“Rachel!” a voice said.
Rachel looked up to see a long-time friend approaching her.
“Marion! Hello! Sorry, June’s having a rough morning.”
“No worries, I totally understand! I won’t keep you. I can see that you’re busy, but it’s good to see you! We’ve missed you at book club!”
“Thanks! I’ve missed you guys, too! Just a little overwhelmed right now,” Rachel smiled weakly.
“I know how it is. The newborn days are tough. Hang in there! You look fantastic, by the way! Sooo thin! I’m jealous!” Marion flashed a smile before waving and continuing down the hallway.
Rachel thought of all the meals she had started and never finished since June’s birth, partly because she and James traded off holding June during the “witching hour” at dinner time, and partly because she had so little appetite lately. It was hard to relax and eat when June was screaming and crying for hours at a time. She thought of hour after lonely hour of breastfeeding June to soothe her in the evenings when she was so fussy that nothing else worked. She thought of all the foods she could no longer eat since she had cut dairy, soy, red meat, and gas-producing vegetables from her diet in response to June’s probable food allergies. It was unintentional, but the pounds had dropped rapidly after giving birth, and her weight was now well below what it had been before pregnancy.
She sighed. At least I’m thin, I guess, she thought to herself, though she wondered if she wouldn’t rather be overweight, well-rested, and free of anxiety. Remember this when you gain weight some day down the road and feel bad about it, she thought. Remember that you’d rather be happy, even if it means being less thin. Remember how hard this was.
The above text is an excerpt from my book-in-progress. Though it is fictional, it is based on real experiences, thoughts, and feelings. During every one of the hardest seasons of my life, I have lost a significant amount of weight unintentionally due to anxiety and/or physical health problems. Every time, people notice. As I’m muddling through whatever crisis is happening at the time, people who see me at church, in the neighborhood, at the grocery store, or on vacation comment on my weight.
When this happens, I never know how to respond. If I give a real response, (“Thanks! It’s because I’ve had a chronic illness for six months and haven’t been able to eat.”), it feels inappropriate because I know the comment was meant as small talk. The thing is, though, my weight should not be the subject of small talk. Small talk is for things that are impersonal and relatively inconsequential, like commenting on the weather or what you had for lunch that day. In a society where women’s sense of self-worth is so closely related to their appearance, when did it become ok to talk about my weight as though it were of no more consequence than the oatmeal I had for breakfast?
On the other hand, if I respond to the comment as though it were the small talk the speaker intended it to be, I am perpetuating the problem. Thanking someone for noticing my body when all I want to do is hide doesn’t seem helpful to me or to other women. Perpetuating the idea that weight loss is automatically a sign of health and the result of hard work feels disingenuous because that has not been my experience. At all. Because weight loss is so inextricably linked to deteriorating mental and physical health for me, when someone compliments my weight, I immediately begin to wonder what they will think of me when I get healthier and gain weight again. I can’t pretend anymore that no one notices, so if I’m “good” when I’m thinner, what are people saying and thinking when I’m healthier but heavier?
I know that the people who compliment my weight have no ill intentions, and they are simply responding to the same system of cultural norms that plague us all. I don’t want to shame anyone. However, I do think this is a conversation worth having, so I thought maybe we could have it here, divorced from any particular incident.
Ladies, we need to talk. If we are going to keep talking about our bodies in casual conversation, let’s do the conversation justice. Let’s talk about a few of the things our bodies actually are.
Our bodies are couriers, allowing us to carry out the will and message of God. Our hands are agents of comfort, hard work, and healing. A mother's hand comforts her child by stroking the hair. A writer expresses all the ideas floating about in her mind through strokes on a keyboard so that her words may be carried far and wide. A surgeon's fingers work carefully with incredible precision to remove whatever harms and repair what has been broken. Our legs carry us to the far reaches of the earth for work and pleasure and ministry. The same legs allow us to walk the short distance that can seem impossibly far to cross a room to initiate an apology or comfort someone who is hurting. Sometimes our arms let us hold onto what we love, and sometimes they rise up in surrender as we let go of the things that are holding us back. For many of us, our bodies allow us to realize our God-given dream of becoming a mother. For me, even when I have been unwell and felt that my body was betraying me, unable to adequately protect and nurture the lifeless body within it, it paved the way for an intimacy with and dependency on God that I had never experienced before.
Our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit—the container where the Almighty God of the universe has chosen to take up residence. This is no small statement of fact. We carry the all-knowing, all-powerful, healing presence of the Divine with us wherever we go, and Scripture says that nothing can separate us from God’s love. Our bodies are physical reminders of Emmanuel, God with us.
Our bodies are imago dei, God’s image. We were crafted carefully, made in God’s image—all of us. Every. Single. One. We are God’s image-bearers, so whenever we look at one another, we are beholding the sacredness of God. When we begin to really believe that every single person bears God’s image, we value each other as family and begin to listen to one another’s stories that we might develop love and understanding and acceptance for God’s children.
Our bodies are unparalleled wisdom. If we learn to listen, we discover that, unlike our hearts and minds, our bodies never lie. They hold wisdom that we can gain access to if we will slow down and validate what they are telling us. They let us know where we are carrying stress, anger, fear, anxiety, joy, peace, and wholeness. They tell us when we need to speed up or slow down or pay attention. We read books and pay professionals and run around in circles trying to figure out what we need, but I wonder how often our not-knowing comes from ignoring the wisdom our bodies have to offer.
Our bodies are gifts. As I get older, I am beginning to view my body less as a thing—or THE thing—that defines my self-worth and more as a precious gift entrusted to me to steward. When I wash my hair or exercise or eat good food, I feel an almost maternal love flowing from my soul to my body. In her book Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott says, “You tend to your spirit through your body.” Every act of physical self-care tells my body, “Let me take care of you. You’ve worked so hard. Be refreshed. I love you.”
For some people, losing weight is an indicator of health and well-being, but for others, it is quite the opposite. Dear sisters, could we make an agreement? Unless we know each other well enough to know how the other is really doing, can we keep our small talk focused on actual small things? On seeing that I have lost a significant amount of weight, the people who know me best would look at me, pause, and say, with concern in their voices, “Are you doing all right?” And then, like the grocery store employee that I have been chatting with for years in the aisles of the grocery store and who took a surprisingly maternal interest in my well-being after I had a baby, they might say, “Don’t forget to take care of YOU.”