I recently posted a few pictures on Instagram from our babymoon in Thailand. A few people kindly commented on how confident I looked. At first I thought they were just being nice, but looking back at the photos, I can see what they mean.
It’s true that I’m not self-conscious about my body or about how I look pregnant. It’s not that I look at my swollen belly and my stretch marks and think, “I’ve earned these tiger stripes,” or whatever it is the mommy bloggers like to say. I know I look huge. I am huge. But it’s also abundantly clear why I’m huge. And there’s absolutely nothing I can do about it.
My confidence is that of a person who has zero effs left to give. And I realized that that is a far cry from who I was nine months ago.
Back in January, I wrote this post about how very much I was struggling with my body. I had reached an all-time low, exhausted by self-loathing and feeling powerless to make any lasting change.
I spilled my guts about my desperation, and six weeks later I found out I was pregnant. Hilarious, God. Truly.
As you probably know, my initial reaction to the news was not positive. I admit, one of my first panicked thoughts was, “I can’t be pregnant now. I am the heaviest I have ever been in my life. I am going to be HUUUUGGGE.” I understand that extra weight and a changing body are a small price to pay for creating a whole new life, but at the time it felt like one more way my life was being taken from me.
Now here I am 8 months pregnant and it turns out that losing control has been one of the best things that’s ever happened for my relationship with my body. I have felt freedom from self-criticism and self-hatred for the first time since I was ten years old and became aware of my body as female and of all the expectations that go along with that.
Some pregnant women are filled with love and appreciation for what their bodies are capable of as they move through the stages of pregnancy. And yes, it is miraculous. But for the most part, I have not felt this way. Most of the time I feel this odd combination of being intensely aware of everything going on in my body while also feeling like a stranger in it. I feel every ache and pain and jab and stab acutely, and at the same time I have the sense that I am floating around inside of this vessel I do not recognize, just waiting to get my life back. While this distance from my body has been isolating in some ways, it’s been healing in others.
Let me be clear. I have not particularly enjoyed pregnancy. I do not feel beautiful, sexy, or powerful the way some women seem to feel during pregnancy. I don’t particularly likethe way I look pregnant and I definitely don’t like the way I feel. But I’m also not disgusted by my body the way I was pre-pregnancy. I just honestly don’t care.
For the first time in my life, what is happening to my body is really and truly beyond my control. I could eat organic kale for every meal and workout twice a day and I would still going to have this giant belly. Since there is nothing I can do to change what my body looks like right now, I have no brain space or energy to waste worrying about it.
My expectations of my pregnant body are so vastly different from what my expectations of my body have always been. As an adolescent growing up with the mixture of societal pressures and the targeted messages of purity culture, I was constantly aware of the wrongnessof my body. There was the shame of not being attractive enough, along with the shame of being inappropriately attractive. I felt the expectation to simultaneously figure out how to be thin, toned, feminine perfection, and to dress in way that protected helpless men from that thin, toned, feminine perfection.
As I got older, I stripped off some of the burdens of purity culture, but struggled as my weight fluctuated and my self-worth rose and fell with the expansion or shrinking of my thighs.
Now for the first time, my attractiveness is utterly irrelevant. I take up more space than ever before. People are hyper-aware of me and my body. And at the same time, I have never felt more invisible. I feel no expectation, from myself or from anyone else, to be attractive. My body is no longer an aesthetic object, it is pure function. I am an incubator. That’s all.
Of course, I don’t want to feel this way forever. I don’t want “mother” to become my identity. I don’t want to disappear. I want to walk down the street and have someone think (but maybe not say) “Daaaaayummmmn, girl!” But there are also things I hope I take with me from this time.
I hope my base level expectations of my body have permanently changed. Instead of valuing myself based on arbitrary measures of attractiveness, I hope my foremost expectation of my body is for it to be healthy and strong so that I can do everything I need to do. No more. No less.
I want to feel attractive again someday, but I hope that feeling is based on confidence and acceptance, not meeting an external expectation. I think it can be incredibly attractive for someone to say, “My body is just my body. I look how I look.” If I can accept without difficulty the fact that I have blue eyes and small hands, could I also accept whatever shape my body ends up being when this ride is over?
I don’t know what to expect or how things will change post-partum, but I’ll be sure to keep you updated. Whatever the next part of the journey looks like, I kind of hope that I’ll continue to be fresh out of effs to give.
I’ve been a bit paralyzed honestly. It’s not writer’s block exactly. Rather it’s that I’ve found myself approaching writing with much more fear than I have ever had before. In spite of how lovely this community has always been to me, I am paralyzed by the fear of being misunderstood and of being judged. While I always strive to be intentional about my words here, I am feeling guarded in a way that I never have before.
I see this blog as a platform for me to practice vulnerability, not for validation and not as some sort of emotional dumping ground, but genuinely in the hope that what I share will bring hope and encouragement or at least a sense of solidarity.
This time, I am afraid. But I think the only way forward is through.
I hate my body.
The feminist in me is cringing. In spite of everything I passionately believe to be true about beauty being expansive and inclusive and about how there is no ideal or perfect body, I wage a silent war with mine every day of my life. And more and more, I have been losing the battle.
I am not the first person to feel this way, and I am certainly not the first person to write about it. I don’t think my experience is unique or that I am equipped to articulate it in a way that no one has before. But I am writing this as a kind of confession. I have reached a point where I can no longer pretend that I live with the sort of self-acceptance I advocate to others. I don’t think my size or shape define my worth as a person. But they greatly affect my happiness and confidence with myself.
