The first time I remember hating my body, I was nine.
Oh, I don’t think I put it exactly in those terms. It was more the certainty that I didn’t look like other girls. I was short, for one thing, even at that age. I was rounder, too, than my classmates. I’ve seen pictures of myself in fourth grade, and I wasn’t even what adults would have semi-affectionately termed “chubby.” But I wasn’t skinny, and for whatever reason, my peers latched onto that insecurity and spent the next several years calling me fat. Taunting me about my hips and thighs. Pinching me to show where I could “lose a few pounds.”
People say that girls today learn those lessons earlier than in previous generations. No, they don’t.
When I reached high school and chose to reinvent myself through conservative evangelical religiosity, I thought I’d found a place where I wouldn’t be judged on my body. How very wrong I was.
Instead of using beauty as the standard by which I was judged, it became “godliness.” I lost track of the number of times some well-meaning person asked me if I “really needed to eat that.” It didn’t actually matter what I was eating; I could have eaten anything and I still would’ve been asked. No one said it to my skinny friends under any circumstances.
As shaming as that was, that wasn’t the worst of it. It was the way in which preaching spoke of “the flesh” as a dirty, evil thing that must be overcome. I learned that my body was bad—not bad merely for being the wrong shape but bad because it wanted things.
In that graceless spiritual bubble, the mind, the body, and the spirit were disconnected. The body had sinful desires to overcome. The mind had sinful thoughts to overcome. But the spirit was of God and trumped all of our sinful nature if we prayed and asked Jesus in to fix our broken humanity.
I’m sure some of my conservative evangelical peers must be saying, “It’s not like that!” Perhaps it isn’t, for them. Maybe they didn’t already go into faith believing they were broken simply by virtue of existence. Or maybe they just can’t see it even though it’s right there in front of them.
It never occurred to me to medicate my shame. Food, substance use, sex, even suicide—none of those were options because they were all “temptations” to be deal with through prayer and reading the Bible. I didn’t touch drugs or alcohol or cigarettes because that would have been fleshly sin. Eating the wrong things or in the wrong way was sin, too. I stayed away from boys just in case my body betrayed my spirit and wanted more than hand-holding and innocent pecks on the cheek.
None of that stopped my body from wanting things, of course. I used to hide my Easter chocolate in my room and make it last for six months by eating just a tiny bit at a time. I would nibble, and then I would feel guilty—both for hiding and for eating. Chocolate was sinful for bodies like mine. I wasn’t disciplined enough.
I made sure I was covered, not out of modesty, but out of hiding. It functioned both ways, though, and I was safe from the bodily sin of “causing my brother to stumble” in lust. Not that I believed for even a moment that any boys were looking at me that way; I knew they all liked pretty girls with skinny waists and big boobs. Privately, I could barely admit to myself that I wanted someone to look at me that way.
My language was clean, at least on the outside. I pretended to be outraged once on a trip with some other Christian teens. A boy from another city said “shit.” I joined the others in telling him that wasn’t God’s best. Secretly, it gave me a thrill to hear such a word on the lips of the faithful. I wished I were that brave, but I felt ashamed for it.
I monitored my thoughts to make sure I wasn’t harboring resentment, anger, or lust. There was a boy I liked. I imagined what it would feel like to kiss him, maybe to have his hands on me. But I remembered that I wasn’t supposed to be thinking about that. I never asked him out because I was afraid both my body and my mind would betray me.
Alone at night, sometimes, I touched myself, all the time trying not to think about anything so I wouldn’t be guilty of lusting. Except the very act of giving myself pleasure seemed to fall into that category—not to mention the impossibility of keeping my mind blank, separate from my body. Orgasm and guilt became inextricably linked.
Everything was about overcoming the “desires of the flesh,” emptying myself of me so that I could be filled with the Holy Spirit. The more Spirit-filled I was, the closer to God. If I just let Jesus in far enough, he could make all the things my body—and my mind—wanted go away, replaced only by the desire to love and serve God in near-perfect holiness.
It didn’t work.
Instead, it left a gaping, dripping wound, a hole in the place where I should have been. I tried harder and harder to not sin, convinced I was broken somehow for not having the faith in God to keep me from doing the things a Good Girl doesn’t do. So I prayed harder, confessed more, and begged God to make me just not feel.
That did work. In the wrong way.
A door closed, locked, bolted. But instead of keeping my spirit safe from my own mind and body, it kept me from feeling much of anything for anyone else. And it didn’t stop my body or my mind from their natural inclinations; it only served to prove they needed to be separated.
I want to open that door again, but I think I’m afraid that what I unleash will be very much like Elsa in Frozen, setting off an eternal winter. That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but not much.
Slowly, slowly, I’m unfastening the chains. I let myself cry with someone from church who was feeling a deep, heavy hurt. I asked after several friends coping with fresh grief. It felt good to allow their pain in.
If only I could let mine out.