A few years ago, I shared a short devotional and then a prayer at a popular women’s conference. In addition to the sold out venue, there was a live-stream of the event to more than 100,000 women around the world. It was a bigger audience than my usual circle, for sure, plus I was on a different place in the theological spectrum than most of the women in attendance so I was totally new to this group of ladies. It was a good event and I was grateful for the time I spent there.
After that, something odd happened though. I received email after email after email from women around the world who had watched the event and almost all of them thanked me for my Body.
Oh, they said other things too about what I shared and prayed over the day but one after another each woman who wrote made sure I knew that they were glad my body – as it was and is and has its being – was on that stage with all of those other women who were there.
These sisters all felt compelled to seek me – a total stranger – out just to say, “Hey, sister thanks for bringing that body of yours onto that stage and letting us see it that day. We needed that.”
I’m not sure what to think about that.
On one hand, “thank you….I think….?”
But on the other hand, I get it. I’ve sat through church services or conferences or workplaces or public arenas where the only women who are visible are the ones who are extremely thin, who are white, who are blonde, who are American, who are fashionably dressed and professionally done-up, who are able-bodied, who are bright without being intimidating, who are pretty without being sexy , who are unthreatening to our status quo of appropriate, who are ticking every box for what our culture tells us is acceptable about womanhood. And yes, I’ve felt invisible and unseen and uncelebrated and unacknowledged as a result even with my own obvious privileges.
Even now when I travel to preach, at least three women will always quietly thank me for being a woman who shops in the plus-section and gets up on stages to preach.
We don’t even realize how much we are influenced by the dominant culture of how womanhood is portrayed.
It turns out that we as Christians can communicate the false idea that the only women worth listening to are the ones whose bodies conform to our cultural ideals.
I was hardly revolutionary on that stage or any other stage – I’m white and abled bodied and under fifty – so let’s be honest: if even my curvy presence on a stage feels like a revolution to someone then we all need to do better.
There is no time like the start of a new year with the constant narrative of improve! shrink! tone! change! transform! to bring out the body loathing, is there?
I get it. No matter my size, no matter my weight, no matter my exercise regime, no matter my season of life, for almost my entire post-adolescence life, I simply and quietly and steadily resented and loathed my own body.
I wonder sometimes why and how I was so broken in my body image with very little provocation. There was some seed of self-loathing that needed very little cultivation to grow. I think I have an idea of where it began and why it grew and how it continues to grow – it’s a combination of my origin story, of comparison, of our messed-up culture, of over-heard comments, of patriarchal bullshit, of feeling different than the patented ideal, of thought conditioning, of despair, of how we centre women who conform to the ideal, of our fear of getting older, of how the women in my circles spoke about their own bodies and obsessed over calorie counting and wrinkles, of how our culture speaks about women everywhere from the Internet to sanctuaries to coffee shops to our own inner monologues.
Our culture told me that I was only loveable or sexy if I looked like a thin movie star, there was no room for my softness and size or my aging. God forgive me, I believed them.
For too long, I elevated popular culture’s opinion of me over what I know about being fearfully and wonderfully made, over my logic, over my own feminist and theological convictions, over my beliefs about who I am in Christ.
I used to go long periods of time without ever acknowledging my body. I unfocused my eyes when I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror before a shower sliding over my own shape. I have starved my body, harangued my body, spoken words of frustration and anger to my body, loathed my shape, ignored my body, resented my body. I have felt such tangible shame over my body that I wanted to pretend it’s not here.
And yet this way of treating my body was so counter to my theology.
I believe God cares so deeply about matter – that this material world matters to God. I believe in original blessing – not original sin. I believe that God became incarnate among us and it is a blessing on our very human bodies. We are temples, God cares about our health and our healing, I believe God longs for that wholeness and shalom in our corporal world. And as a feminist, I believed deeply in the inherent value of every body and the need to dismantle the broken way we speak about and treat women’s bodies – I managed to believe it for every single other woman in the world … except for myself.
I was sick of it. I was sick of this feeling of shame about my body. This wasn’t about “health” – which is often a code-word to disguise our body image issues. But back in that season, more than anything, I wanted to be set free – set free from the crippling shame and guilt I felt about my own body. I rolled my eyes intellectually at myself for such a thought – It sounded selfish and privileged and ridiculous: just get over it, girl.