The difficult thing is that I am not measuring myself up against an airbrushed movie star or a Victoria’s Secret model. I don’t want to look like women in magazines. Instead, I am measuring myself up against other (better) versions of myself.
For the past 10 years, my weight has fluctuated often, sometimes dramatically. I have lost 20 lbs and then gained 30 in the space of a single year. I have been thin, and I have been overweight ( And I don’t mean 5 vanity pounds, I mean properly overweight). I have done all of the diets, both the intense ones and the ones that are “not a diet, but a lifestyle” with many periods of “success.” But in the end, I have never found a way to live a “normal” life. There is no stasis for me. I am only ever gaining or losing weight. The sad reality for me is that no matter how many vegetables I eat and no matter how many miles I run, unless I am counting and measuring and restricting, I am gaining weight.
While I think all women struggle with body confidence to some extent, I have felt very alone in this for many years. My closest friends do not seem to have the same issues managing their weight that I do. They are either naturally thin or are able to eat a normal, moderate diet without experiencing big weight fluctuations. The women in my family are all (either naturally or through admirable discipline) exceptionally fit.
When I think of how much mental and physical energy and anguish I have expended trying to control the size of my body, I am both embarrassed and exhausted.
I would vow to you that the number on the scale or the size on your jeans label mean nothing. And yet, I can tell you that in February of 2011, I weighed 164 pounds, and on the morning of my 28th birthday I weighed 143.5, but almost passed out because I had eaten so little the day before, and the August before that, I weighed 128. Why in the world do I remember this? Imagine all of the worthwhile things I could be using that brain space for instead of these years of meaningless numbers.
And the “healthier” I try to be, the more time and energy I spend trying to figure out what I can and cannot eat, how to prepare it, and how to plan ahead. I don’t know what it would be like to spend just one day where what I will or will not eat does not consume my thoughts. What a trivial and selfish thing to waste so much of my life on.
I want to be free from this.
I want to walk into a room without subconsciously assessing whether or not I am the biggest woman in the room. (That truth both disgusts and embarrasses me).
I am tired of thinking of my body as it is now as somehow temporary. Like I’ve left my body somewhere and this is the one I’ve borrowed until I can get my real one back. I have actually said to myself when clearing out my closet, “When I’m my real size, that skirt looks great on me, so I’ll hang onto it.”
Do you want to shake me yet? Because I do. Wake up, Woman! It doesn’t get any more “real” than this. This chest rising and falling with my breath. These freakishly small fingers typing these words.
There are words we say in faith because we want them to be true. Because they are things we want to believe and we hope by speaking them they will make their way into our hearts. This year, more than ever, those words are, “I want to be at peace in my body.”
But I do not understand what it would mean to be at peace with my body as it is now, as it will be tomorrow, or as it will be in 5 years without also giving up the drive to maintain a healthy body.*
I don’t have any answers. I don’t expect you to have any answers. This struggle is the one I am most ashamed of and also the one I feel most alone in. I am ashamed because I know the “right” words and the “right” attitude. I know I am supposed to embrace my body and reject society’s narrow construction of beauty and love myself. But can I love myself and still want to lose weight? Can I maintain some sort of equilibrium where I am not always in flux? Can I reach a point where my thoughts are more consumed by what I can give to others than with how I feel about myself?
Soon after my revelatory meeting with my psychiatrist, I embarked on that most delightful of all womanly privileges, my annual pelvic exam. This time I also had a specific mission – to discuss the potential side effects my being on the pill was having on my mental health and what alternative solutions there might be.
Along with meditation and other anxiety-reducing techniques, one of the first courses of action my psychiatrist recommended was to stop taking oral contraceptives to see if and how these seemed to influence my mental health. Since I have always found myself to be very sensitive to the pill and experienced many side effects for years, it made perfect sense to me that altering my natural hormones might have an affect on my mental health.
As is traditional, the doctor was “running late in surgery,” which gave me lots of time to build anticipation over both the exam and talking about the “b” word with someone outside of my inner circle of family and friends. My anxiety built so much that by the time the nurse took my vitals my blood pressure was high.
(Side Note: When I texted my husband to tell him about the blood pressure spike, he very thought (ful?less?)ly asked, “Why do you think you’re feeling anxious?” To which I sweetly replied, “I think it’s because a strange man is going to stick a metal object with a sharp blade on it inside of me and scrape my cervix.”)
Before the blessed event, I sat across the desk from my doctor (who, for reasons I believe are entirely self-explanatory, my friends and I refer to as “Poor Man’s Matt Damon” (PMDD)) and explained to him, “I was recently diagnosed with bipolar depression and…”
“Really?” he cut in skeptically. “But you don’t seem bipolar!”
I stared at him blankly for a minute, too stunned to think of a response. To be honest, the first thing that popped into my head was “And you don’t seem like a moron…” but thankfully I waited a beat. Finally I said, “Well, I’m pretty sure it’s accurate.”
“Huh,” he said, still not fully convinced.
I continued on, explaining my doctor’s suggestion of getting off the hormonal birth control to see if it made any difference.
“Why would that make a difference?” he pushed.
“Well…I guess…because…your hormones affect your moods. And it’s a mood disorder?” I ventured.
“Well,” he finally said, “I’m not a psychiatrist so I won’t argue with her, but I don’t know about that.”
