How to Fight Body Shame

How to Fight Body Shame

“Why can’t everyone just leave me alone?!!” I yelled, slamming the computer closed and storming out of the room. Corey tentatively followed me into the kitchen where I was hurling plastic dishes into the sink. I wanted to eat something, but I distracted myself by cleaning up the mess from breakfast instead. 

“What’s going on?” he asked, bravely offering me an invitation to verbalize the rage he could see all over my face. 

I made an angry sound somewhere between a growl and a moan. “I can’t write with noise coming from every direction out of every single person in the house!” I shouted. Mercifully, he nodded in understanding. “I just want to go somewhere–anywhere–to be alone!” 

“I get it,” he said gently. “This is really hard.” It was just what I needed to hear. 

His acknowledgement diffused the intensity of my emotion. Feeling understood was a like a momentary lifeline out of the waves of my overwhelming frustration. Unknowingly, he had saved me from looking for comfort elsewhere–namely in the kitchen pantry.

I sighed deeply, humbled by his compassionate response to my tantrum. Apologizing for my outburst, I scrawled “do not disturb” on a piece of scratch paper and taped it on the bedroom door. Here I am now, laptop back open, trying again to fight for my sanity by typing words that help me hone in on what’s happening inside me.

The morning blowup didn’t come out of thin air; it was an emotional eruption of internal pressure that had been building and building. These days of isolation and intense “togetherness” have worn me down, depleting my reserves of patience and flexibility and optimism. I feel trapped, lonely, angry, and powerless to change the circumstances that are sucking the life out of me.

The longer we spend in quarantine, the harder it gets–and the more desperate I feel for relief.

I really did start out strong, working hard to reframe this as an opportunity–to soak up more time together, live with fewer distractions, embrace greater simplicity in our days. I focused on controlling what I could, resolved to implement practices that protect my physical, mental, and emotional health. Time alone to pray every morning, walks outside in the afternoon, regular sweat-inducing exercise and mostly healthy food choices all helped mitigate the effects of so many stressors.

But as two weeks became four, then eight became who-knows-how-many-more, my energy for self-care gradually diminished. Adrenaline and willpower wore thin and unhealthy coping strategies started seeping in through the cracks in my self-discipline. 

Instead of processing how I was feeling, I’d bake cookies; instead of going for a walk, I’d pour a glass of wine. It felt like I was already giving up so much–worrying about my food choices just felt like something I couldn’t manage on top of everything else.

Somehow, what started as sporadic indulgences became daily habits. Old stress eating patterns reemerged like muscle memory. Even as I told myself that I don’t struggle like I used to with food, convincing myself that I didn’t need to check myself as often or limit my sugar intake as carefully, I knew I was treading on dangerous ground. 

These momentary hits of relief didn’t come without consequences. Seemingly out of nowhere, my pants stopped fitting. 

Eventually, our choices catch up to us.

The old, familiar voice of shame hissed in my ear, “Look at you! You are so disgusting. You should have known you couldn’t stay healthy for long–it was just a matter of time before you lost control again. It’s no good pretending. You’ve always been fat and you always will be.”

You could say I’m a bit hard on myself. 

This battle with body shame is painfully familiar territory. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been trying to lose weight–so often focusing on calorie restriction instead of nourishment, exercising to burn calories instead of build strength, and criticizing every angle of my reflection instead of celebrating my unique shape. If I could just lose a few more pounds…

The result of endlessly striving to perfect a body that is inherently imperfect? Shame. Loads of it. 

The distorted belief that my lovability somehow increases or decreases with a number on the scale? That’s shame. My desire to hide from anyone who might notice or judge me for struggling? That’s shame. The temptation to collapse into overindulgence and self-hatred instead of admitting I need care? That’s shame. The excruciating fear of being rejected for who I am or what I’ve done? That’s shame at its core.

But shame cannot survive being spoken aloud. Admitting that my relationship with my body is complicated–that I vacillate between gratitude and contempt for it every single day–undoes the isolation and secrecy that give shame its power.

The truth is, my body bears the scars of a battle with disordered eating, a struggle with self-hatred, a fear of being unworthy of love, the birthing of two humans, and the residual pain of past injuries. It is both resilient and fragile, unique and imperfect, athletic and worn down, ever-changing and steadfast, capable of bearing deep pain and holding great joy.

It is a body that has lived hard and loved much and has not given up on me yet. 

I have legs that can run and jump and dance. I have arms that can wrap my kids tight and hold them close. I have two eyes that can see beauty all around me. I have lungs that can breathe deep and sing loud. I have skin that can touch and feel and sweat. 

I have a body that is imperfect and flawed and uniquely mine. 

A lifetime of self-criticism is hard to unlearn. In this season when my capacity is maxed out, when my feelings are big and my body is tired and I’m doing my best to survive each day, it’s hard to be gentle with myself. Maybe you can relate?

It helps me to remember what the research shows: The antidote to shame is empathy. Sharing our struggle with a safe person who can look us in the eyes and hear our heart, hold our pain, and validate our struggle without trying to fix us is like a healing balm to our soul.

As life continues in all of its sweet and sour moments, may you find a quiet place to sit alone long enough to thank your body for all it’s done for you. 

May you have the courage to invite someone who loves you into the places you’re tempted to struggle alone. 

May you find the grace to gaze gently at the beauty you carry, beholding yourself without judgement or shame. 

And may you know beyond a shadow of doubt that who you are today, imperfect and in process, is worthy of love.

Today I’m going to exercise. And buy new pants. Without shame.

On Feeling Fat and Other Lies

On Feeling Fat and Other Lies

Okay ladies, it’s time to talk about hard things. Yup, I mean swimsuit season. We need to have an honest to goodness heart to heart about what is going on below the surface…or at least below the water line.

