Pursuing Health in an Anxious Age by Bob Cutillo, Free for CAPC Members
Dr. Cutillo seeks to engage readers in rethinking, and re-engaging, health and care from a redemptive approach.
[su_note note_color=”#d5d5d5″ text_color=”#91201f”]The following is a reprint from Volume 4, Issue 5 of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine: “Body Wars.” You can subscribe to Christ and Pop Culture Magazine by becoming a member and you’ll receive a host of other benefits as well.[/su_note]
After presenting the elements, our pastor speaks the words I need to hear:
“This is my body, broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
“This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
We all shuffle toward the front of the sanctuary, forming semblances of lines. When it’s my turn, I tear off a bit of the bread and I dip it into the cup of wine. (Because this is how we do it, once each month, after worshiping together and hearing God’s Word preached.)
I taste the sweet red wine and the soft, earthy bread. I chew. I swallow. I do this remembrance of Him.
Every Wednesday before our 5 p.m. class and subsequent rehearsals, after we’ve changed into our leotards and tights and molded our hair into buns (no bangs allowed), we form a line at the doctor’s scale for our weekly weigh-in. Mr. Steffy, our company director, or the dance instructor, Ms. Hume, oversee the process. After removing any extraneous sweat pants and leg warmers and sweaters, we each step onto the shifty scale platform and await our results. They slide the balance bars to the right and settle them into the grooves until both sides of the apparatus are level and balanced. They record the numbers in a ledger book in order to keep track of fluctuations. Then we go into the studio—where floor-to-ceiling mirrors cover most of the walls—and we find our places at the barre and wait for class to begin.
I’m in a semi-professional classical ballet company, and this is normal for us. This is part of the deal—my adolescent body is the medium for my art, so it makes sense to me for Mr. Steffy and Ms. Hume to have some say in the matter. Some of my dance friends are told to lose weight. They struggle and agonize over the weigh-ins. They do multiple iterations—usually leading up to our performances—of the “orange juice diet” which involves drinking only orange juice and water throughout the day and having a plain baked potato and steamed green vegetables for dinner.
I’ve never done the orange juice diet, but around 7th or 8th grade, I do slip into occasional cycles of dieting and restricting food, which results in bingeing, which results in fasting for a day or two to “balance everything out.” My binges are an outlet for emotions that I don’t know how to process or express. The rhythm of the crunching and chewing and swallowing calms me and distracts me. And I like feeling full. I like taking in more and more, until I can’t eat another bite. I also like the emptiness of fasting for a couple of days. I feel like I’m in control. Avoiding food is my penance. The lightheadedness and hunger are physically uncomfortable yet emotionally gratifying reminders that I need to pay for my lack of self-restraint.
During the summer before my junior year in high school, I take a break from dancing because of tendinitis in my left foot. Instead of going to the Boston Ballet’s intensive six-week program that I’ve been accepted into, I spend June through August driving the beverage cart on a golf course at a country club. I gain about 15 pounds thanks to not exercising or dancing for the first time since I was 3 years old. The weight gain is also due to emotional eating because I’m not exercising or dancing for the first time since I was 3 years old. When working, I eat the delicious chicken salad sandwiches on croissants at the small restaurant by the pool. I eat bowls of gumbo in the kitchen of the main clubhouse restaurant. I eat Butterfingers and packs of Lay’s potato chips in-between loops around the golf course. I drink cans of Gatorade to prevent dehydration and to temper the effects of the southern heat.
I lose the extra weight quickly that fall after getting back into the studio and paying more attention to what I’m eating. I’m 16 years old, and thin is my default. Having a large Red Delicious apple with a glass of skim milk for breakfast, a turkey sandwich with mustard on whole wheat bread and more fruit for lunch, and a small portion of whatever was available at home for dinner—along with dancing about 14 hours each week—does the trick. Within a couple of months I’m down to my former weight.
On the morning of January 2 of this year, I wake up on my own at 5:30 a.m., go to the bathroom, and then go to weigh myself. Because I do this every morning, I’m able to navigate the path from my side of the bed to the bathroom, back through the bedroom, and into the adjoining office where our walk-in closet is located without making any substantial noise that would wake my husband. I’m like a mouse in a maze of my own making.
I pull off my charcoal nightgown, drape it over the back of the office desk chair, and proceed to the digital scale in the closet. In the second or so it takes for the number to appear—the number that would determine my mood for a few minutes (and sometimes for a few hours and sometimes for the whole day)—I think through whether it would be up or down. I guess up because of water weight from the bacon-wrapped, goat cheese-stuffed dates I ate and the two glasses of Prosecco I drank the night before. I’m right. My weight is up two pounds since the previous morning. And I hit a milestone. I have officially gained 50 pounds since I first entered recovery for my eating disorder a year and a half ago, when I finally realized my pattern of restricting, bingeing, and fasting (which continued throughout high school and college and worsened as an adult) was not healthy. I step off the cold, glass-topped scale, pull my nightgown back on, and return to my bedroom. I grab my phone off of the desk next to my side of the bed and enter the number into my weight tracking app. I click on the icon to view the line graph of the data and see the line continue its upward slant with this most recent point plotted. I picture that line climbing even further toward the top right corner of the screen of my phone like a sentence without a period. What if this is my reality? What if I keep gaining weight? What if my efforts to control my body continue to fail?