Initial awkward conversation aside, we moved on to the most glamorous part of the ordeal, in which I put on a sexy gown essentially made of paper towels and attempted to make light, casual conversation with PMMD while he poked and prodded.
“So, I remember that you’re a writer, ” he began, no doubt having read over my chart while I was changing. “So…do you write more when you’re manic?”
I lay there looking up at the ceiling in this most vulnerable of positions, trying to ignore the cold pressure of the speculum and the heat rising to my face. I responded like I always do when I feel uncomfortable and don’t know how to show it. I laughed. I laughed like it was all a big joke. “Yes,” I said. “But of course, I do everything more when I’m manic.”
While my doctor’s response was especially surprising given his career as a medical professional, the general sentiment is one I have encountered many times. Even before bipolar was part of the mix, I would mention my social anxiety to people and they would say, “But you always seem so confident. I would never guess.” When used to assure me that I can pass as normal in social situations, I honestly do appreciate this sentiment, but I have a harder time when it comes across as skepticism.
When I was first diagnosed, I felt relief and denial in equal measures. I was relieved to hear that this decade-long struggle had a name and that the regular return of depression was not a sign of weakness. In some ways it was empowering to reframe what I had thought of as recurring failure as remarkable resilience.
But as I wrote in my last post, I also had a hard time coming to terms with this word which brought with it stigma, shame, and fear. My awareness of bipolar disorder was limited to the extreme cases portrayed in movies or cited in news stories. While I now know that this disorder is a wide-ranging spectrum with many sub-types and that the experiences of people who fit under the larger mantle of “bipolar disorder” can vary tremendously, my initial understanding of it was embarrassingly narrow.
One of the things that compelled me to start writing about this was the desire to educate other people and to challenge the stigmatization of mental illness in general, and of this one in particular. To share your experience openly and honestly with someone and have them respond with doubt is incredibly invalidating, and it puts you in the strange position of actually trying to build an argument to convince someone of your suffering.
Dear Dr. PMMD, I’m glad I don’t seem bipolar. But that’s kind of the entire point.
How many people around us seem completely fine and are dying inside? How many people paste a smile on their faces while their bellies grow heavy with dread? How many people seem to keep a thousand plates spinning without every dropping one, but wake up in the night with their hearts racing, unable to breathe. How many people have a hundred friends, but no one who really knows them?
It is noble and right to reach out and to ask. But it is our high and holy calling to listen and to believe.
I’ve never understood those girls who eat like birds, picking over their food like chickens in a hen yard, a bite here and a bite there until they push back their plates declaring, “I’m so full!” before they’ve even made a dent in their meal.
I was born with a huge appetite – both for food and for life – that’s never quite satisfied. Cooking is a passion of mine – something that relaxes me and brings me joy. In my free time I read cookbooks and pin pictures of fabulous meals and research new restaurants and try new techniques. Even when I’m not eating, I’m thinking about eating.
Like most young adults, something happened to my metabolism the year I turned 23 and I lost the ability to follow my appetite wherever it led me. Nowadays my metabolism goes so slowly that I gain weight if I eat more than 1200 calories a day (which is the amount most people eat when on a strict diet). Unfortunately, my slow metabolism has not changed the fact that I still want to eat all the food in the world. In fact, I want to eat them all twice. What it has done is increased the need for me to be mindful about my eating.
I don’t mean mindful eating in the sense of dieting and restricting. I mean being aware of what I’m putting into my body and why. If my body can only process 1200 calories a day then I want to enjoy each one of them. It’s so easy to eat (especially snack food) mindlessly while doing something else. It’s easy for me to cram handfuls of food into my mouth without even noticing while I watch TV or work on my computer.
I want to learn to pay attention. I want to stop and ask myself – Why am I eating? And if the answer isn’t because I’m truly hungry, then I need to stop and find something else to do. And if the answer is because I’m hungry then I want to slow down and savor. I want to fully appreciate the gift of good food-how it tastes, where it comes from, and how it somehow miraculously nourishes my body.
Lately I’ve forgotten the value of mindful eating. This week I want to hit the reset button. I want to make conscious choices about what I eat and when I eat and why I eat. Tonight I’ll try a new recipe for balsamic glazed chicken with acorn squash and roasted root vegetables. I’ll prepare this meal with my own hands, chopping the vegetables, tossing the chicken in the tangy sweetness of the balsamic, and roasting them all together in my oven. Then I will sit down to eat it with gratitude for the earth that produced the squash and for the chicken who died so that I could eat this meal.
Eating good food is itself a great pleasure, but when I slow down and practice mindfulness I create a little more space for beauty. And the world can always use a little more beauty.
Today is exciting because it’s Saturday and it is the only day this week that I don’t have work to do. It’s also exciting because I get to share a guest post I had the privilege to write for my friend Kelsey’s blog.
Kelsey is a talented writer and great friend who I met through the internet. When she asked me if I would write a post for her series on Self-Care, I jumped at the chance. In the post I explain how doing my makeup has become an act of self-care and artistic expression for me.
“When I have to be at work by 8:00 I wake up before the sun. I feed my cats in the fuzzy gray light of the kitchen and brew a pot of coffee. Then I carry the steaming mug with me into the bathroom where I sort through my makeup collection, pick out what I want to wear that day, pull out my brushes, consider the blank canvas of my face, and start to paint.”
To read the rest of this post, head over to Kelsey’s blog! And don’t forget to check out some of her other posts while you’re over there!
