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).

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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.

In the Womb of God

In him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28)

A friend reminded me of these beautiful words when I confessed to her some fears about my newly discovered pregnancy. Even as I write, these fears flutter up. The little life inside me is the size of a kidney bean, so tender, so fragile, so vulnerable. Will s/he survive? What if I eat something wrong? What if I breathe in too many noxious fumes? There are so many factors outside of my control!

Bubble of a Womb, by nwinn

Bubble of a Womb, by nwinn

These fears that spring up right at the start of life follow us through our entire earthly existence. What shall we eat, drink, wear? What if we make a wrong decision? How can we minimize our risks and reduce the impact of all those unknown outside variables? We are in a constant state of unease about this breathtaking yet fleeting thing called life.

As I pondered Paul’s words to the people of Athens, “In him we live and move and have our being,” it struck me that just as a newly formed life is knit together and held firmly by God in the mother’s womb, so we, as fragile creatures on a brief and exhilarating sojourn through planet Earth, are being formed in the womb of God until we are one day delivered into the broad daylight of everlasting union with our Creator.

As babes yet unborn into the full likeness of God, we now endure a dark and often grueling process of being knit together, according to a mysterious design, into a reflection of the Son. In the darkness of the womb, we hear his voice, but one day, we will see his face. We hear inchoate murmurs of the world beyond, so vast that our little hearts cannot take it in. We incubate in a twilight of semi-conscious spiritual awareness, seeing through a veil darkly, until one day the veil is torn, and we behold the Son in all his glory.

One day we will use to full capacity these lungs, feet, hands, mouths, hearts, that for now seem limited in their range and power. One day we will open our mouths and the fresh air of God’s kingdom will flood our lungs. One day we will run with abandon into the arms of the One who is both father and mother, lover and Spouse.

For now, all creation groans in the pains of childbirth, waiting with eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed (Romans 8).  For now, we rest in the womb of God. We await the day when we will be delivered from our fears into a perfect everlasting love, one that has enfolded us since before our life began.