I made the mistake of trying on swimsuits in a store last weekend. By myself. With no emotional support. There were three-way mirrors and fluorescent lights and way more cellulite than anyone needs to see ever. It seemed like a good idea at the time…but needless to say, I did not buy a swimsuit that day.

I did, however, spend the rest of the day feeling like the most disgusting woman on the face of the planet. My entire view of myself changed from that point on, and if I’m honest, I don’t think I’ve quite recovered.

The downward spiral of self-loathing starts with believing our struggle is what defines us. If you are a woman alive today, you have wrestled at some point with the way you look. All of us have. It’s part of living in a world with a distorted definition of beauty.

Hear this: the world is lying to women about what makes us beautiful. And it’s time we stop listening.

Struggling with body image is not new territory for me. Unfortunately, it’s been the story of most of my life. For as long as I can remember, I’ve felt like I needed to lose weight.

My height made me naturally heavier than most other kids my age, and I remember crossing the 100 pound mark before most others in my class. As early as elementary school, I would force myself to complete strenuous workouts on my parents’ NordicTrack in hopes of slimming down.

My standard for beauty was always set by those around me—how I compared to other girls defined how pretty I was. When I was young, my classmates would frequently tell me how “big” I was because I stood at least a head above the rest of my class. They meant I was tall, but it felt more like being called fat and unfeminine. I began to think of myself that way.

In eighth grade, my club volleyball team wore spandex shorts as part of our uniforms. I would pull the shorts down to my knees and up to my belly button to cover as much as possible. Believe me, I looked really cool.

I just wanted to hide. I was ashamed of the way my body looked and felt exposed in anything tight or revealing—like spandex. Or bathing suits.

Awkward as middle school was, high school was not much better. My insecurity was crippling, and my relationship with food only increased my self-disgust. I started binge eating to deal with anxiety I didn’t recognize, which caused me to gain weight and hate myself even more. I tried to purge every once in a while, but I knew too much about the negative effects of bulimia so I talked myself out of it.

I hated the way I looked and felt out of control to change it.

Going to college catapulted me into a whole new level of stress eating. Unlimited desserts, late night Taco Bell runs, and more loneliness than I knew what to do with added about twenty-five pounds to a frame that was not petite to begin. I started Weight Watchers that spring and tasted the addictive power of weight loss for my sense of self-worth. When the scale was down, I was a success—but when the scale went up, I felt like a total failure all over again.

The number told me if I was disciplined, motivated, self-controlled—it told me how much the world thought I was worth. I hate how many lies the scale has told me over the years. I associated my value with how much I weighed on any given day, and I assumed other people did the same.

After college, extra weight started to fall off in the busyness of my new, grown up life. Teaching, coaching, and leading Young Life didn’t leave much time for anything else, including regular meals. I didn’t even notice that I had accidentally returned to a healthy weight until people started to comment on how good I looked. I had never gotten attention for my body before, but now it was a source of validation.

I felt like the fat girl pretending to be thin. I was sure it would just be a matter of time before the overweight version of me came back again.

She didn’t, for the most part. I’ve gained a few pounds here and lost a few pounds there, but my body has mostly stayed in a healthy, normal weight range since college ended. But the way I see myself hasn’t changed much. I still look in the mirror and struggle often with what I see.

I have come a long way in this journey of seeing my body through the lens of love. I know my value doesn’t come from my weight, my pants size, or how many calories I consume on a given day. I exercise mostly regularly and eat more foods that make me feel healthy than not. I’m even learning to ask myself what’s really going on emotionally when I find myself digging for comfort food. Most days I’m at peace with the way I look.

Yet seeing myself in a swimsuit up close and personal often throws me back into the downward spiral of self-loathing I thought I’d lost with my extra weight.

I’ve been asking several girlfriends recently about their perception of their own bodies. It seems to be pretty universal: beautiful women of every size are more aware of their imperfections than their radiance. Even my most fit, slender, and breathtakingly beautiful friends struggle to see themselves the way I do.

Our critical eyes so easily focus on the parts of ourselves we wish we could change instead of the beauty that comes from our hand-crafted uniqueness.

A stunning neighbor who is pregnant with her second baby told me recently how relieved she is to finally be gaining weight. I did a double take. “Did you say you’re happy to gain weight?” I asked her in disbelief. She told me how self-conscious she’s been her whole life about her body—thinness has been her struggle as unknowing comments from strangers have made her wish she could put on a few pounds.

No matter how our bodies look on the outside, every woman carries the burden of living in a world that distorts female beauty.

Some of the most breathtaking women I know are not the ones with flat stomachs, thighs that don’t touch, or legs free from spider veins and cellulite. The most beautiful women are the ones who give life where ever they go—they inspire beauty in others through their words, their sacrificial love, their whole-hearted commitment to God-given passions.

The most beautiful women I know are secure in their identity as imperfect humans who are perfectly loved by the One who made them just the way they are. They are the ones who train their eyes to look for beauty all around them and inadvertently discover it within.

Today, I’m thankful for a body that is strong enough to do hard work, healthy enough to run and play, limited enough to tell me to rest, dependent enough on food to remind me to nourish myself regularly, and resilient enough to rebound from the harmful choices I’ve made in the name of comfort or beauty. My imperfect body reminds me that I am still a work in progress in every area of my life.

Struggling with the way I look offers me a choice to either focus my eyes inward or upward—I can obsess about what I eat or how much weight I “need” to lose, or I can focus my energy on believing that I truly am fearfully and wonderfully made. All of me.

Stretch marks won’t last forever, but a heart overflowing with the love of God will radiate his beauty for eternity.  Let’s give others permission to embrace their imperfect bodies by living thankfully in ours. Let’s make real the new pretty.