My friend Asharae Kroll is one of the most talented people I know. Not only do she and her husband own their own photography and videography business doing weddings, engagements, and lifestyle photography, but she is also a fantastic cook. If you’ve ever tried to take good food pictures before, you know what a challenge it can be to capture on camera just how delicious and inviting a particular dish is. Asharae’s food photography will make you want to drop whatever you’re doing and start cooking.
Asharae gave me the amazing opportunity to do a guest post for her food blog, This Wild Season, and my first thought was to share the scrumptious zucchini lasagna I started making a few months ago. I sent her my post along with the recipe and she made magic happen. Here is an excerpt from the post:
“Eleven months ago my husband and I moved to South Korea to teach English. Living in a foreign country can feel exciting and adventurous, but there are still times when it’s hard not to be overcome by homesickness and longing for the comfortable and familiar. One of the best ways for me to feel connected to home is through food. I love to cook, especially for friends and family. Here in Korea, I don’t have access to the same ingredients or cooking methods I did at home (no ovens!) so I’ve had to make some creative adjustments and adaptations…”
Click HERE to read the rest of this post and get the recipe for my zucchini lasagna. Be sure to check out Asharae’s other delicious recipes and gorgeous photography. And if you’re in the market for a photographer or videographer, be sure to consider Asharae and her husband Tim’s business Grain & Compass. She took my wedding photos and some anniversary photos for us, so I speak from experience when I say you won’t be disappointed.
I love food. I don’t mean that I really like food or that I have a few favorite dishes that make my mouth water when I think of them. I don’t mean that I (like many people) have a sweet tooth or that I really enjoy a nice meal after a long day. I mean I LOVE food. I wake up in the morning thinking about all the things I will eat that day (or even later that week). I spend my free time making lists of the things I will eat when I return to America, drooling over pinterest recipes, and watching cooking shows. During our last vacation, we spent several perfect days doing nothing but moving from one café or coffeeshop or gelateria or restaurant to another- eating, drinking, talking, and reading in each one. For a while my dream was to own my own bakery (though the business side of things always keeps me from pursuing that too realistically) because I am absolutely captivated by the way sugar and butter and flour and eggs combine in endless variations to make a thousand different cakes and pies and cookies and custards and cobblers and crumbles and brownies and sweet breads.
Admitting to loving food feels a little like to admitting to watching porn or non-ironically liking Real Housewives. Why is that? Because as a woman, I’ve often felt ashamed of my appetite. Because I can easily eat the same amount as my husband even though he’s 8 inches taller and 50 lbs heavier. Because I have never in my life said, “I don’t think I can finish this ice cream cone.” We live in a culture where women are expected to have dainty appetites unless they are naturally very thin, in which case they can eat as much as they want and people are amused that someone so thin can put away so much. But when you’re on the rounder side of things, you are expected to go to restaurants and order a side salad with no dressing, not the bacon alfredo pasta and a glass of wine.
Breakfast Bagel from my amazingly talented friend Asharae at This Wild Season. Click for the recipe and more gorgeous images.
I freely admit that much of the time I don’t love my body. Not because of the way I’m shaped so much as the incredibly fragile balance I have to strike to maintain a healthy weight. I have always lived on the cusp of what is medically considered overweight for my frame and height and I gain weight very easily. I can gain a solid 6 lbs in one week of vacation. I have done the diet thing. I have struggled with self-loathing because of my weight and shed tears over the size of my thighs. For me, the problem with gaining weight is not just being unhappy with how I look or feel, it’s truly a health issue. I believe that my body is a gift and am convicted that I should treat it with respect by maintaining a certain level of health and fitness.
There’s a saying that I’ve heard dieters use for motivation, “Nothing tastes as good as thin feels.” That’s one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever heard. I can think of many things that taste so good I would rather have them than have smaller thighs. (For example, cheese. Could I live without it? Sure. But why would I want to?) For me to have smaller thighs, I would have to consistently say no to some of the things I love most in this life. It’s simply not worth it to me. I’m ready to find another way.
Lemon-glazed blueberry donuts from This Wild Season. Click for recipe. Now, imagine not ever eating these. A travesty.
In the past, I thought the crux of my problem was that I loved food and if I could just stop loving food so much I would be able to choose being thin over eating. But I’m beginning to wonder what it might look like if, instead of trying to change this part of myself, instead of trying to curb my appetite or denying myself certain things I’m not “supposed to” eat, I embraced that food is something I love. That creative medleys of flavor make my soul sing the way music moves the violinist. I am coming to genuinely believe that loving food (like, really loving it) is part of being me. It’s part of what makes me uniquely myself, as much as crying all the time and loving words are part of who I am. And that part of myself is GOOD. *
Chicken Tortilla Soup from This Wild Season. Click for the recipe.
It seems we all have people in our lives who have been sucked into the Paleo craze. Many of my family members and friends have jumped on that bandwagon. I have heard them use the language of addiction to describe my kind of passion for food. If you aren’t familiar with it, the basic premise of Paleo is that we were biologically designed to eat a certain way and that through modern technology we have come to eat many things that our bodies were never intended to process. All of this “unnatural” food causes a variety of health problems (not to mention obesity) that can be resolved simply by cutting out the foods we were never intended to eat. Paleo diet adherents eat grass-fed meats, fruits, nuts, and vegetables. No grains or starches, no legumes, no sugar, no dairy, and nothing processed. The diet (and it’s a lifestyle, not a temporary diet) is essentially the diet of a caveman (hence the “Paleo”) and is based on eating only things that would have been available to the caveman.
