In Zadar, Croatia there is a thousand year old church that sits crumbling on the edge of the Adriatic sea. Embedded in its foundation are countless broken artifacts, alters, and columns from the pagan temple that once stood in its place. It was only a few meters from this church where I swam in open water for the first time. There, the intersection of city and sea are mediated by an aging sea wall with stone steps that sink into the turquoise water of the Adriatic. As I descended these steps, I felt the rush and swell of open water and my own heart leaping into my throat as I slipped from the lowest step into the embrace of the sea.
Days later I returned home to Seattle, where brooding grey replaced brilliant blue and that church with its foundation of ruins receded to memory. And yet, in this season of #metoo, of marginalized voices breaking through, and of watching the church teeter precariously between closing ranks and unfurling into the heavy work of lament, I think often of the church built on ruins and the sea that embraced me when I took a deep breath and chose to do the thing I feared: exist in my body.
For my body, descending the steps in my bathing suit on the seawall packed with rowdy young European tourists felt far riskier than swimming alone in open water: I am a fat woman. No stranger to catcalling’s weight-shaming counterpart: “fatcalling,” existing in my body comes with a cost, and overt experiences of body shame remind me of what often remains unspoken. For my body, freedom costs. I spent three days in that city before deciding I was willing to pay the price.
I am grateful to be a part of a community that has challenged me to enter conversations around the areas where I am privileged. I am being trained to consider race, culture, sexual orientation, gender identity, and socioeconomic status in every professional conversation I engage. Growing competency to engage these issues with integrity is absolutely critical to dismantling individual and systemic oppression- but my body asks: we will say we are done, there? Or will we enter the difficult work of examining our dis-ease about bodies in order to make space for diverse bodies, like mine? Will we stop and notice how thin- ideals are so internalized that privilege could permit many of us to live a lifetime without considering how they inform how we engage with persons who have bodies very different from our own?
For most of my life I believed the message coming at me from all directions that said that my body size was something with a moral value: bad. I believed, as stigma dictated, my body was evidence of a lack of willpower. I did not know that studies that look at the long-term effects of diets show that nearly all bodies return to their beginning weight or heavier after a diet, and that weight-cycling is shown to do more harm to bodies than living a healthy lifestyle at a higher weight. Some of the voices that have spoken harm over my body actually may have told themselves they were motivating me towards a “healthy change”, but what experts now know is that experiences of stigma and body shame actually result in poorer mental health, increased binge eating, decreased use of health care services, and actually tend to increase weight gain over time. Unfortunately, weight based stigma is embedded in our culture, fortified by a $66 billion dollar diet industry, and is intensifying rapidly as this socially-acceptable form of discrimination has more than doubled in recent years. (Click here for sources)
The problem with all of this for those of us who follow Christ, as theologian Marcia Mount Shoop reminds us in her book, Let the Bones Dance, is that we can’t thrive as a church body when any one person’s body is excluded or distanced.
“We may unconsciously reject those who are outside the range of our comfort zones even when we believe ourselves to be hospitable to difference. […] When someone intersects us who embodies the jarring truth that there is contradiction, complexity, and ambiguity in human embodied existence, we fear the chaos they may bring with them. Fear wounds us as the body of Christ. It trivializes who we are and how the future becomes.”
So how do we replace stigma with embrace in our homes, communities, and churches? Our task is first to enter the difficult work of holding our own dis-ease about bodies and the insecurities large bodies might provoke within us. This is complex work that is unique to each individual, but often stigma is a way that we set ourselves apart from that which we fear that we are or might become. In a culture where thin is ideal and obese is understood to indicate a weakness of will, what might we gain through socially-normalized marginalization of large bodies?
How would Christ engage in a world in which a world in which the line between the Samaritan and the Jew was thinly veiled and a line that people moved across often and unwillingly?
I believe Christ would affirm that all bodies are good bodies; I believe that Christ would be in the counter-cultural words a friend texted me as I sat in my hotel room quietly working up the courage to swim: reminding me that my body deserved the richness of life as much as any other body.
There are structures in our cultural and faith heritage that are crumbling, and, like the church built on ruins, we are charged to use these ruins to create something new. We are invited, in this creating, to join with God through expanding our capacity to hold diverse voices and experiences. As for me, I’m experimenting with a new way of being an embodied person as I honor the rolls and contours I’d never have chosen for myself by giving this body, in all it’s largeness, permission to exist, to thrive, and to adventure to far off places and defy watching eyes by stepping out into turquoise blue seas.
Lindsay is a Kansas native transplanted to Seattle. When not making friends with every dog she meets or exploring the Pacific Northwest via ferry, Lindsay can be found doodling her way through graduate school at The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology. More of Lindsay’s writing (and doodles) can be found here.
Oh my gosh,
I am so with you on this topic. When are we going to FINALLY get to the point where we say and commit to ‘everybody or every body deserves respect’.
A 1 year old needs to be treated with respect, a 90 year old needs to be treated with respect. Black or white,
Male or female, thin or fat, mentally challenged or depressed, homeless or ceo, gay or straight, Christian or Muslim, and everything in between.
When will we begin to really see through the exterior into the hearts and souled if our humanness? We are all the same…we all have the same organs and physical needs, same spiritual needs, emotional needs.
We have to start seeing past the external and respect the human within each of us.
All of us matter, one by one we need to start respecting the human in front of us.
Thanks for reminding us of this in a time that our fear is creating an even larger separation as we pull apart the ways we are unique, when we need to look at how we are the same. And have the same desire to give and receive respect from each other.
Thanks for your comments, Julie- I’m glad so much resonated. Truly we all have so much to learn from each other.
Lindsay. Lindsay! This is an exquisite outpouring. How generous of you to bring us your beautiful body as well as your depth of intellect and precision of your pen. Please keep writing.
Jan! Thank you for reading and for your lovely feedback on my words and my heart. Your encouragement means much.
Oh, Lindsay! What Jan said ^^^ Your generosity is life-giving.
Also, as a believer in the Church who doesn’t quite fit the status quo; this quote hits me squarely in the gut (!) “When someone intersects us who embodies the jarring truth that there is contradiction, complexity, and ambiguity in human embodied existence, we fear the chaos they may bring with them. Fear wounds us as the body of Christ. It trivializes who we are and how the future becomes.”
Body image issues aside, I often bring jarring truth; chaos. And I know the wounds of a fearing church too closely.
You give me so much hope, Linds….you really do. Keep on this path you’re bravely forging…for our sake and to the Glory of God.
Thank you for bringing your voice and speaking your truth even when it has a cost for you.
You challenge me on several levels. As an adoptive mom of big boys, just like their bio family, I am beginning to field the comments. I took on one doctor who combined contempt with his authority. To be silent would be to be complicit. It’s not ok. And the messages matter. Thank you.
Thank YOU, simply to be aware and able to speak to your boys so they know there is complexity about their body- not simply one narrative of “badness”- will be a gift to them. If you’d like connected with resources let me know. You have such an opportunity to make not only an impact on their hearts with your parenting but also on their bodies- helping them learn that even big bodies have the right to trust their bodies.
Lindsay, this beautiful writing speaks to so many quiet (even acceptable and celebrated) prejudices. Thank you for the comfort it offers my struggling heart today and for the beauty of your heart, life and body it reveals. Christine
Thank you for reading this and allowing it to bring comfort.
This is brilliant. Thanks for sharing this truth with us and for being so generous with your story. Loved meeting you last year at Brave On. Your drawings are gorgeous, and so is your writing! Thanks for sharing your beauty with us in this space. I hope you write more here in the future!