Getting Big

I have always had a fear of being big. In grade school I was embarrassed at being taller for my age. Even now, around short, petite women I feel awkwardly oversized standing next to them. When I visited my relatives in China as a teenager, I remember my cousin and her friend commenting in the local dialect about me, “Gui da ka!”  – What big feet! The comment was not attached to any value judgment, but the way they said it made me feel freakish, out of place, and ashamed because my feet (and stature in general) were bigger than most tiny Chinese girls’.

What is it about big-ness that has acquired such a negative connotation for me? With other things, big can be good – big shady trees to sit under, big juicy peaches to savor, big plush beds to stretch out in. But when it comes to my body, somehow I have learned that big is bad. Small is good. Small is cute, pretty, graceful, even virtuous. Big is…well…ungainly, awkward, too much, not good.

I think this has something to do with being a woman. With men and boys, it’s good to be big. They get admiring looks and comments about their broad shoulders, tall stature, and large muscles. Big-ness is positively linked to their manhood. But overly-tall women, large-boned women, or thick women usually aren’t admired. Instead they are seen as oddities or viewed with distaste. Other times, their size is admired distortedly. Women’s big bottoms and big breasts become sexual objects detached from the people themselves.

Lily Myers’ viral slam poem “Shrinking Women” gets to the heart of this difference. “Women in my family have been shrinking for decades,” she says, “making space for the entrance of men into their lives.” Comparing herself with her brother, she describes, “I have been taught accommodation, I have been taught to filter…you have been taught to grow out, I have been taught to grow in…you learned from our father how to emit, how to produce, how to roll each thought off your tongue with confidence…I learned to absorb, I took lessons from my mother in creating space around myself… deciding how many bites is too many, how much space she deserves to occupy…”

That’s it. Women are afraid of being too emotional, too loud, too crazy, too opinionated, too much. This translates into a physical aversion – a fear of taking up space, a fear of getting big. Small and thin, quiet and submissive, becomes our ideal, and women learn to hold themselves in, deny their appetites and their voices, and shrink.

Pregnant_woman2Pregnancy has been freeing for me in this respect. While some women worry about their disappearing waistlines and expanding torsos, I have found it fun and exciting to watch my belly grow and track the numbers rising on the scale. Recently, I surpassed my husband in weight and told him gleefully, “Now who carries the most weight in this family?”

Part of my enjoyment of the physical changes I’m undergoing as a plump pregnant woman is due to the fact that it is probably the first time in my life I feel allowed to get big. Big is now good. Big belly means Baby is growing well. Big breasts mean my body’s getting ready to nourish my child. Big appetite means Baby is hungry for nutrients. So I’m more than willing to get big. I revel in getting big.

Ina May Gaskin[1] tells the story of a woman who was told by her midwife that she would get huge to have the baby. During her labor, this woman repeated “I’m gonna get huge, I’m gonna get huge” as a mantra to herself and resultingly pushed out a large baby with no trouble, tears, or unnecessary medical interventions. I love the fact that getting big in this story is a positive thing associated with empowerment, healthy womanhood, and the amazing God-given ability to bring life into the world.

Of course, I’ve had my share of worrying that I’ll keep my built-up pregnancy fat after the baby’s born, and that I’ll never get my old body back (I’m told I never will anyways, no matter how hard I try). After the birth, I’m sure I’ll be more cautious again about how much I eat and how much weight I gain or lose. But pregnancy has definitely helped me overcome my fear of getting big. I’ve learned to associate big women’s bodies with vitality and hospitality, not just with fear and shame. I hope this lesson is one I’ll carry with me as I continue to “fill-out” into the woman God has made me to be.

 

 


[1] Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth (2003, Bantam Books).

Learning to Trust the Body

The Christian subculture I come from often teaches us a deep distrust of the body. As a young Christian, I would read passages such those in Paul’s letter to the Romans, “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh,” (7:18) and interpret this to mean that every bodily impulse I have is bad.

Unfortunately, most messages I heard in the church confirmed this interpretation. The body is the realm of unruly appetites, for sex, for food, for pleasure. Deny your body, and gain spiritual control. When I read accounts of Christian mystics through this kind of interpretive lens, my distrust of the body was only further affirmed. Here were holy women and men of God living in caves, sleeping on boards, and eating the barest minimum to stay alive, in essence distancing themselves as far as possible from the body and its demands. Is this the kind of life we also are called to lead, in order to be holy?