I deeply admire and agree with the concept of eating natural things that have grown from the earth and aren’t full of chemicals. I also am sympathetic to eating less grain and starches as my own body doesn’t process these things well.** Where I get tripped up is the assertion that we shouldn’t eat these things because they go against our nature. Because we weren’t intended to eat them. I reject that. And the main reason is Jesus.
I think about the Last Supper and I envision Jesus and the disciples gathered around that table, coming together for this holy meal that their fathers and grandfathers and great grandfathers for generations back had eaten, every bite dripping with significance. I see Jesus picking up, not the lamb or the herbs or the vinegar, but the bread and the wine. Holding the crumbling bread in his hands, saying, “This is my body.” Staining his lips and tongue purple with wine saying, “This is my blood.”
I simply can’t accept the idea that the bread-eating, wine-drinking God-made-flesh was knowingly “poisoning” his body with what he ate. I understand that Jesus lived embedded in a particular cultural context. But even still – I don’t think he would have chosen bread and wine as the sacramental elements to represent his body and his blood for all future generations all over the world if they were things we were never intended to eat.
Here is the bottom line. I don’t believe we were meant to live part of a life. I believe in living a full, rich, abundant life. And for me that includes tasting everything. There are times when I choose to cut out some sweets or starches for a while because my body is telling me that’s what it needs in that season. And it is important to me that I honor and respect my body.*** But I will never stop eating those things completely. Not because I can’t, but because permanently removing those things takes away some of what abundant life means to me. Shauna Niequist**** puts it so well when she describes her life on a rigorous diet of no gluten, dairy, caffeine, alcohol or sugar:
“I felt great. I lost some weight, started sleeping better, didn’t ache at all. Success! But at the same time I felt like I wasn’t living in the same world everyone else was living in. It was like choosing to live with the volume turned all the way down, or going to the beach and not being able to put my feet in the ocean. My senses were starving. Eating such a restricted diet on an ongoing basis wasn’t going to work for me…There has to be a way to live with health and maturity and intention while still honoring the part of me that loves to eat, that sees food as a way to nurture and nourish both my body and my spirit.”
I couldn’t agree more. I have come to believe that there is something holy and sacramental about food itself-the way we nourish our bodies with the gifts of the earth that God has provided for us. And the more I’ve thought about this, I’ve been struck by the sheer beauty of food as a sacrament. Could the act of eating itself be worship? Could working with our hands to prepare the gifts of the earth for the table be a form of gratitude for God’s provision that spills glory out into an ordinary moment? Could savoring the common elements of paper-thin pizza crust covered with sweet pears and creamy gorgonzola and spicy arugula, drizzled in balsamic be a way to experience uncommon grace? After all, why do we speak words over our food and call it grace if not because there is grace there to be received?
*Of course, I don’t believe that any amount of love for and enjoyment of food excuses overeating or gluttony. I would never try to make the case that I should feel free to eat as much as I want of whatever I want unchecked. I think it’s wrong when I eat far beyond what I need, or when I eat to try to satisfy some appetite that isn’t really physical. These things don’t get a pass just because I am embracing my love of food.
**A few years ago after many doctors and a couple of years of tests, finding and removing polyps, and chalking up lots of digestive issues to the all-inclusive “IBS,” I tested off-the-charts positive for a bacterial overgrowth in my small-intestine (SIBO). This was treatable by an unbelievably expensive antibiotic, but according to my doctor, once you have this problem, it almost always comes back. No one knows what causes it, and there is no cure that prevents it from ever coming back. However, the bacteria feeds on starches. So when it is flaring up, one of the best things I can do to manage it is to cut starches out of my diet. Also, like many women, there is a direct correlation for me between the amount of starch I eat and my weight.
***I am learning to find balance by listening to my body. If the SIBO is active and I’m not feeling well, I stop eating starches until the cycle is over. If my clothes are tight because I’ve been letting my appetites run out of control, I treat this as a physical symptom I need to address for my health. Obviously, if you have some sort of serious food allergy, you have to listen to your body in that as well. Believe me, I’m not advocating that someone with celiac should think having regular bread is more important than being healthy. I’m talking about my own feelings for my particular situation.
**** This is from Shauna Niequist’s excellent book, Bread and Wine: A Love Letter to Life Around the Table.
A few weeks ago I watched this video for the first time. I was a little late to the game with this one – the video had been circulating a few weeks previous, but for some reason, I hadn’t ever watched it. Until one afternoon, sitting at my desk, with my classroom full of hyper Korean kids (they’re not my class, they were just in my room). And it absolutely wrecked me. If you haven’t seen this video, watch it before you read the rest of this post.
“What is it specifically?” my mother asked when I sent her the link, weeping.
How to say, “It is everything”? It’s the words for what is wrong with me. With so many women that I know. It is the pain and the struggle of being a woman in a world that holds us to absurd standards. Expectations that fill us with righteous indignation because we know they are wrong, but still somehow leave us feeling unworthy that we don’t measure up.
