thank you for writing it. Your thoughts have challenged me in the last couple weeks as I think about my own physicality.

    And I too really appreciated your thoughts on how to help other girls in similar situations. "Love her into the truth of herself." Awesome.