Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Fifteen Days of Gratitude: 15.3: MY AMAZING BODY

It's true. I'm grateful for my amazing body. Before you roll your eyes and mock my overblown sense of self, hear me out.

I wasn't always grateful for my body. There was a time when I hated it. Loathed it. This loathing crept up on me though, for while I wasn't always grateful for my body, I wasn't always crippled by insecurity, either; I danced for several years and participated in swimming on my high school swim team, and I think I managed to be comparatively comfortable in my skin. I was as blissfully unaware of myself as one could be at that age. My bout with an eating disorder started when I was about 16. I was a junior in high school and I had to get braces; aside from the embarrassment that accompanied having braces put on when all my classmates were getting theirs taken off, I had to deal with aching gums and weird cuts on the inside of my mouth, as well as getting my upper lip caught on the wires when I smiled or spoke. Awkward. Eating was so painful that for weeks afterward I stuck with Slimfast shakes and whatever soft items I managed to "chew" without using my teeth. After a few weeks, someone remarked that I had probably lost weight since I got my braces on. A completely innocuous and neutral remark! No subtle undertones of criticism or suggestion of "self-improvement." I had no weight to lose. I was 5'9 and I weighed 115 pounds. And yet...

Poof! The thought materialized in my mind, like some devil magic: "Maybe I need to lose weight." I enjoyed the idea of controlling my weight. I enjoyed control, in general. Hard work and results, those were my specialties... good grades, good kid, responsible. Gag. The rush of that control had a chemical effect on me. I started obsessing fairly quickly about what I ate, when I ate, how much I ate... and I started lying about it. I claimed that my teeth hurt for weeks after the pain had subsided, so that people wouldn't try to make me eat, or be suspicious of my minimal food intake. When at home, I would take my meals in my room... taking one bite and throwing the rest out of my window or dumping it into the trashcan. I only took the bite so that I could tell my mother I had eaten it, and it wouldn't be an outright lie.

At my most desperate mental state, I would live off virtually nothing. I was on the swim team, but I wasn't improving in my times. I wasn't advancing. My teammates moved up to varsity, excelled, and won races, while I struggled to make it through practice. I would dry heave into trash bins by the pool. It's absurd to go a day with no food, let alone swim 1500M on an empty stomach. I eventually had to quit the team.

I once awoke in the night, jarred out of sleep by the knocking of my heart against my ribcage. I hadn't eaten at all that day, so I literally crawled to the kitchen and put a spaghetti noodle into my mouth. I'll never forget sitting on the floor of the kitchen, in the dark, chewing on that single spaghetti noodle for a few seconds before I spit it out. I didn't want to be better. I was certain that what everyone called "recovery" was just a ploy to make me fat and ugly. They just wanted me to be average! I was the only one with the commitment and the ability to follow through, and they wouldn't understand.

An encounter with God at summer camp, shortly following my high school graduation, transformed my life just as He promised He would in Romans 12:2 "...Do not conform any longer to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind..." This is the most powerful demonstration I have ever seen of God's ability to renew. I remember distinctly what it was like to look into the mirror and not see someone who was fat... but to see myself. A miracle.

I won't say that the journey of recovery was straight, or that it was without its pitfalls. I occasionally traced my steps backward and walked willingly into the trap that had ensnared me to begin with. To spare you all the Oprah Winfrey details, I'll just say that my backsliding always starts with a lie. But a lie that sounds kind of like the truth. I never again thought of myself as 'fat'... but I would occasionally cease to see myself as beautiful because I didn't look like the celebrities I saw... who didn't even look like themselves, come to find out! Oh, airbrushing. Subtle dissatisfaction would creep in as I began to forget that I am so much more than my body; as I chose not to acknowledge that most of what I have to offer isn't even visible to the eye.

It is truly remarkable to think about the twisted darkness that invades our psyche as we buy into the lies of  disordered eating, disordered thinking, disordered living. It's found in the subtle yet contradictory notions we begin to latch onto, suggestions that we are simultaneously too much and not enough. That all we have to offer is our exterior, when all we know of ourselves is our interior. That happiness, like the horizon, is an invisible line that recedes as we approach it (credit to Mona Lisa Smile for that one), yet also, strangely, just within reach if we lose 10 pounds.

