Life’s Moments Defined by God’s Grace
My Personal Story
Believing I could find beauty in my body regardless of my pant size or that dreaded number on the bathroom scale hadn’t occurred to me before. I had never thought life could be lived without trying to lose weight or manipulate my appearance in some way. I didn’t suppose I could really exist without labeling food as good or bad, or having a complete meltdown every time I had to wear a swimsuit. Is there honestly a woman out there who looks at herself in the mirror of a fitting room and doesn’t spend the rest of the week plotting and planning how she can change the image she saw looking back at her? If this woman really existed, I wasn’t-and never dreamt I could be-her. As far as I was concerned, neither my hereditary genes nor blue jeans would ever allow for me to engage in this kind of carefree lifestyle.
As a child, I loved food and I loved physical activity. My grandmother, who we loving referred to as “Tata Num,” or Grandma Food, was an amazing cook. From a very young age, she fed me hearty helpings of baked lamb, curried stew, grape leaves, stuffed squash, and flat breads spread with yogurt. I was a healthy eater. I ate when I was hungry, and I ran around outside with my sister and cousins when I had energy to burn. I enjoyed waving down the ice cream truck on a hot summer day, having cake at a birthday party, and biting into every piece of chocolate in the heart-shaped box on Valentine’s Day.
Food equaled love, family, good times, and warm feelings. Food brought the people I cared about together. It connected me to my heritage. It was something to savor and enjoy, but never something to fear. Had I been able to live in that happy food bubble longer, I’m sure my relationship with food and my body would have been a more positive one. Sadly, my younger years as a normal healthy eater, would soon be coming to an end.
It happened in our minivan one evening on the way to church, of all places. My mother, aunt, sister, and I were riding along, when the topic of weight arose. I had just started middle school, and my mom decided that it was time to talk to me about “watching my weight.” She was concerned that if I didn’t start paying attention to what I was eating, I was going to begin gaining weight like she did when she was my age. She explained that her mother had never taken the time to talk to her about managing her weight, and she wanted to warn me before it was too late. “This is the time in your life when your body will start to change,” she said, “and you have to watch it!”
While my mother’s heart may have been in the right place, her approach and timing were certainly not. I’m not even sure there is a time in a girl’s life when this kind of message is ever appropriate. Additionally, there wasn’t any sound advice offered as to how I should “watch my weight.” The example she was setting at home wasn’t one that matched her message. She was trying to keep me from experiencing the struggles she did at my age, but her concern ended with her abrupt warning.
Being a sensitive child, I was immediately impacted by my mother’s words and suggested a family weight loss contest to which everyone agreed. After a day or two, I discovered I was the only one competing. Still, my mother’s warning had stirred up a fear inside of me, so I kept going. Since that evening in the minivan, I have not lived a single day in which the way my body looks and feels or the food choices that I have made have not dictated or influenced my mood, my worth, and my outlook.
I began severely restricting food and exercising every day. I allowed myself a piece of toast for breakfast and a small handful of pretzels and an apple for lunch. Each day after school, I would complete 30-45 minutes of aerobics, followed by a Tamilee Web Abs of Steel video. I would wait until 6:30 p.m. to have dinner, which consisted of one scrambled egg, a small baked potato, and some white rice. I only ate certain amounts of food at certain times of the day, regardless of how hungry I felt. I even restricted water because it could cause bloating or add weight to the scale. I became terrified of social situations because they always included food and I didn’t want people questioning why I wasn’t eating.
Fat was now my enemy- or at least that is what the health books of the 1990’s that I had aggressively started reading told me. I lost over 20 pounds very quickly, and I was ecstatic about it! It felt amazing to step on the scale and see the numbers drop lower and lower each time. The ability to do something so many people struggled with was intoxicating. I started trading bodysuits (a.k.a the adult version of a onesie) with friends in the bathroom before school and wearing lipstick. I made the cheerleading squad and was noticed by the 8th grade boys. I felt popular and accepted by my peers for the first time ever. I even enrolled in a modeling school, and determined runways and photo shoots were definitely in my future.
