“I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” Psalms 139:14
In the 1980s, leg warmers were the fashion rage. The JC Penney Fall/Winter catalog featured 5’10” models wearing knitted leg warmers over their jeans with suede ankle boots. Often, the patterns or colors would coordinate with the slightly oversize sweater the model was wearing. Like all middle-school students, I desperately wanted to fit in, so I bought a pair of leg warmers. Leg warmers came one size fits all meaning that they were a good fit for the general population. But I was not the general population, so it was a bit challenging to fit them over my plus size jeans. After getting them on, I tried to scrunch them down to make them look casually slumpy, trying to recreate the look the mannequins wore in the stores. Feeling stylish, I headed over to my grandmother’s house. This feeling lasted only for a few hours when a great aunt broke out of her conversation and looked at me saying, “You are too fat for leg warmers!” She continued with her conversation, while I sat mortified, feeling like a fashion misfit.
After thirty-five years, I cannot tell you how many times I have tried something on and found myself still echoing her words, “You are too fat for this!” Worse yet, I thought I was protecting my daughter by pointing out a hairstyle that I deemed as less than flattering, hoping she would avoid someone else’s unwanted criticism. Little did I realize that my words would be even more harmful, causing her shame, leading me to apologize for the pain I caused her.
For the past few weeks, I have been listening to Jess Connolly talk about her book, “Breaking Free from Body Shame” on several different podcasts. I have not yet read the book, but her interviews have challenged me in so many ways. She broke free from body shame by implementing some strategies she shares in the book. One of these strategies involves eliminating negative criticism of herself and of others. For example, she no longer looks at pictures of herself and says to friends, “Please delete that picture, it makes me look bad.” She also gently speaks truth to her friends when they are being harsh about themselves by saying, “Please don’t say that about my friend, I love her!”.
This is not a feel-good positivity message Jess Connolly is trying to peddle. Instead, it is rooted in the principle that we are made in God’s image and that what He made is very good, including our bodies. Too often, we live in a place where we are dissatisfied with how we look, and these feelings capture our attention, energy, and imagination. We live in a place where we feel “less than.” We determine our self-worth by how we look in the mirror, or whether the latest fashion flatters us. We insist on being the one taking the pictures in order not to be captured by the camera in ways we deem as unflattering. And if we do take pictures, we use filters to soften wrinkles, take off pounds, and make us look better. Connolly is working to change her internal messages so that she can accept being fully known and loved by God. This place of acceptance creates space for her to grow, bless others and be confident in what God has called her to do.
I frequently struggle with this sense of shame in my own body. I have lost a significant amount of weight, but I look at the hanging skin on my arms and feel “less than”, looking for sleeves that are three-quarter length to cover up my shame. I look at the BMI chart and still find myself in the obesity category, even though I am the most fit I have ever been in my life. I see the effects of long-term obesity as flashing red lights warning me that I will never be enough. I hear my friends echoing the same issues with their own bodies as well, no matter their size or shape.
This August, I am challenging myself to consciously work on finding my worth in God; not in the tightness of my skin, not in the BMI charts, and not in the scale that I step on every few days. I am going to work on reframing my negative body messages by first paying attention to what I am internally saying. When it is negative, I am going to remind myself what God thinks, replacing my messages with the truth found in His word. I will still choose to eat healthy and exercise regularly because it is what my body needs to perform optimally the way God intended. But I am going to show myself some grace. I am going to put away my scale for the month because my health is not found in the numbers on the scale. I am going to look at the skin on my arms and remind myself that hanging skin is evidence of God helping me conquer some strongholds in my life!
Recently, I wrote about what a life free from body shame and food fixation would look like for me. I wrote that the amount of mental energy I spend feeling ashamed and focused on food could be spent being creative with the gifts God has given me. I could walk into rooms feeling confident in God, not feeling “less than”. This confidence could be a witness to others, giving testimony to God’s unconditional love for us. By no means, do I think that one month will erase decades of body shame…but I must start somewhere!