But there it was in my heart: I wanted to love my body.
Jesus, help me to love what you have blessed.
Flannery O’Connor wrote, “I am always astonished at the emphasis the Church puts on the body. It is not the soul she says that will rise but the body, glorified.”
This has always astonished me, too. I feel a guilty sort of understanding for the Gnostics, those ancient thinkers who were convinced that the corporal, the material, the physical, were somehow less spiritual than the intellectual or spiritual world, declaring that matter is evil. They pitted the physical against the spiritual with the results that the physical was always base and lesser. After all, how could the divine be part of this – our flesh, our dirt, our mess, our urges, our desires, our slobber, our shape, our hunger, our orgasms? Is my body… blessed? as it is, right now, blessed?
It would easier for me if I could forget my body or act like it didn’t matter. I tend to live in my own head a bit anyway. I don’t consider my body when I want to relax – I do not understand people like my brother-in-law Adam who likes to ‘go for a run’ to relax. To chill, I read fun books instead of serious books or I watch television or I knit. I don’t consider my body when I want to be challenged – I do not understand people like my cousin Sharon who is my age and yet competes in Ironman competitions and bikes twelve miles on a regular Wednesday. To be challenged, I pull out Karl Barth or Dr. Soong-Chan Rah or bell hooks for a good reading session. Or I decide to save the world and so march into the social justice battles ready to establish a bit of shalom for someone else first.
My body simply never figured into my life – it was my vehicle to get from A to B, it was my house that I didn’t bother to make my home, and then it was a source of shame because our culture told me there was too much of it.
And yet, my body is part of the resurrection life. Incarnation matters. My body matters. And not just in some far away day and time of new-heaven-and-new-earth but here, right now.
Right from the beginning, our bodies were good, too. Our bodies, our selves, were good. There is no demarcation between the material and the spiritual, it all belongs in God. We are made in the image of God, communal by creation, and my body isn’t an impediment to knowing and following and embracing God, it’s part of the whole redemption. It is also redeemed, blessed by the Incarnation all over again.
Giving birth has been my primary altar for reconciling with my body. Birth was a head-on collusion between my spirit and my body, all aspects of my humanity under demand.
It turned out that the most spiritual moment of my life was the most physical moment of my life. Those moments of corded pain and joy and helplessness and power revealed more to me about the Incarnation than any book I could have read. I have been pregnant eight times, I have given birth to four children, I have lost four children before birth, and each experience here tore that barrier I kept rehanging between me and the Holy of Holies from top to bottom all over again. This is where I began to have a real glimpse of God-with-us, Emmanuel, and the ways that God is redeemed our bodies even now, healing and renewing them and transforming or we embody the Gospel of God with us.
Now God wasn’t simply an idea or a force or a concept or a dream. No, God has a body. God fed at a woman’s breast. God smiled. God learned a trade. God ate and drank and slept and walked and laughed and wept. Word made flesh, born of a woman, and it matters because the incarnation matters. All of this is good.
Even if we have strayed from the original blessing of our made-in-the-image-of-God selves, we are blessed again, redeemed, because of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, all of humanity blessed because he broke through and embodied humanity, showing us how to be truly human, all over again.
My body matters. It matters now, not just someday. When Jesus was resurrected, he appeared in his body – a glorious, redeemed, transformed body but still a body. Our bodies stay with us, our bodies are in on the resurrection, too. C.S. Lewis writes, “For God is not simply mending, not simply restoring a status quo. Redeemed humanity is to be something more glorious than unfallen humanity.”
The Apostle Paul blows right past our symbols and esoteric ideas when he writes, “He will take our weak mortal bodies and change them into glorious bodies like his own, using the same power with which he will bring everything under his control.” Someday, somehow, our bodies will be like Jesus’ resurrected body, transformed, no longer subject to death and to destruction. Jesus had the same body but redeemed, even bearing the scars of his horrible death. I have no idea how this works or happens but I know this: our bodies matter.
I have had to learn slowly and diligently to practice shalom in my body – not for someday when I’m a certain size, not for someday when I take up less space, not for theological purposes, not for when I’m dead, not as a hotly contested spiritual concept but here and right now, I want to make peace with my body.
Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “There comes a time when it is vitally important for your spiritual health to drop your clothes, look in the mirror, and say, ‘Here I am. This is the body-like-no-other that my life has shaped. I live here. This is my soul’s address.”
Finding my soul’s address lovely again has been good work for my soul. One night, I ran the hot water into the tub filling it with bubbles, then I slipped into the bath and leaned back into the warmth.
I don’t think we can ever truly love something we won’t allow into our space. And so I knew I need to allow my body back into my soul space.
The first step to learning to love my body was to acknowledge my body. My body is not just along for the right but a rightful part of the story.
So I looked at myself. It wasn’t easy to do that. My body and I had become unacquainted over the years – it was like meeting someone you went to school with years ago: you kind of recognize each other but really all you see are the changes. And then I bathed my body gently, with love in my heart. I rubbed rose-scented lotion on my limbs and every time my brain tried to find the old pathways of shame, I made myself say, “I am being kind to my body. I will speak nicely to my own self, thank you very much, I like it here. I bless my own body.”
I got dressed and made a cup of tea and sat down to read my book. I could feel muscles in my legs from my walk earlier in the day. I smelled like roses and I felt warm.
So that was a good day.
This is a practice of resurrection for me now: I am consistently speaking truth, living truth, embodying truth about my body and your body. I’m dismantling lies, exposing the darkness to the light of the truth, uprooting the weeds with long taproots in my way of thinking.
I have disciplines of love for my body in my words, in my thoughts, in how I eat, in how I sleep. I care for my body like I, as a mother, care for the bodies of my children. It feels like a revolution to mother your own body with love. This has led me to practice self-care instead of self-comfort: I won’t ever be like my cousin Sharon or my brother-in-law Adam but I do feel strong and healthy now. I’m caring for my body well, I think. This year of recovery from my car accident has taught me the importance of that. It’s a constant practice not an arrival. I have re-learned how to think about women and women’s bodies. I’ve taught myself a new way to talk. I look for ways to centre different bodies and abilities in my realms of influence. I’ve practiced a new way to think. I’ve read and studied everything from the intersection of feminism and faith. And I’ve put my bathing suit in front of God and everybody and then jumped in the lake.
I feel at peace with my body.
The war is over.
It turned out that we were on the same side all along.
I am not simply a spirit or a mind: I am also a body. And that body is good – God said so. That body is blessed by the Incarnation, this body deserves my kindness.
This is my body – all of it, and I want to bless it and call it good, too.
Being a Christian also means embodiment – it means dwelling fully here in this body because it is good and it is redeemed and it is central to who we are in Christ and how we know and follow Jesus.
Over and over: life over death, love over fear, peace over war even within my own frame.
I needed back the space that the shame was taking up. I needed that space for justice work and for advocacy, for good work and community building, for joy and learning.
The emotional and spiritual real-estate that was taken up by broken notions about my body? I wanted that real estate back. I wanted to plant gardens there. I wanted to see what was waiting on the other side of all of this freedom.
Now I’m pretty certain that the obsession with our size and our appearance and our youth is just another way to sideline us, to put us on the bench, to keep us away from engaging with the repair of the world.
I am not here for that nonsense.
I have been thinking about this a lot as the new year starts. I wanted to pull up a chair beside you and gently ask you about this, so here we are.
Because I know that a lot of us have intentions and goals for our bodies. Good for you. But perhaps you could look at what is underneath those resolutions about your body.
And perhaps, just perhaps, you could make it your intention to – this year – rest from your battle against your body and simply embrace her with peace and love and joy and gratitude.
Maybe you don’t need to shrink and shrink and shrink. Maybe you don’t need to look like you’re forty when you’re sixty or twenty when you’re forty.
Maybe you need to make peace with your body – this age, this stage, this size, this ability, this capacity. Maybe it’s time to love your body.
image via Lightstock, used with permission.
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And check out Sarah Bessey's critically acclaimed new book, "Jesus Feminist." “I’ve read countless books addressing the place of women in the kingdom, and I have never, ever read anything so lovely, so generous, profound and humble as Jesus Feminist. If you’re expecting anger or defensiveness or aggression, move on. If you are looking for intelligence and warmth and spirit, read this immediately." - Jen Hatmaker, author of "7: A Mutiny Against Excess" and "Interrupted"