This girl (her name is also Lily so it doesn’t really help to use her name in this case), is talking about traits and behaviors she saw modeled by and inherited from her mother. I don’t necessarily feel that I learned these from my mother, but from countless women who have come before me and surrounded me as I grew. These are my personal struggles, but they are the personal struggles of so many of us. We lead lives of violent inner turmoil, resenting and also being controlled by external images, expectations, and messages about our value that we have somehow internalized. These particular lines really shook me:
“And I wonder if my lineage is one of women shrinking, making space for the men in their lives, not knowing how to fill it up again when they leave…”
This made me think of my grandmother, who has lost herself in being my grandfather’s wife– a man who undoubtedly loves her, but also has her utterly convinced that she is dependent on him. That she couldn’t take care of herself if he weren’t around. She’s been schooled in her own incompetence all of her married life (and perhaps longer), even as she fixes his plate and irons his shirts. To any observer, it’s clear that she is entirely capable of self-sufficiency. She’s been made to feel less-than for the sake of his need to feel important – a strong leader in a household that no longer requires management. My grandparents are of a different generation, but still, I see the looks and hear the concerned murmurs from many younger people who look at my marriage and frown, unable to understand this relationship in which both of us lead and both of us serve.
“My brother never thinks before he speak, I have been taught to filter. ‘How can anyone have a relationship to food?’ he asks, laughing, as I eat the black bean soup I chose for its lack of carbs. I want to say, ‘We come from difference, Jonas. You have been taught to grow out. I have been taught to grow in…I learned to absorb.’”
Up until these past few years of my life, I lived in such fear of displeasing others that I could rarely express my own opinion. In the worst cases, I was afraid to express my opinion because I didn’t really believe I was entitled to one. The concept of “Authority” has always been strong in my family/school/childhood church, but in me the concept never rang true. Somehow the lines got crossed in my mind. Rather than learning what it truly meant to respect authority, I learned how to repress myself. To subjugate myself under someone else and call this good.
“Nights I hear her creep down to eat plain yogurt in the dark – a fugitive stealing calories to which she does not feel entitled. Deciding how many bites is too many, how much space she deserves to occupy.”
This makes me physically ache. For me, this isn’t about my mother – this has been the story of my own life. Possibly it started all the way back when I was 10 years old at summer camp and I overheard some boys behind me on the soccer field, “Hey, look! That girl’s butt jiggles when she runs!” Certainly it’s been my story since I was 15 or 16. Every day of my life. Frantically counting the calories. Obsessing over every bite that goes into my mouth and calling it “self-control.” Or not. Aggressively ignoring what I am eating. And later being consumed by a self-loathing that makes Hitler look like a saint. I don’t remember what it’s like to go through a day and not think about what I’ve eaten, what I’m going to eat, what I should be eating, what I shouldn’t have eaten, the size of my body, the way that I look, the way that my clothes fit, whether I can congratulate myself for having sufficient self-control or if I must shame myself into a better day tomorrow. I must force my unwilling body to run half marathons and then full marathons to prove I can be disciplined.
(I admit that there have been a few brief periods of my life when I had a short break from this – after the bout with salmonella that left me (unhealthy) but skinny, having lost 20 lbs in 10 days before my sophomore year of college. Right after I got married and found that the time I had spent worrying about my body pre-honeymoon was unnecessary because I was so unconditionally loved. And last spring after I lost 27 lbs and felt that I’d won a small victory over myself and my self-destructive habits. But that came crashing down quickly after moving to a country whose staple foods are rice, sodium, and all the meat is half fat.)
Unlike many girls, I didn’t learn to count my calories or call myself fat from my mother. From my mom I learned what I should be able to be – she has been thin for my whole life. She almost never indulges. She has always been able to say no to food with an ease that makes my all-consuming battle with it feel all the more humiliating . In my mother I saw modeled a self-control and a discipline that I simply lack. I felt that she was living proof that it was possible and I failed to measure up. Again and again and again. (And again today.)
“I asked 5 questions in genetics class today and all of them started with the word, ‘Sorry.'”
This is me. This is me. This is me. I have spent so much time apologizing for things I have no business being sorry for. Why should anyone feel sorry for needing to ask a question? Or sorry that someone else’s expectations of them weren’t met. Sometimes I think these murmured apologies that season my conversation like salt from a shaker is really me apologizing for what I feel is the inconvenience of my existence. Like my being here at all is a burden. It makes me furious that anyone should be made to feel that way. And so I am angry. But also, I am sorry for being angry.
“I don’t know the capstone requirements for the sociology major because I spent the whole meeting deciding whether or not I could have another piece of pizza.”
This made me laugh, even though it isn’t funny. I can’t tell you how many meetings, recitals, graduations, concerts, and events I’ve only been half-present for because there was a war being waged in my mind about the food. About what I could permit myself or not permit myself. My rationale behind it. “How much space do I deserve to occupy?”
Listening to Lily’s poem was like having words put on every inadequacy I have felt since I was a child and simultaneously exposing the inherently flawed basis of those inadequacies. I am angry at a world that has made me feel this way, but at the same time, this is so deeply ingrained that I don’t know how to shake it.
I shared these comments with my mother and she told me a story about herself – one she’d never told me before. The story of how 26-year-old her broke free from a life-long struggle for perfection. The struggle for a perfect body that made food her enemy and a perfect life that made her avoid confrontation by not having an opinion. The struggle to be perfectly likeable and agreeable that made her ignore her own wants and needs, pushing herself under a rug in order to please others (or often, let others stomp all over her). That at 26 (the age I am now except that she already had a 6 year old and a soft tangle of arms and legs and blue eyes that would be me in her belly) she realized that no matter how much she tried, she couldn’t change the way she felt about food or finances or keeping other people happy. And that instead of trying harder or trying to be more disciplined or more self-controlled (which inevitably leads to self-loathing), she learned to stop trying. She wrote to me, “I became humble. I had to become brutally honest with myself and admit to myself that I could not fix it/control it. I had no power over it and life had just become crazy. I realized that the ONLY person who could supernaturally ‘adjust’ me was God. But I had to let him.”