Besides our perception that listening to the body leads only to sin (and its counterpart: denying the body leads to holiness), we learn to distrust the body for other reasons. If you don’t deny your body, you’ll get fat, was another frightening message I internalized. As a young woman wanting to be beautiful and fearing that her body might be unattractive if a few pounds heavier, there were times when I took ridiculous pride in ignoring hunger pangs and feeding slivers of grapefruit to a growling, empty stomach.

When I went through a period of chronic ankle pain, I began to distrust my body for another reason – it was betraying me. Why the inexplicable pain? Why wasn’t my body healing, as it was supposed to? I tried so many treatments and watched so desperately for signs of improvement, but mostly got (what I thought was) an unresponsive and obstinate body that refused to comply with my attempts to make it better. For me, it was pain that strained my already broken relationship to my body. For others, it is disability, disease, or aging. It is hard to trust the body when it is the source of dissatisfaction and suffering.

In the midst of pain, I had moments where I wanted to escape my body completely. I would tell my husband, half-jokingly, half-seriously, “My body is broken, can I get a new one?” Matt would reply, “But I like your body.” This was one of many instances where my relationship with others reoriented how I saw my own body. When I knew that someone loved and appreciated my body, I began to inhabit it in a different way. I realized my body could be a conduit for joy, connection, and relationship, as much as it was a source of frustration and disappointment. The same happened at times in church, when, with hugs and kisses, others communicated their care for me through my body.

Now that I am pregnant, I am learning that my body can also be a source of life, where once I could only see it as a bog of pain and decay. It’s still unbelievable at times to think that my body is capable of creating a whole new life within itself, after having distrusted it for so many years. Just a few days ago, I experienced some unusual pangs in the womb, which I feared were the pains of miscarriage. After a call with the midwife, I was relieved to hear they were just the growing pains of the uterus expanding out of the pelvic cavity. I am also gaining weight, which is only normal. Yet, after years of being super aware and careful about my weight, it’s disconcerting to watch the numbers rise on the scale.

I have to keep telling myself, “God made my body to nourish life and to connect me to others. This is natural, and holy, and good.  I can stop being on edge that there’s always something wrong with it. I can trust my body.” It is a lesson I am learning slowly.

Fearfully and Wonderfully Made – Even our Fat

By Morielle Stroethoff

“I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” – Psalm 139:14.

These are the words God longs to hear every one of us cry out with joy, including me. But, even though I haven’t technically had an eating disorder for over two years, these words still do not belong to me.

My university’s free therapist thought my recovery miraculous. “How did you do it?” she asked.

“I didn’t,” I answered. “He did. He placed the well-being of thirty fragile university freshmen into my hands and suddenly, it was no longer about me. I had to help those freshmen in the best way I could, and I couldn’t from the depths of bulimia. Once it was no longer about me, He set me free!”

More than two years later, I’m still free from the obsessions, the binging, the purging. But I’m not living a wholly  embodied life. Right now, I’m sitting on my hard mattress with my back propped up against the wall in my little apartment in China. My legs are warm under the thick comforter, the muscles sore from a very fast hike yesterday. And my stomach is full of a peanut butter and honey sandwich.

But I can feel a shallow beat of guilt pushing out from my breastbone and along my ribs. It sounds like it’s saying fat. fat. fat. fat. fat. fat.

I looked in the supermarket this week to try to find a scale. It’s been six months since I left America in a very healthy state of mind and body. But the stress of living abroad, the lack of my familiar health foods, my crazy work schedule, the heaviness of Chinese food, and (most importantly) the growing prominence of my double chin in the mirror have led me to realize with deepening dread that I’ve been putting on weight.

God brought me to China to share His gospel and His love with the people of this city. I worry about being fat because I worry that people will dislike me for my fatness. Looking at these two sentences on the page, I cannot believe those two driving forces exist in this one body. And yet, they do.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/sravi_in/3357450326/

The Bible doesn’t tell me exactly what to do. But, God promises, it tells me exactly enough. And so I follow the Psalmist and pray this prayer: “[Lord], you know me inside and out, you know every bone in my body; You know exactly how I was made, bit by bit, how I was sculpted from nothing into something.” (Psalm 139:15) And, I tag on to the end, “You know every fat cell in my body. You know where it came from, and you know what it is good for. Not only that, you sculpted it with more care and thought than any model uses to sculpt her abs.”

I don’t think I will buy that scale. For now, I will pray that prayer while I do yoga in the morning. I will visualize God sculpting every pouch of fat on my body with a smile. And, though I do not know how to mean it yet, I will say, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made!”