During this time of Social Distancing, some of our priests are still able to offer the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Many of us will be tempted to turn to idols and bad habits to cope or bring us comfort in this storm. The Lord is waiting for us even now to forgive, heal, and restore us.
Today is Part 2 of a two part series from two sisters about their own learned behaviors associated with food. These are testimonies of the goodness of our bodies, food, and nutrition and some of the not so good experiences they have shared in the pursuit of that realization.
Before I was 10 years old or so, I didn’t know I was fat.
I know “fat” is a complicated, triggering word—it is for me, too. I chide myself if ever I say it in front of my children or in reference to the appearance of myself or others. But, that doesn’t stop the word from running through my head sometimes when I look at a mirror or see a picture of myself. It’s also a sticky kind of word.
I remember the first time I began thinking I was fat. It was on a summer visit to my grandparents’ house.
Most summers of my childhood, I spent a week—by myself—at my grandparents’ house. It was a little taste of heaven—and a lot of tastes of just about anything I wanted. Ice cream sandwiches, donuts, candy. . .
On one particular summer visit, my beloved grandmother explained to me that we were going to go on a diet together. No more ice cream and bakery runs. Those were for little girls. She enthusiastically described for me a menu of lettuce, deli turkey, fat free creamy cucumber dressing, and diet coke. I was intrigued. It all seemed so exotic and grown up.
It didn’t take long for me to realize this exciting new plan had as its goal a thinner me—or, maybe her. I don’t know.
My family’s relationship with food is not exemplary.
I know that my grandmother struggled with her weight throughout her life. But, this is not about her. . .I will not place any judgement on her about her motives. All I know is that she loved me implicitly and I have no thought that she ever wanted anything but the best for me.
That week, I learned to use the scale in my grandparent’s hall bathroom to weigh myself at least twice every day. I think I lost 5 pounds that week and gained a new perspective. I got lots of praise for my devotion to the diet. As an over-achieving people pleaser, I figured out pretty quickly how this award was won.
My identity became integrally connected to numbers (on the scale and on tags in clothes) and the praise I received.
I could meticulously keep the numbers and count the compliments—there was real, empirical evidence for me to establish my sense of worth. I didn’t have to wonder if I was good enough–I had recorded data. My body did all the normal growing and stretching that a girl’s body does as she becomes a woman. Whether I really was or wasn’t overweight at any given time didn’t matter. “Going on a diet” became a religion of mine from that summer and well into my adulthood.
It was a bad religion. It was idolatrous, really.
When I was 15 years old, my family moved out of state. I went from a self-confident, newly elected class president and cheerleader at my all-girls’ Catholic high school to a new girl at a giant public co-ed high school, knowing nobody. And feeling like a nobody. I felt so invisible—and, turns out, not so self-confident after all. If no one noticed the space I took up, then it didn’t really matter if I took up a little (or a lot) more. The only thing I could control was the comfort of the food that I had been denying myself for most of my adolescence. So, I befriended her.
Chocolate, that is. Chocolate was my new BFF.
I filled every open crack in my lonely heart with as much chocolate as I could. Cafeteria chocolate peanut butter bars the size of my hand were my daily lunch dates. If my mom sent me to the store for her to pick up a few groceries, I took it as an opportunity have a little rendezvous with a king-sized Snickers bar on the way home.
My new food friend quickly turned on me. She demanded more and more of my attention. She was jealous and fickle—sometimes kind and consoling and other times cold and accusing. I wasn’t just growing in size. I could feel myself growing out of control in this relationship.
It was time to break up.
I began dieting again. Hardcore. I had expertise here. I lost so much weight between my sophomore and junior years that people noticed. I got compliments. I got attention. I got the lead in the high school musical. I got dates. When you are 16 years old, you don’t need much better encouragement than that to do whatever it takes to look a certain way.
My worth depended, once again, on the numbers and the applause.
I even tried to make my food religion part of my Catholic religion—I looked forward to Friday fasting days and Lenten penances as a way to make my disordered choices feel more holy and pious. I tried to identify as a good Catholic girl who had control over her appetites.
But, even this measure of “control” didn’t measure up. I wasn’t really doing it for God . . .I was sacrificing, once again, for the idols of vanity and approval.
Once, in a stage movement course in college, the professor analyzed our natural walking style. During that class, the students made laps around the large room and the professor stood in the middle to observe our gate, arm swing pattern, and pace. He gave us his analysis afterwards.
“It’s so odd, dear, you walk like an obese person.”
At possibly the smallest size I’ve been in my adult life, that felt about right. I no longer needed the scale or the exterior commentary anymore to fuel my disorder–it had carved a place in my identity. Any comment–negative or positive–about my size fit well into all my justifications and behaviors.
College was a deep dive into diet pills, excessive exercise, a very limited menu of boiled vegetables and fake butter spray, and other unhealthy practices that riddled me with shame and required secrecy. And, it all worked. Until something broke.
I knew that my habits were not holy or healthy. What started as a fascination and an attempt at control morphed into a preoccupation. That led to an obsession. And, finally, I could confess that I abandoned virtue for an idol.
After nearly a decade of hardcore dysphoria and dieting, I knew I needed to give it up.
I wasn’t sure how. I felt like I was still pretty good about hiding my behaviors. I was never the skinny girl (as much as I tried to be), so I was never really confronted with the worry of others about my health. The effects were embarrassing, but easily hidden behind a bathroom door. So, I decided to consult the One Person I knew who already knew everything. None of my weakness or failures would be a surprise to Him, but I knew I needed to say them out loud.
So, I went to Confession. Of course, I had availed myself of the sacrament many times in the course of those many preceding years. I was a “good” Catholic girl. But, never about this. I never talked about this before. Not once.
I honestly didn’t even know if the things I was confessing were actual sins. They were constant torments and deep wounds that probably began as sin, but were now habit and part of my everyday. The poor priest probably thought I was crazy—I was, actually. I was so messed up.
Jesus was waiting for me. I hope everyone knows what that feels like. It changes everything.
It wasn’t magic. It wasn’t immediate. It was grace poured on a soul that wanted it more than anything else. More than to be skinny. More than to be noticed. More than chocolate.
I don’t get on scales anymore (except at the doctor–and I always try to turn my back to the number). Chocolate and I have an understanding, mostly. The Sacrament of Confession holds a special place in my life. It’s where I know to go for forgiveness, healing, and the best, truest reflection of myself.
Jesus doesn’t weigh my value in the balance of a scale. He sees the little fat girl I still carry around inside me and tells me I am beautiful, worthy of love. That is my worth.