I was so thankful that my mom shared this with me. I wish I had known these things about her as a teenager and young adult (well, young-er adult). I think something many parents have been missing with my generation and possibly the current one is how valuable it is to let your children see and understand what it looks like to struggle well. Because no matter what you do, your children will struggle. And if all they’ve seen are the victories, they won’t know what to do when the time comes to struggle. It’s like the physics teacher I had in high school who was great at solving all the problems, but who couldn’t explain to me how to do them. Life is lived in the process so much more than in the conclusions.
I’ll finish this post, then, by sharing something about my process. Right now, I don’t understand what the heck it means to “Let go” of something. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard some form of “Let go and let God” in my lifetime. Most of the time it makes me want to scream. Because often it’s just code for, “I don’t know what to tell you, but this phrase is something ‘spiritual’ people say and so it sounds like a real thing.” You see, I’ve tried “letting go” in so many different situations. I’ve knelt with my arms stretched as far as they can reach or spread myself across the floor with my face pressed into rough carpet fibers, trying to find the correct posture, the arrangement of limbs that will accomplish this mysterious goal, chanting prayers over and over like a mantra, “I’m letting go. I’m giving this to you. I don’t want to carry this anymore. I can’t do it on my own. I’m letting go,” each iteration more soulful and heartfelt than the last, only to find that, in fact, this changes nothing. It simply makes me a failure at letting go. (Ha!)
I value my mother’s story. I believe her words were genuine and described a true transformative experience for her. But I admit that I have yet to figure out how to “stop trying.” So far I’ve tried it in the shower, at my desk, while running, in bed, at a temple and on a mountain. So far none of this insisting I am “letting go” has been successful. I am being a little sarcastic here – I know it’s not a magical ritual or formula. But I am admitting that I can’t seem to figure out how to do something that sounds as simple as doing nothing.
Women, so many of us are broken. But I believe (I have to believe) that we can be whole again. That we can live lives free and unashamed. That we can learn to turn our amazing capacity for love towards ourselves. I don’t know how yet, but I am hopeful we can learn together.
I am less than a month away from running my first (and likely only) full marathon. So much of my life this fall has revolved around my running schedule or trying to fix the injury du jour (so far, patellar displacement, tendonitis in my foot, pulled hamstring, shin splints, and most recently, my knee giving out entirely when I put my full weight on it.) At the beginning of November Christina and Jonathan and I all ran the City of Oaks Half Marathon here in Raleigh. For those of you who have never been here, Raleigh is fairly hilly. I mean, it isn’t like running up mountains, but this entire race was pretty consistently either going uphill or downhill. When I crossed the finish line my first thought was, “I am so glad I can quit running now” which was quickly followed by, “There is no way I am ever running twice that distance.”
In spite of all of the evidence to the contrary, I really don’t see myself as a serious runner. For one thing, I’ve only been running these distances for a year and a half. For another, I never run faster than 10 minute miles, which is SLOOOOOW compared to even the slowest of competitive runners.
Friends and family members often ask me why I run. (In fact, after this most recent half marathon I texted my big brother to report my time and his response was, “What made you start running? That’s like the last thing you and I were built for.”)
It’s hard for me to explain why I do it. Especially since, based on all of the injuries I’ve already sustained, it’s clear that this is not something I will be able to keep up for any length of time without sacrificing my knees or feet or some other integral part of my anatomy.
I would love to say that it is sheer love of the sport. That running in and of itself brings me joy. But frankly, that isn’t true. There are days when the last thing I feel like doing is tying on those electric-blue custom-fitted horribly expensive shoes and running. In fact, there are days when I hate it so much I come up with award-worthy excuses for not doing it. There are days when I have to use a walking cast because I strained a tendon and days when climbing stairs or getting in and out of my car is pure torture. There are days I feel exhausted and days when I resent running because it takes up most of my Saturday. I’m not actually a masochist. I don’t just love to run.
I usually tell people that it’s the sense of accomplishment I feel from doing something I never thought I was capable of doing. Before I started training last fall, I had never run more than about 5 miles in my life. It is encouraging to see myself making progress – setting goals that seem impossible and then achieving them. This is partly true, but it is also partly a lie. Personal satisfaction isn’t a big enough motivator for me when compared with the pain and the work and the sacrifice of both time and energy involved in training. I don’t mean to lie, but I’ve never been able to fully articulate an explanation and I know I will only brush the surface when I try.
There is a moment (for me it usually comes anywhere between miles 10 and 15 depending on the day) when my body has started to hurt and I am tired and all I can think about is when I will be finished or at least when my next water break will be. I will think, “Just one more mile and then I will stop for water,” and I press on just a little further, pushing myself just a little past where I want to go and then suddenly, out of nowhere, I am floating. Call it a runner’s high if you want to, but for me it is so much more than that. It is a fleeting, jarring moment when everything is stripped away and I know I am in the presence of my Maker.
And I am the shepherds on that hillside near Bethlehem, in the company of angels, with the glory of the Lord shining round about me. And for just a few dazzling minutes every burning inhale is glory and every exhale is grace and my aching feet striking the trail again and again are a drum beating through my whole body and I am invincible. I think, in heaven I will run like this forever, never getting tired.