I’m not 16 years old anymore. At 40, I’m in a much different place. I’ve had two children, two significant weight gains because of large doses of medications I needed for two different bipolar manic episodes (if anyone ever tries to prescribe you Zyprexa, run away as fast as you can), an emergency hysterectomy at the age of 32 (Hello, early menopause!), and decades of off-and-on cycles of dieting, bingeing, and fasting. I was able to lose weight within a reasonable amount of time after my pregnancies and the major manic and depressive episodes. But these days, losing weight is more difficult. My age, my lack of hormones, the side-effects from medications I take to control my bipolar disorder, and the impact of years of not caring well for my body are all adding up to a picture I’m not prepared to claim as my own. I still want to cling to the photo of me from two years ago where I’m wearing my favorite jeans. If I were to dig those jeans out of the storage bins housing my “skinny clothes,” I probably wouldn’t be able to get them up past my knees. Now, my radar for cameras is on high alert. When I sense someone making a move to snap a photo in my vicinity, I disappear as fast as a dozen Krispy Kreme doughnuts in an office break room.
When I was 39, I started meeting with a nutritionist and therapist who specialize in eating disorders and body image issues. I stopped fasting after my binges because they told me that was the first step for my recovery. I continued to binge without restricting afterward for several months. Eventually, more and more time lapsed in between each episode, which is also part of the typical recovery process. Even though I can’t remember the last time I binged, my weight continues to climb steadily. In some ways I’m healthier than I was 50-plus pounds ago. I’m learning to see food as a source for energy and nourishment instead of using it to numb out or avoid my emotions. I no longer consider some foods good and some foods bad—food is food. I know that my worth isn’t determined by what I put in my mouth. But I still struggle with my worth being determined by my size.
As much as I try to correct my thinking, in my mind thin is good and fat is bad. I’m overweight, and I’m fearful of becoming obese. I hate the way my body looks, so I avoid my full-length mirror. I’m not comfortable taking up more space. I’m insecure about being intimate with my husband. And I’m always aware of when I’m the largest woman in a room.
I was completely unprepared for this weight gain. I thought recovering from my eating disorder would result in a weight loss. I was wrong. According to medical guidelines, I’m no longer in the normal weight range or normal BMI range for my height. And the voices in my head tell me I am the number on my scale.
The messages our culture and media communicate to me are just as loud. According to cultural preferences, I’m way off the mark. Thin is beautiful. Fat is ugly. Thin equals success. Fat equals failure. The thin women usually get the guys and the happy endings. (So the super-thin actors usually get the roles for the thin women who get the guys and the happy endings.) There are some exceptions. Lena Dunham, Mindy Kaling, Tina Fey, and Amy Poehler. And Melissa McCarthy and Rebel Wilson. According to their writing and acting and interviews, they don’t seem concerned and obsessed with body image issues. They don’t seem to expect every female to fit into a size 0 dress on the red carpet (where a size 6 is considered plus-size).
At this point in my life, I long to be able to echo Melissa McCarthy’s views of herself. In a New York Observer review of the film Identity Thief, Rex Reed called McCarthy “tractor-sized” and “a gimmick comedian who has devoted her short career to being obese and obnoxious with equal success.” In a New York Times article from June 13, 2013, she responded to Reed’s comments—with a confidence I don’t think I’ve ever possessed—saying, “I felt really bad for someone who is swimming in so much hate. I just thought, that’s someone who’s in a really bad spot, and I am in such a happy spot. I laugh my head off every day with my husband and my kids who are mooning me and singing me songs.”
This line of thinking contradicts what Oprah Winfrey says in her new Weight Watchers commercial: “Inside every overweight woman is a woman she knows she can be.” This disconnect got my attention when I first saw the commercial on YouTube. I don’t think there’s a different, better version of myself buried beneath my fat who’s waiting to escape and live a prefect life. My true self is my true self. I do believe I would be happier if I were thinner, though. But, when I was 50 pounds lighter, I also thought I would be happier if I were thinner. Will I ever be thin enough?
Around the time when I was wearing my first pair of pink tights and my first black leotard, I was playing with my first Barbie dolls. When I think of the toys I had from the age of 3 through the age of 9, I think of my Barbies. There was no reason to have anything else because I spent most of my time on the floor with the vintage Barbies my aunt handed down to me and the newer Barbies that I received as birthday and Christmas presents. In addition to the dolls, I had my aunt’s old Barbie van from the 1970s. I received a newer model of the Barbie van when I was in kindergarten. I was given a Barbie Dream House and a pink Barbie Corvette when I was in first grade.
