On Body Image

On Body Image November 17, 2014

The following post is by Anna Stokes, intern here at The Marin Foundation.  Possible headshot

I moved to Chicago two months ago now; I’m meeting with challenges here. Wear and tear, so far, includes the theft of my catalytic converter, a minor injury, and issues with my bank that’ve had me calling them weekly. Having worked in customer service, I know better than to antagonize folks who do the same. On my last phone call with the bank, though – the fifth, I think – I flipped, until someone finally explained the situation I was trying to address.  And that was that.

On the Red Line that morning, after the phone call, and after I’d worried over everything I could, I had an alien moment of un-stress. I was drained, but a little lighter. The train traveled south-bound, and I looked west, at warm-tone graveyard trees and Wrigley Field.  Sun filled us up in transit, made breath brighter, gave a free warmth to the train car. I listened to a prayer podcast, and thought, “I want to be close to God.” And this thought volleyed back: I am.

Then I woke up to I Am’s present-tense presence around me and with me. God’s response to my wish to be with him was wired in his very identity; he responded and he was the response, at once. Longing, by nature, grabs for the future, for what feels unfulfilled. I ran a list of my longings. I want to be loved: I Am. I want to do something with my life: I Am.  I want to be beautiful: I Am.

I thought about what this nature of God meant for my concept of body image. The first time I was walloped by the fact of my fatness, I thought my body needed to change. The mirror woke me up, in seventh grade, to formerly uncategorized flaws – memorably, the pooch under my stomach.

My mother, victim to the same stuff as me, passed on a lineage of dieting: Weight Watchers in seventh grade (eleven years old) and Jenny Craig as a high school freshman. There were other, shorter stints, but those were the two I failed at slowest. On both, I lost significant amounts of weight (which I later gained back, and then some), but I was hard on my self.  It was all or nothing: until I became a different person, one who was thin and beautiful and attracted boys, I hadn’t succeeded. I clearly remember declaring that I would rather be thin than healthy, at which point my mother may have realized that her best intentions for me had backfired. Internally, externally, relationally, I belonged to a system that bombarded me with the sense that my “I am” was worthless.

Living that way wasn’t fun. Food was even more tempting than usual, more evil; exercise was done with an agenda, not a wish to treat my body well, or for the enjoyment; plus, I assumed that all straight men dismissed me because I was fat. I got tired of the toll that body policing took on my health, on my ability to interact with other people, and began to reject it as a college freshman. One transformative moment for me was publicly confessing, during a small group with my Christian fellowship, that I was ashamed of my weight. Liberating my voice gave me power to counter the cultural lies I’d bought into.

Last year, I had part of a verse from Psalm 139 tattooed on me: “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” I now believe that God made each of us deliberately, that we are not to reject our identities, but to praise him for his craftsmanship and deep knowledge of our states of existence. God does not model for us a desire to change his identity. When he tells Moses his name is I Am, he does not identify himself as a god of I Will, or I Want. God doesn’t make New Year’s Resolutions or follow a diet plan.

In an interview with Invert&Crush, fat activist and sex educator Virgie Tovar said something that resonated deeply with me: “When a person is fat they’re meant to live in the future, diet ads and the diet industry create this future-centric goal-centric self and existence. We’re kind of told as women that we can live once we’re thin, we can love, we can have sex, wear bikinis, go horseback riding. Once we’re thin, and there’s that conditional clause.” As a fat woman, I can follow the world’s model, apologize for my existence, set my life on making less of myself. Or I can follow God’s model, proudly – I am. That, for me, is the healthy way to live. And I would absolutely say the same choice presents itself to everyone, to individuals within the LGBTQ community who are bombarded for their own various “I ams.” Identity is not given to us to be hated or erased; God knows his craft. No matter what the world tells me, I Am is enough.

To hear more from Anna about her story and about how we experience and think about body image, come to tonight’s Living in the Tension.  For more details, click here.

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