One of the most damaging parts of this experience that has affected me most as an adult is the praise and encouragement I received from family members and respected adults in my life at that time. The family that had once been generously loading my plate with all that yummy Middle Eastern cuisine was now doting over my thinness and self-control. They were supportive in my choice not to eat red meat and had suggestions for lighter food options. I even remember a conversation with one family member who proposed that I try drinking some crazy powdered milk concoction that was supposed to help you lose weight. I was told how great it was that I was now exercising and trying to be “healthier.” The praise I received for being skinny in a family of fuller figures, made me feel special, powerful, and loved.
My victory tour started to hit some rough spots, however, when I stopped having periods. This was the first sign that something in my body wasn’t quite as happy with this sudden drop in weight as I was. When I tried to sleep at night, my knees knocked together and I felt achy. I was weak and irritated. I battled between my fear that I was taking this all too far and the twisted satisfaction I had found in being able to control and manipulate my body. I loved the attention, but the lack of calories was starting to make me moody. I would find myself lying on the floor in my bedroom in tears, too tired to do my homework, and falling apart under the pressure to maintain this sickly and unrealistic lifestyle.
I decided to tell my mom I wanted to see a doctor about the loss of my menstrual cycle. The pediatrician concluded that I was fine and prescribed some multivitamins. I knew this wasn’t true. Even if he had found no real physical illness, mentally and emotionally I was not well, and I was smart enough to know this. I tried reaching out to women at my church, but because I presented myself well and had a measure of maturity, no one seemed to understand the gravity of the situation or answer my desperate pleas for help. I was practicing many anorexic behaviors that I didn’t know how to stop, and no one seemed to get it. I was afraid of food, afraid of gaining weight, terrified of missing a workout, and I felt trapped. What I didn’t realize at the time was that the idea of maintaining a certain weight or continuing to see how low I could go on the scale had come to define beauty for me, and I would spend the rest of my life struggling to undo this harmful way of thinking.
If you have ever restricted food before for any period of time, you know that you are only able to maintain that lifestyle temporarily. No amount of will power or human determination will permit you to deprive your body forever. The extreme food restriction and demanding exercise routine of my middle school life lead to the out-of-control binge eating and power struggle that came to define my high school years. I have heard dieting defined as a self-prescribed way of eating that we believe will keep us safe. If existing on minimal amounts of food paired with working out every day had been my safety net, then it shouldn’t be hard to believe that when I started to binge, I started to come undone.
A friend of my stepdad’s from church owned a rib shack. I had never had a job before, but I started working at the rib shack one night a week. At the end of the night, any leftover food or orders that were not picked up were given to the employees to take home to their families. Around this time, my mom and stepdad were heading towards a divorce. The marital issues, among other things, had affected my mom’s desire to cook for some time. There was no real order in our home concerning meal time. Everyone pretty much fended for themselves. This is what had allowed me to get away with restricting food for so long. But the resolve that had sustained my previous behavior was fading in light of the fried fish dinners and pizza I was bringing home after work. And we all know too well that once you allow yourself to have that forbidden food you have not had in a very long time, you inevitably want more.
Lunchtime at school presented some problems for me, too. My high school was unique in the fact that we had open campus lunch. Our cafeteria was much to small too house the booming population of students, so we had the option to leave the school grounds during our lunch hour for pizza, subs, Taco Bell, or Burger King. This was very hard for me. I was still trying desperately to maintain control of my diet and had started exercising twice a day, but little by little, things were beginning to unravel. Freshmen year, I started, walking over to the Rite Aid pharmacy, where I would buy an individual bag of Wheat Thin crackers and a rice krispy treat because they were both low in fat, even if they had no nutritional value. The empty calories during the day coupled with the extra workouts started leading to the inevitable bingeing at night.
It would start with allowing myself a piece of that fried fish from the rib shack I loved and hated so much. Next, I would eat some fries and maybe the coleslaw. And then, since I had already messed up and the door had been opened, I would eat a couple of pop tarts, and then some chips, and a few cookies, and on and on until I was physically sick. These bouts of bingeing only got worse. It was as if some other being was possessing my body, and I couldn’t stop eating no matter how badly I wanted to. Every binge sent me to my room, tears streaming down my face, my heart full of shame and horror.
Why was I doing this to myself? What was wrong with me? I would ask myself these questions while stepping on the scale, then lie in my bed holding my upset belly. I hated myself. I didn’t want to live this way. I would pray and cry and yell out to God, begging him to help me or take me. I wanted to be thin, but more than that, I wanted to be back in control. Some nights my anxiety was so gripping, I would write suicide notes to my mom telling her why I couldn’t be here anymore. I would sob over those letters. I hurt so badly. You see, I had become so consumed with how I looked that nothing else in the world mattered. My worth was so intertwined with how much I weighed and what my thighs looked like, that my good grades, my musical talent, my friendships, and my insides meant nothing to me, if I couldn’t be skinny.
By my junior year of high school, I had gained back all the weight I had lost, plus an additional 30 pounds. I was losing the battle with bingeing, and I was so tired of the whole scene.I had come to a place of just wanting to feel normal around food and in social situations, but I didn’t know how. I was floundering and searching. I was angry and I was a teenager.
Somewhere between the end of senior year festivities and preparing to go away to college, I started dropping some of the weight I had gained. It wasn’t because of anything I was doing necessarily, nothing I tried had been working for me anymore, life just got really busy and I had a little less time to obsess. Still, I was concerned about eating in a cafeteria every day and finding a place to exercise, now that I would be living in a dorm on campus. It turned out I didn’t need to be. Maybe it was because I met a boy, but within no time after going away to college, I was thinner than I had ever been in high school. It was so strange to me because I was going on dates, eating all kinds of foods I had labeled as definite no- no’s, and I had somehow arrived at this thin, but comfortable and natural-feeling weight. The trouble was, once again, people were noticing me because of my appearance. I was a Middle Eastern girl with olive skin, curly brown hair, dark eyes, and lots of style attending a small town school. I stood out. My looks attracted attention. I liked it. It felt good to be back in this place, but it further reinforced the lie that my value and my uniqueness were based on what I looked like.
By the way, in case you were wondering, I ended up marrying that boy:)
Yes I did, and life has rolled on. I am now an adult whose body has given birth, aged, and suffered some physical ailments. I have had good days and bad days; good years and bad years. Looking back at any picture of myself, I can tell you exactly how much I weighed and how I felt about my body. I can tell you if I was exercising or not and what crazy new plan I had for losing weight.
BUT I can also tell you I am thankful for all the ashes. I am thankful for all the pain. By God’s grace, He is allowing me to use my story for His glory and help women who have suffered right alongside me and who will come after me. God is healing me. I am learning to love and appreciate what my body does for me and what it allows me to do. I am learning to find value in the woman God created me to be , not just in the way He formed my body. I am able to think less about losing weight and more about what matters in light of eternity. I am finding freedom: Freedom to look at my belly and not come unhinged that it is not completely flat; freedom to let Christ rewrite my story and redirect my thoughts. I am rebuilding my relationship with food, with exercise, and with myself.
Sister, my motivation for blogging and sharing my story is that you, too, will find freedom for your soul and on your scale through Christ. You don’t have to be more and do more and try harder. You are His daughter and there is so much beauty in who He created you to be, inside and out. You are here for His glory, not your own. Let Christ within you shine brighter than the glow of sweat leftover from a workout. Let lunch with a friend be more about loving her than the number of calories in your sandwich. Let time at the pool be about creating memories with your child, and not what you look like in your swimsuit. This is what I am fighting for every day. These are the choices where ash and brokenness become moments defined by God’s grace and marked by His beauty.
I like to call them Beauty Marks…