When I played with my Barbies, I usually just changed their clothes multiple times and tried to find two plastic high heels that matched from the pile of accessories beside me in our golden-colored shag carpet. There were so many fashion options. There was a paisley jumpsuit and pink and orange bell-bottoms. There were evening gowns and swimsuits. There was a tennis outfit and some miniskirts and halter-tops. And there was my favorite—the extra-fancy, white, frilly wedding gown. Most of the time, when I would dress a Barbie, I would say she was getting ready for a date or wedding with Ken. (I never changed Ken’s clothes. Maybe in my mind he was just another accessory?)
In some ways I wanted to be Barbie. I wanted to be beautiful and have pretty clothes and a nice car and a two-story house. Maybe I wanted my body to look like hers too. I didn’t know then that fewer than 1 in 100,000 women actually have body proportions similar to Barbie’s. According to a 2006 report, if Barbie were a real woman with flesh and blood, “her waist would be 39% smaller than the waists of anorexic patients. Her body weight would be so low that she would not be able to menstruate.”
One has to wonder how Barbie’s appearance and unrealistic proportions impact girls’ perceptions about themselves. The Atlantic reported in November 2015 that a 2014 study of 4-to-7-year-old girls found that playing with Barbie actually limited girls’ views regarding what occupations would be open to them after they became adults. Marianne Cooper writes, “Compared to girls who played with Mrs. Potato Head, girls who played with fashion Barbie identified a greater number of careers as ones they could not do when they grew up. The same pattern emerged even when girls played with Doctor Barbie.”
There are some signs of the fashion doll market moving in a positive direction because consumers are demanding change. In 2013 Nickolay Lamm asked the question, “What if fashion dolls were made using standard human body proportions?” In order to find the answer, he created prototypes of what Barbie would look like with the proportions of a typical 19-year-old American girl using numbers from the Centers for Disease Control. When people saw the more realistic versions of the dolls, they asked where they could purchase them. Lamm eventually crowdfunded the money required to start a new line of dolls. The slogan for his crowdfunding campaign was “Average Is Beautiful.” More than 13,000 backers preordered over 19,000 dolls. On November 14, 2014, the Lammily dolls were shipped to project backers and were available for purchase at a few retail outlets.
Lamm connected with consumers who want their children to have something better than they had when they were young. When he released his dolls, the larger manufacturers were conducting business as usual. In a 2014 interview with Fast Company, the lead designer for Barbie said that Barbie’s proportions are necessary so that girls can easily change the doll’s clothes. “Barbie’s body was never designed to be realistic,” she claimed.
But things have changed since that interview. On January 28 of this year, several new Barbies were released. There are now Barbies with different skin tones and hair colors. There are now Barbies with fuller figures, more petite frames, and taller frames. Team Barbie has changed its stance. “We have to let girls know it doesn’t matter what shape you come in.” Tania Missad, director of consumer insights for the doll line, said in a video on the Barbie brand website.
Knowing that the makers of Barbie have noticed the need for diversity and a variety of body types is a good thing, but it will not fix the root of what ails me. Having a more positive view of my body, moving away from fat-shaming, and re-programming the tapes that play in my head are all good things, but that won’t fix me either. Neither will appointments with my therapist, nutritionist, or personal trainer. Even McCarthy’s confidence and Lamm’s desire for girls to be concerned with more than their bodies are messages that need to fade into the background.
I need to listen to the voice of God instead of listening to the other voices buzzing around me like flies, distracting me from the truth. God tells me I am a beloved daughter. I am created in His image. My worth is based on my standing in Christ.
My husband and I knock on the front door of Shane and Virginia’s house just a few blocks from our home. We are on time but are the last to arrive. Everyone greets us with hugs and “Hello!” and “It’s so good to see you!” They sound genuinely happy to see us. The other women are all so lovely and thin. I realize I’m sucking in my stomach. I take a deep breath and relax my abdominal muscles.
It has been two weeks since we have had communion during our Sunday worship service, so we move into in the dining room and prepare to share the meal with each other again. My husband is on my left. Dorothy is on my right. Darren is directly across from me. Virginia reads aloud the words I still need to hear:
“This is my body, broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
“This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
I tear off a bit of the bread. We each have our own glass of wine. (Because this is another way we do it, once each month, before we share a potluck meal together.)
I chew. I swallow. I drink deeply. I do this in remembrance of Him.
Have you enjoyed this piece of content from Christ and Pop Culture Magazine? The continuation of this site and the insightful cultural analysis our writers produce is only possible through your generous support. Consider becoming a member for as little as $5 per month. You’ll get free stuff each month, full access to CAPC Magazine (including all back issues), entrance to our exclusive members group on Facebook—and you’ll help us keep the lights on. Join now.
For as low as $5/month, you’ll get access to free offerings from creators and authors we love, exclusive access to our member’s only forum, and exclusive content and podcasts — and you’ll help ensure that CAPC keeps getting better and better.