When the first line of this story swooped out of the sky at the running track and imbedded itself in my brain, my first reaction was NO. Out of all the personal topics I explore in my writing, body image is the hardest. It’s like an elephant with a nervous disorder standing in my kitchen; true, I would be unwise to ignore such a thing, but one wrong step or unmodulated noise on my part could trigger a rampage. Tiptoeing in wide arcs around the issue feels much safer. No risk of stirring up shame-based emotions.
That’s why I *had* to write about it in the end—because shame doesn’t get to call the shots anymore. I am participating in my own redemption story, and this is one chapter of it:
[Ed: Now that Deeper Story has closed its doors, the post is here in its entirety:]
No one told me that running a marathon would turn me into a Renaissance painting. Sure, I’d had a hopeful inkling or two that all those months of training runs would leave me with a model’s physique, but I’d been thinking more Bündchen and less Botticelli, if you know what I mean. I’d taken it for granted that turning in my couch potato card for a marathon medal would result in a slimmer, svelter me, preferably one with Gwen Stefani abs.
Well, based on my experience, here’s an entirely subjective rundown on how the human metabolic system works: If you don’t exercise, your body won’t burn enough calories and your waistline will resemble a popular baked good. If you do exercise, your body will try to store as many calories as possible in anticipation and your waistline will expand in much the same vein as the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. If you attempt to diet your way back to normalcy, your body will clutch every spare carbohydrate to itself (in the waistline region, of course) and defend its extra fluff to the death. And if you think you can use reverse psychology on it, put that plate of snickerdoodles down right now because it won’t work. Your friendly neighborhood muffin top is here to play. Forever, and ever, and ever…
I’m exaggerating, of course. Hyperbole is one of my great loves in life and pretty much the most fun you can have lamenting minor suckitudes. The honest truth though, the one that I’m plastering over with jokes and Ghostbusters references, is that within two months of running a marathon last fall, I had to buy new jeans. I couldn’t squeeze, shimmy, or pray myself into my old ones anymore… and if you think that prayer in this context is irreverent, then you haven’t stepped on a scale one morning and seen a number fifteen higher than the last time you’d checked. You haven’t found yourself inhabiting a body that feels as foreign to you as thrift-store coveralls. You haven’t seized a handful of your own flesh and presented it to God through tear-stung eyes as proof that fearful and wonderful no longer apply to you. Maybe just fearful, though “ashamed” would be the more accurate term.
I have spent the whole of this year in a body that feels like a mistake, something I should be able to backspace away. I have worn my new jeans as an act of spite. I have stocked my fridge with bitterness, resenting the daily recurrence of hunger, hating the familiar joy of ripe watermelon or fresh bread on my tongue. I have put on baggy workout clothes and run with a heaviness not fully attributable to extra pounds. I have hidden.
This isn’t easy for me to write. Exposing a source of shame never is. Shame thrives in the dark though, in the un-telling. It coaxes us into cellblocks of secrecy and grows in power the longer we let it hold the keys. I’ve let it hold many keys for me throughout my life, so I know what it is to cower against the lie of my own unworthiness, but I also know what it is to take back a key and let myself out into the light. It’s participating in my own redemption story.
I read An Altar in the World for the first time this summer and felt my breath log-jamming in my throat when I read Barbara Brown Taylor’s take on the spiritual practice of wearing skin:
“This [loathing and hiding from yourself] can only go on so long, especially for someone who officially believes that God loves flesh and blood, no matter what kind of shape it is in. Whether you are sick or well, lovely or irregular, there comes a time when it is vitally important for your spiritual health to drop your clothes, look in the mirror, and say, ‘Here I am. This is the body-like-no-other that my life has shaped. I live here. This is my soul’s address.’”
Do I believe that God loves flesh and blood? I truly hadn’t considered the possibility before. Actually, I’d always been under the impression that flesh and blood were necessary evils in the divine scheme of things, our bodies meant as vessels for reproduction and mortification (in multiple senses of the word) and little else. I’d certainly never thought of a curve of skin as something holy. That God might treasure the freckle constellations on my arms, the set of my truth-telling hips, the fault lines of pregnancies past, the traces of age spots to come? It’s a notion at once sacrilegious and stunning to me.
That’s exactly how it must have felt, I realize, to the long-ago woman who had been hemorrhaging for so long that her gynecological plight had become public record. By Jewish law, any person or even object she had touched over the previous twelve years had been rendered impure by association. Her body was socially toxic. When she snuck out to touch Jesus’s hem, desperately hopeful rebel that she was, and he not only healed but also affirmed and blessed her body, how sacrilegious must the encounter have seemed? And how beautifully, preposterously sacred? How must it have felt to learn for the first time in her shame-seeped life that God cherished her body as well as her soul?
Not too different from how I’m starting to feel, I expect.
The understanding that my body is loved by God is like a sun-shadow on the back of my eyelids that holds still until the instant I notice it and then flits toward my periphery. I primarily notice it in my reading, when Rumi writes to the “soul of my flesh” or Paul calls the body “a sacred place” or Ann Voskamp points out “Your skin is the outer layer of your soul,” and I glimpse the connection for a dappled instant. Every now and then though, I feel it in my body itself—a sudden physical inclination toward reverence, an impression fluttering across the surface of my skin that what I have here was never meant to be despised. In those moments, I can feel the thread count of Jesus’s hem.
I’ve debated with myself about whether or not I should scrap the earlier joke about turning into a Renaissance painting; the last thing I want is for my story to cause offense or hurt. I ended up keeping it though because it’s more apt an analogy than I gave it credit for at first. Botticelli and Tintoretto and Raphael and Michelangelo, like all gifted artists, kept their souls tuned to the frequency of beauty. Their sensitivity to it and ability to transmit it to others are why, five centuries later, we find ourselves vibrating at the same frequency when we stand before one of their paintings. We see the human form as they did, in all its vulnerability and power, its peculiarity and mystique. We see rolls of flesh celebrated in perfect brushstrokes. We see the contours of our own soul’s address right there on the canvas, and we call it what it is, what it’s been from the moment our Artist-God breathed life into clay: