Health

I Hate My Body (Let’s Not Sugarcoat This)

I want to write this post, but I don’t know how.

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?

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*I do know that health and weight do not always correlate – you can be thin and unhealthy or overweight and relatively healthy. Unfortunately, that is not the case for me right now.

 

 

 

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“But You Don’t Seem Bipolar” and Other Things You (and My Gynecologist) Shouldn’t Say

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.

 

 

Mindful Mondays: Mindful Eating

 

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.

Makeup as an Act of Self-Care: A Guest Post

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!

Image Credit: Flickr via Sodanie Chea

Recipes and Relationships: A Guest Post That Will Make You Hungry

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 Seasonand 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.

The Sacrament of Eating: Discovering Food as Holy and Why I Will Never Eat Paleo

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 HousewivesWhy 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 fried at "This Wild Season". Click for the recipe and more gorgeous images.

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.

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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. *

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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.

wine and bread

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?

“You say grace before meals.

All right.

But I say grace before the concert and the opera,

And grace before the play and pantomime,

And grace before I open a book,

And grace before sketching, painting,

Swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing

And grace before I dip the pen in the ink.”

G.K. Chesterton, “A Grace,” Collected Poetry

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*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.

Free and Unashamed: In which I admit that I think about food all the time and hate when people say to “Let go and let God.”

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.