Did you know this week is National Eating Disorder Awareness Week? Neither did I. To be honest, it’s never something that is on my radar. I care about cancer. I care about depression and suicide. I care about victims of rape and sex trafficking. I care about orphans. But, if I’m being honest, I don’t often take the time to care about eating disorders.
I’ve been thinking about why that might be. I think a part of it is that eating disorders make me uncomfortable in general. It’s one of those “secret sicknesses” that everyone inevitably ends up knowing about and ignoring when we see it in our friends. You’ve probably been there before. I know I have. You’re eating dinner at a friend’s house, helping yourself to a second helping of garlicky pasta. Your friend excuses herself to use the upstairs bathroom and leaves the water running for five whole minutes while the rest of you continue eating and talking at the table, avoiding the exchange of glances and dipping your bread in the sauce. It’s an elephant in the room. One of those moments where everyone knows but no one does anything.
I guess I never know what to say. Why? Why are you doing this? When did it start? How does it make you feel?
These are questions that imply answers. I’ve found answers hard to come by when having open, raw conversations with my friends struggling with bulimia or anorexia or binge eating. They don’t know why they do it. They can’t remember when it started. And by now, they might not feel anything at all. Numbed by shame, or maybe empty from guilt. I always leave those conversations feeling as awful and gutted-out as my friend must feel, unable to stop, incapable to help.
On weeks like this one, I’m tempted to continue to ignore the subject of eating disorders. I can’t remember a time when I ever intentionally skipped a meal. I’ve never stuck a finger down my throat. I don’t have these stories and these scars like so many of my close friends.
But, as a woman, I know how it feels to view eating as a crime. Instead of starving myself, I overeat. On days when I’m stressed or bored or lonely or tired, I grab chocolate or heat up spaghetti or buy a Poptart from the gas station vending machine. And I eat. Boy, do I eat. Seconds, sometimes thirds. I eat until I’m more than full. Until my stomach, which I’ve heard is the size of a fist, is the size of a quarterback’s head. And I may not puke in a bathroom stall, but I do something just as bad. I hate myself.
Ask any woman, whether she has a history of a diagnosed eating disorder or not, if she’s ever hated herself after eating a large meal, and she’ll undoubtedly tell you yes. Ask her if she’s ever looked in the mirror and seen nothing but overspilling skin and tree-trunk thighs, and she’ll say of course. Ask any woman, whether she’s thirteen or twenty-seven, or fifty-six, if she’s ever slapped labels like “hog” and “fatty” and “heifer” on herself and worn them like well-deserved Girl Scout Badges. You know the answer as well as I do. Yes.
It’s a terrible form of self-mutilation. We may pride ourselves in the fact that we’ve never gone twenty-four hours on nothing but Saltines. We may feel sorry for our sisters and cousins and bio lab partners who lock themselves in bathrooms after meals and run the water to hide the noise. But how do we approach the topic of food? Is it something we’re self-conscious and apologetic about? “I can’t. I ate three chocolate chip cookies last night. I’m going to blow up like a Goodyear blimp.”
I’m beyond convicted of my own unhealthy approach to food. For years, I’ve yo-yoed on a never-ending series of diets, binge eating periods, more diets, and more binging. I’m sure it confuses my friends. One week I’m ordering a Cookout burger with onion rings and a milkshake on the side. The next week I’m nibbling at a bag of nuts and claiming I’m not hungry. The taste of corndogs is like ashes in my mouth. I swear.
Why do we do this to ourselves? There’s no consistency, so there’s no pacification. I can eat nothing but salads and eggs for a week, then a few Five Guys burgers, a Chickfila milkshake, and a box of Kraft mac and cheese later I’m ready to write hate sonnets dedicated to my own disgusting body. All I want to do is eat, and all I feel after eating is sorry. Sorry I ordered fried chicken when I could have ordered soup. Sorry I ate my cousin’s fries after my own onion rings. Sorry I made those cookies. Sorry, sorry, sorry.
Lately, though, the Lord has completely regenerated my heart attitude toward food. For the past few months, I have been making a healthy conscious to eat in a way that will nourish and not confuse my body. I’m realizing that food is a good, good thing. That eating food can be a joy, and not a crime. When I stop hating myself, when I stop jumping back and forth between crazy diets and junk food, when I stop denying myself any sweet and rich pleasures… I learn to love to eat.
Shauna Niequist said, “Maybe it matters because even though so much of modern life and theology insists that what matters is my mind, my soul, my inner self, my heart, there is still this nagging part of me that knows on some deep level that the things we touch and hear and taste are spiritual too…”
How often I need to remind myself of this. My body is spiritual, too. The things I put in my mouth, the things I hold with my hands, the things I press on my tongue… These are all vehicles of worship. They are opportunities to rejoice, to feel joy, to express emotion. When I stuff my body full of food and then prick my stomach and thighs and hips with steely thoughts of contention, I’m ripping down the veil of the temple. I’m destroying what God has made as beautiful. I’m polluting my worship for Him.
There is a way to eat to the glory of God. Did you know that? I don’t think I ever knew did, and some days I still wonder if I fully understand what that means. How is there a way to shop and prepare and cut and slice and grind and bake and flavor and eat with joy? How can I take these foods and let them enter my body with an attitude of “It is good?” How can I silence the serpent in my ear telling me that it’s not good, that I’m not what He’s said I am, that the fruit of sin is better than the food I have been given?
This is something I’m still struggling through. It’s hard on the days when I want sugar cookies and I choose to eat peanut butter. It’s annoying on the days when I want more fries and I choose to make egg salad. Even harder on the days when I’m surrounded by friends and I choose to relax and eat a hamburger. When I choose to believe that it’s okay. That my body is still sacred. That the mornings involving avocados are beautiful and the afternoons involving corndogs are sacred.
I’m learning that God is glorified when I eat in a way that brings me joy. For me, I’m finding that means being healthy. Choosing to love my body. Desiring to mix spices and add color and relish every crunch and gulp and flavor. But it also means loving myself when I do eat a hamburger. Being okay with the way my stomach sticks out after a bowl of curry. Celebrating a birthday with cake and cold icecream, because choosing to indulge means choosing joy. And joy comes without a price tag of loathing.
I still don’t know what to say to my friends and loved ones struggling with debilitating eating disorders. I ache, I cry, I struggle with you. I encourage you to look for the help you need and believe that you are worth the sacrifices others will make to be there for you. I’m here for you too.
But don’t think that just because your attitude to food can’t be summarized in a clinical term beginning with an “a” or “b” that you are worshiping God with your body. To truly radiate God’s glory in every area of our lives, we have to learn to love this form of worship called eating. We have to embrace the daily sacrifice and joy that comes in sitting at a table, spreading out an offering, and relishing the produce He has provided. Whether it’s spinach. Whether it’s pizza. When we eat with glad, thankful hearts, we affirm to God: “This is good. You are so, so good to us.”
P.S. If you want more information on National Eating Disorder Awareness Week and how you can find help or help others, check out their website here!