And I see myself, almost like I’m watching from outside my own body: My bright running clothes. My tight, salty skin. My phone, blaring Mumford and Sons through my ear buds until my whole head throbs with the sound. My arms pumping upwards and ending in hands balled into fists around imaginary drumsticks I am using to tap the rhythm out in the air in front of me. And, if I’m all alone, my mouth, using whatever breath is left in my lungs to sing out loud to the tops of the trees:
Awake my soul
Awake my soul
Awake my soul
For you were made to meet your Maker
You were made to meet your Maker
I run for those moments of rare and startling beauty. I run to awaken my soul. To feel fully alive.
Last weekend I went with Christina to her cousin’s birthday party at a cool restaurant in downtown Raleigh. While I was there I received a text message from a friend who got married a few months ago. The text contained a picture of a positive pregnancy test. I was really excited for her, and also amazed at how quickly they’d gotten pregnant since they’d only been married a short time. I forwarded the picture to Jonathan along with a message that said, “Well…I guess they decided not to waste any time! I just got this text from ‘Monica.’ ” (name changed to protect the innocent.) Then I stuck my phone back in my coat pocket and kept chatting with everyone. About 15 minutes later I realized I never heard back and pulled my phone out again. No messages. I left it on the table and continued with dinner. About three minutes later, my phone started buzzing in uncontrollable spasms. You know when you are in an area with no signal for a while and then you connect again and all the stuff that’s been sent the whole time you were out of signal comes through all at once? Well, that is exactly what had happened. Apparently, back in my coat pocket, things hadn’t been going through. I looked at the screen to find three texts and about 10 missed calls from Jonathan. For a minute I thought, “Geez, why is he so worked up about this…it’s not really even his friend.” Then I looked at the text exchange and found that what I thought I had sent had not all gone through. This is what he had received:
I am in soooo much trouble...
Needless to say, the man wanted to kill me. I tried to talk him down, explaining that I would never just joke with him like that. That I was so sorry. That obviously I would never tell him that I was pregnant via text message and that I would also never take a pregnancy test while out to eat with friends. That I should have thought it through and should never have sent that message in the first place. That I was the worst wife ever. His response, “Are you completely insane?!” And later, “Do not ever send me something like that again!” On Friday night, our marriage was on shaky ground. To all my girls out there, married or not, learn from my mistake. Never send your husband a text message with a picture of a positive pregnancy test on it! Or an email even, probably. Oh, technology…how you have failed me.
So the weekend started out not quite as expected what with the panic and rage, etc. but Saturday morning dawned very sunny and promising (although also quite cold and windy.) We put on all of our cool running gear in which we look awesome and very professional: running tights, shorts over tights (Christina),knee brace (me and Jonathan), long sleeved shirt, jacket, arm-band for carrying iPod, fleece headband that covers your ears, socks, running shoes, and those cool knit gloves with the special fingertips where you can still use your touch-screen phone while wearing. We were decked out. I wish I had a picture so you could behold us in all of our awesomeness. And it is a good thing too because that wind was COLD! But all three of us succeeded in running our first 11-miler with no walk breaks, just occasional stops for water. I can’t stress enough what an accomplishment this was for all three of us. We are not runners. Any of us. And yet, in just four months we have gone from running ¾ mile and then nearly puking or passing out (at least that was me back in September) to doing a 2hr, 11-mile run. I am amazed at the human body. (Although somehow, despite being in the uncontested best shape of my life, I’m still hanging onto those 10 lbs that have tipped me over the edge of my “healthy weight range” and into “overweight, but not yet obese” range. But that’s another story.)
In celebration of our amazing accomplishment we went to Outback and used a Christmas gift card to eat a large amount of Bloomin’ Onion, steak, baked potatoes and Caesar salad. Yum. (Perhaps now understanding those lingering 10 lbs…) We went home and had a relaxing, uneventful night.
Sunday morning, Jonathan wakes up in horrible pain all over his stomach and back. At first we think it is food poisoning, but after a few hours we realize it’s something more than that. Eventually I take him to Urgent Care hoping they can do something for him. The man is in so much pain it is all I can do not to burst into tears, but, knowing that wouldn’t be the least bit helpful I instead make a lot of un-funny jokes. It’s something I’ve always hated about myself-that in a medical crisis I get so upset I feel the only way to keep myself from exploding with grief (not helpful) is to crack corny jokes (equally not helpful.) Eventually the doctor tells us it is either a kidney stone or the early stages of appendicitis and we go home to wait and see. Thankfully, a few hours later it becomes clear that it is not appendicitis and after drinking what seems like several gallons of fluids, Jonathan starts to feel better. We are so thankful that Jonathan is more or less back to normal with only a few residual side effects.
I have heard from multiple sources that kidney stones are one of the most painful things the human body can experience. Most say it is the closest equivalent men can experience to childbirth and some women who have been through both even rank kidney stones as the more intense pain. I feel horrible that Jonathan had to go through that. But I know that one day, a few years from now, when that positive pregnancy test is mine, I will be reminding him of what this felt like. And I will probably point out the fact that he was only dealing with something smaller than a dried pea. While I will be dealing with something the size of a small watermelon. But don’t worry, I probably won’t tell him any of that in a text message.
Kidney stone. Not Jonathan’s. Ew.
Approximate size of baby…though probably heavier than a baby…I hope