How ridiculous. I remember sitting in a parking lot, talking to my mom on the phone as I struggled not to walk back into my cage. I told her I was afraid of what would happen if I ate. I was gripped with an anxiety akin to fear of death. My mom said so simply, like a little light piercing a vast darkness, like a sword cutting through the Gordian knot: "Food is supposed to give you life. How can it bring you death?" Well that's just irritatingly simple. But it's true. You know what will kill you? Not eating. Your body will metabolize itself, vital organs first, and you will literally starve to death. Americans have no business starving to death.

I feared food. I gave it such thorough control over me that I became paralyzed.  Isn't it odd that we buy into fanatical dieting and obsession with self, and looks, and public opinion, all in order to gain control... and yet it begins to control us. Just like all deals with the devil- you do not win. Self-loathing is not a fair exchange for self-control. But that's what eating disorders give you. You invest heavily in the industry of Self, hoping for a return. But it steals your joy and then leases to you your own (temporary) happiness... you get it on weekends, when you can work out incessantly and sleep to avoid eating... but you don't get it on holidays, because that's when the good food comes out to get you.

I've simply outgrown that thinking; thank God. It's exhausting. Don't get me wrong. I still view myself with a critical eye... and it takes work to avoid becoming preoccupied. I'd be lying if I said I never had dark moments of paralyzed, agonizing self-doubt. But I silence that voice that wants to kill my joy and put me to death. I realize how important my crooked teeth, acne scars, and cellulite are in the grand scheme of things. They aren't. They don't even make the list. So while I certainly don't give up on healthy living and self-improvement, I make effort to be unfettered by those thoughts.

I've been, overall, blessed with a sturdy constitution and remarkably good health. But even on the rare occasions when I would get the sniffles, I would pretend I wasn't sick because it stung my pride to admit that I was under the weather. I don't get under the weather... I am always and forever over the weather. How dare you.

Well, it didn't go my way last week. The flu kicked my butt. But as the days passed, my symptoms came and went, as if in single file: Sore throat? Check, next! Chills? Check, next! Cough, runny nose and watery eyes? Gangs all here! I realized how amazing my body is. It raises its own temperature to fight off the illness! It gathers infection and expels it! I literally stayed in bed for an entire day without moving... trying to think of reasons to be grateful for being sick (I got sick the day after writing my first List). My sore throat, my coughing, my chills... all signs that my body is functioning, and fighting!  As I lay there, not dying, looking out my window at cherry blossoms and feeling the warmth of my down comforter and the softness of my pillow,  I thanked God that my body was working. That I had the freedom to lay in bed and recuperate. That I had an entire box full of Emergen-C and loving roommates to check and make sure I was taking my vitamins and still breathing. That I didn't have anything wrong that gallons of water and three pounds of vitamin C couldn't right.

As Annie Dillard said in her wonderful book The Writing Life, "You were made and set here to give voice to this, your astonishment." So I'm giving voice to my astonishment. Our bodies are amazing. They really are. You are fearfully and wonderfully made, you are no mistake, you are poetry in motion. Leonardo da Vinci saw it, and wondered at it. And the moment you see yourself that way, you suddenly realize that there is art as far as the eye can see. The world is a gallery. Certainly, we abuse ourselves. Certainly, we fail to esteem what we've been given, and we cease to wonder at the fact that we are made in the marvelous image of God. We fail often. But we are exquisite self-repairing more-than-machines. So let us not fall into disrepair, and let us see one another for our real beauty.


What's A Girl To Wear said...

smash smash saaamash.

Corrigan Vaughan said...

Fantastic post, Hil. Thanks for being so vulnerable and open. One of the many, many things I love about you.

glennygirl said...

Ah. So good! The struggle I have is wanting to hide behind my physical insecurities because I'm fearful of change. It hardly makes sense. The fear that once I change physical appearance that only then will I be accepted when I want people to see past the cellulite and see the heart. It's only by the Lords love that I can find my security and self worth. My spirit may know that but I still need the mind transformation and then the physical manifestation will happen.

Joel Glenny said...

Simply beautiful.

Jess said...

I've had similar realizations many times over the years. My body is something that fights itself (autoimmune disorder) but it is also something that holds babies and friends. It's this body that cooks meals for loved ones, these fingers that type words that hopefully inspire, and this lap that comforts my sweet little pup. It's my body, and it's not perfect, but it's pretty amazing anyway.