This is National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. On Instagram, I’ve been talking about how, after a six-year struggle with anorexia, the Eucharist transformed my understanding of food (I’m also giving away five copies of The Catholic Table over there this week). But it wasn’t just the Eucharist that helped me. Just as the Eucharist transformed my understanding of food, the theology of the body transformed my understanding of my body.
For most of the first 25 years of my life I equated my body’s value with a number on the scale. I thought it’s worth could be measured and weighed. It was a perpetual problem for me, something I needed to control.
Then, when I was 25, I read Pope St. John Paul II’s theology of the body. It taught me that my body wasn’t a problem to be controlled; it was a gift to be cared for. It was me—as much a part of who I was as my soul and as much a gift as my soul.
After reading the book, I began trying to rethink how I saw by body in light all that the theology of the body had to say about why God gave me this great gift.
Obviously, he didn’t give me this body so I could look great in a bikini or hot in a pair of jeans. That’s not why God has been handing out bodies since the dawn of Creation.
No, God gave me this body so that I could be me. So I could do all the things that are Emily—reading, writing, cooking, painting walls, organizing closets, and making basil and parsley grow.
He also gave me this body so I could love and serve others. So I could cook for friends and babysit their children. So I could take food to the hungry and clothes to the homeless. So I could hug my husband when he’s struggling and hold my baby close throughout the day—feeding him, rocking him, showing him with every gesture of my body how precious he is.
Why else did God give me this body?
He gave it to me so I could show the people I love how I feel. So I could smile, laugh, cry, take their hands in mine, and process aloud ad nauseam all the crazy thoughts tumbling about inside my head.
He gave me this body so I could appreciate the splendor of his creation. So I could hear robins singing and see dogwoods blooming in the spring. So I could feel the wind in my hair and sun on my face. So I could see the sun setting and rising, snow falling, rain pouring, and in it all, see his goodness and greatness.
God also gave me this body so I could worship him. So I could kneel in his presence, sing his praises, speak his holy name, and receive his holy Body into my own.
And lastly, he gave me this body so that somehow, mysteriously and imperfectly, I could make him known in this world. So that as I suffer, sacrifice, love, serve, nourish and nurture life, I could help others see a glimpse of the God who suffered and sacrificed, who loves and serves and nourishes and nurtures life.
He gave you a body for the same reasons. So you can be you. So you can love and serve and sacrifice. So you can revel in creation, worship the Creator, and image the God who is love.
What do you do with a gift like that? You certainly don’t measure its value in a number on a scale. You don’t spend hours each week doing things you hate to mold it and manipulate it into a shape that it’s naturally not. You don’t starve it. You don’t look at it with disgust. You don’t treat it like a problem.
No, you care for it. You feed it right and move it enough so that it can do all the loving and serving God is calling it to do. You give it rest and sleep, so that it can recover from a hard day’s work. You spend time each day admiring a flower or feeling the air on your face. You get it to Mass and put it before the One who made it.
And most of all, you give thanks for it. You praise God with every step it takes and every good action it performs. You glorify God in your body by using your body the way God meant it to be used.
In sum, you treat your body like the temple it is—not as an idol to be worshipped or a demon to be combatted—but as a holy place to be tended with love.
That’s what the theology of the body tells us about our bodies. That’s the way it calls us to treat our bodies. And when I finally understood that, I was able to start fully enjoying food like God meant it to be enjoyed. I was able to accept my curves and find a joy in my body that I never imagined I could find.
Now, does this mean some days I don’t look in the mirror and wish I could shed a few pounds. Nope. I do. I’ve had plenty of fat days over the last 18 years. Heck, right now, I’m carrying around 10 extra pounds thanks to the fertility drugs I’ve been on and a baby who is intent on not letting me exercise as much as I used to. This is my version of baby weight.
But, when I do start to lament the loss of half my wardrobe, I try to think about all the beautiful things my body is doing right now—how it’s pouring love and comfort and strength into another tiny human body, how it’s serving my family, how it’s learning to show love in a whole new way. And when I do that, I can’t help but praise God for it.
My baby thinks my body is beautiful, because my body is his home; it makes love incarnate for him. My husband thinks my body is beautiful because I’ve entrusted it to him as gift. Because I love him with it, and comfort him with it, and strengthen him with it. Compared to all that, what’s a couple of dresses that don’t fit?
When you’re struggling with the image staring back at you, try to do something similar. Go over every single thing your body can do and every single act of love you perform in it. Think about the smiles, the laughs, and the hugs, the cooking, the washing, the writing, the walking, the running, the dancing, the building, the growing, the teaching, the nursing, and the praying. And give thanks for it all. You are a temple. Never forget that.