In Which Our Heroine Contemplates Body Image and Awareness

As I’ve been recovering from surgery (unfortunately delayed by a virus and a lingering cough), I’ve been forced to confront and reevaluate my relationship with my own body.

Firstly, the whole ordeal has been an exercise in Humility and Patience. [Insert bad “patients/patience” pun here.] I’m not used to being laid up. I’m not used to persistent pain. I’m not used to being unable to run and jump and carry heavy things. I’m not used to asking other people to go to the grocery for me. I asked Bethany to get me soup and crackers, and I literally cried when I sent her the text. My independence is a problem sometimes.

I’m past most of that now. I had my two-week follow-up a fortnight ago. The surgeon declared everything well and good, lifted all activity restrictions, and said he did not need to see me again. I’m at about 95% normal, even with this stupid cough hanging on.

Photo on 2-2-14 at 1.03 PM

. . .

Secondly, and most distressingly, is that the experience of this surgery has got me thinking about my personal Body Image issues.

Like most everyone else, I’ve always had a kind of love-hate relationship with my body. I’ve always been chubby. In fact, according to the BMI chart, I am technically “obese.” This often surprises people, as I am not quite the Obesity Epidemic Poster Child. I am physically healthy, recent events notwithstanding (and leaving aside the depression and anxiety, which aren’t weight-related), and fairly active. I went to the doctor last year, concerned that I had a thyroid problem because of fatigue and insomnia, but bloodwork came back normal, except for a vitamin D deficiency that was explained by living in the American Midwest in February. She was less concerned about my weight than I was. When I went to the ER for my most recent gallbladder attack, my bloodwork only showed chronic inflammation, which the surgeon said was to be expected with gallstones. My other organs were functioning just fine, and I was declared healthy and even “not fat” by one of the ER doctors.

Many people refuse to believe that a person can be overweight and healthy. To them, if you eat right and exercise and you are still “overweight,” then you are just not trying hard enough, and of course if you are overweight, you must try to change that.

And you’re somehow expected to ignore the fact that these things exist.

 . . .

In my personal experience, however, the only way I can lose so much as five pounds over the course of months is to either 1.) bust my ass with impractical, unsustainable levels of exercise and a strict, starvation-level diet, or 2.) develop anxiety that causes nausea so severe that I can’t eat, which happened a few years ago. Even then, it only pushes my BMI to the borderline between overweight and obese. I will NEVER be “average” weight in a way that allows me to be healthy and happy. It’s just not happening.

The only logical explanation seems to be that this is my body’s natural, “default” setting. This is as God made me to function.

Unfortunately, I somehow can’t rest satisfied with that.

(WHAT? I’m dissatisfied with something??? I know, right?)

“But Em, that isn’t like you AT ALL.”

It still frustrates, angers, and saddens me that there are still people who believe that people like me don’t have to (and shouldn’t) look the way we do if we were really trying.

Most of the time, I can shrug that off because I’m still active and healthy. I keep busy running errands and traveling and taking walks and going to kickboxing and Zumba and eating a variety of foods, including vegetables. Finding stylish clothing that fits is often a problem, but my fashion standards are so low that I can usually manage to find enough to look halfway put-together. This all usually makes up for the fact that, by society’s standards, I am Undesirable.

Then I had surgery, and a real battle began. I struggled with my appearance, feeling more unattractive than usual. My skin broke out, partly because I had only packed enough cosmetics for two days, not expecting to have emergency surgery that would keep me away for another week. I was in pain and couldn’t go anywhere, and had neither the reason nor the energy to put any effort into my hair, makeup, or clothing. Every day I had to clean the stitches on my torso, forcing me to interact with a part of my body I usually try to ignore, with all its stretch marks, pale skin, fat, and now scars. And, of course, I was not very active and I certainly wasn’t healthy, so I did not have even that to fall back on. I couldn’t look in the mirror without shame and disgust, and pity for anyone who had to see me.

Things have improved since then, but I am still pondering the lingering effects.

For all my frustrations, on some level I still do like my body. No, it doesn’t look the way I’d prefer it to look, but I am still capable of doing all sorts of things. My frustration with my lack of activity during recovery is a testament to that. I enjoy Zumba and kickboxing and hiking and casual walks in the cemetery. I like having a body that enables me to catch a snowflake on my tongue or walk on the beach or get sore muscles from lifting weights or cook and consume delicious foods.

Although this has been brewing in my head for weeks, I decided to blog about it today when I was rereading The Screwtape Letters. (This is the fourth or fifth time I’ve read that book in 18 months.) In Chapter 13, Screwtape talks about genuine Pleasures that humans experience, and how they make the work of Hell more difficult.

The deepest likings and impulses of any man are the raw material, the starting-point, with which the Enemy has furnished him. … The man who truly and disinterestedly enjoys any one thing in the world, for its own sake, and without caring two-pence what other people say about it, is by that very fact fore-armed against some of our subtlest modes of attack. You should always try to make the patient abandon the people or food or books he really likes in favour of the ‘best’ people, the ‘right’ food, the ‘important’ books.

That got me thinking: Shouldn’t my body and its activities (to the extent that they are not sinful) be one of those things that I don’t care “two-pence what other people say about it,” including society and its standards of beauty and the world and Strangers On The Internet?

If my body is as God made it, imperfect as it is by way of existing in a fallen world and containing my sin nature, then if I do my best to take care of it and use it well, and I enjoy the things I can do with it, what else about my physical form really matters?

Shouldn’t I just do what I can, and what I please, without worrying about being the “best,” “right,” and “important” shape and weight?

Sure, I may not like the way I look a lot of the time, but many things I don’t like are things I really can’t help: when my skin breaks out, how my weight is naturally distributed, my height (or lack thereof), and the shape of my nose. If I can’t help it, there’s not much good in spending any energy or thought in disliking it.

I can’t conclude without adding a remark by Joy, when I first brainstormed this post with her: “Sometimes I wonder how many people have been distracted from God/more eternal concerns because of their preoccupation and dissatisfaction with their bodies.” Our bodies are important, but we shouldn’t forget that they are temporary. Our souls are eternal, and should take priority.

Not that it’s wrong to be concerned about one’s health, to challenge oneself with exercise, to eat less sugar/fat/whatever, or to want to lose a few pounds. We should take care of the bodies that God has given us, in ways that suit us personally. The issue, as with most things, is the proportion and priority you give them. Everything, including one’s health, must have its proper place.

I think it equally undesirable to be a fanatical dieter who cannot have so much as one French fry without going an extra 20 minutes on the elliptical machine, as to be a person who refuses to get up from the couch and gives no thought to the effects of what he puts into his stomach.

With all that said, this seems like an appropriate song for this post:

(P.S. I’m fairly certain Elsa is an INTJ.)

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to take a long walk in the snow and then cook some bacon.

2 thoughts on “In Which Our Heroine Contemplates Body Image and Awareness

  1. This is the best kind of informative writing; truth without pedantics, and engaging without hyperbole. I especially love the Lewis quote — that comment about enjoying things just for the sake of enjoying them is applicable to so many areas of life, pretension be darned :)

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