Behind closed doors: my story about bodies, women, and the church
**Content warning: This article talks about body image and assault. If you are not in the place to read about these topics today, feel free to come back another time. If reading this arouses difficult feelings for you, know you are not alone and there is help. Know that you are worth every inch of whatever you need to flourish. I’m not a professional counselor, but if you need suggestions for where to go for help, my inbox and my heart are open**
From the earliest time I can remember, I hated my body.
And when I say hated, I actually mean hated.
As a highly anxious and goal-oriented achiever, I always pushed my body to its limits. Waking up early, going to bed late, never taking time to rest. Eating poorly, consuming foods that I knew would give me yet another short burst of energy. Determined to over-perform, perfectionist to a fault. I constantly felt the need to do more, be better, and outdo myself and those around me. My body was nothing more than an obstacle to be subjugated for optimum results.
For years, I couldn’t look at my naked body. There were parts I refused to touch. When I failed at tasks or got stressed out, I would find ways to punish my body. It was the only way I knew how to cope. I thought about ending my life on more than one occasion, but was always too scared to try. It seemed like an easy way to escape the body that I didn’t like. In my mind, it would solve my problems—my body being a major one of them.
I am being brutally open and honest because I don’t believe that I am alone in feeling this way. Much mental and emotional turmoil goes unnoticed in our society. Just under the surface, people have gaping and oozing scars that they have learned to hide well. That doesn’t mean you should go and try to be everyone’s savior—that’s just not how it works. What it does mean is that maybe you could try to be a little kinder, a little softer, and a little more aware in the ways you interact with the people around you.
For me, I had internalized this strange belief about my body. I actually thought my body was bad.
My body was dangerous. It was a liability, a stumbling block, and shameful. Needing to be hidden and beaten into submission, my body was unreliable, tainted, and not to be trusted. It was what stood in the way of me attaining the most important things in life. Eventually my body would decay into the earth after all, and what was important—my soul—would head off to its disembodied future state. That was the ultimate goal.
It was this way of thinking that set me on a trajectory. An incredibly painful and harmful one, in which my body didn’t matter at all, only my soul did. This could not be further from the truth.
I wish someone could have been there to tell me those nights when all I wanted to do was punish my body for not performing the way I thought it should, that this was not necessary. That my body had limitations, and these were normal. In fact, my body’s desire to rest was part of God’s design all along. Less than perfect marks were not deficiencies of character, but part of the process of being human. Missed notes in countless hours of piano practice were evidence of commitment and improvement, not problems to be angrily eradicated.
I wish someone could have been there to tell me as I stared into the mirror yet again, ashamed of my less than perfect skin and the extra weight that I didn’t want to be there, that I was beautiful just the way I was. That hormones are part of being a teenager and they will give you all the feels. That this was my body’s way of protecting me and letting me know that it needed my support. That I should learn to listen to my body and the messages it sends me.
I wish someone could have been there to tell me that those eyes looking over me when I was still a child making me feel so uncomfortable were not my fault. It wasn’t because of my floor-length skirt or covered shoulders. It wasn’t because of a misplaced bra strap and it wasn’t because my body existed. That person’s actions were a reflection of their heart. Not mine. It felt uncomfortable because it was. It objectified me.
I wish someone could have been there to tell me when hands that were not my own slid into all the wrong places even as a I silently begged them to stop that it wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t because of what I was wearing or what I said. It wasn’t because I existed. I didn’t owe it to that person to submit and obey because of who they were regardless of how many times I was assured that this is the way God made it. It felt wrong because it was. It was a reflection of that person’s heart, not my own. It was a violation of my most sacred being.
I wish someone could have been there to tell me that sex is not something to be afraid of. That when both parties are consenting, giving of themselves fully to the other in a mutually satisfying way, it can be a wonderful, pleasurable, and holy experience. That the right person isn’t as much concerned about the size of your hips or chest, but about who you are as a person. That they will see you as so much more than a tallying score of outer desirability. That they will think you are beautiful and enough regardless of how attractive the person standing beside you is. Because you see, it’s not a competition. Relationships, life, marriage, are a shared existence of love and honor for one another. Not some comparison system where you have to have a perfect body or existence to keep your partner interested.
I wish someone could have been there all the moments when I felt shame, disgust, and anger towards my body. To tell me that those feelings are normal and expected, but they are not true. I wish someone could have told me that consent is given, not demanded. Consent is given, not taken. Consent is given, not assumed. I wish someone could have told me that my body was beautiful, holy, and good. Something to be celebrated, something to be honored, something to be lovingly cared for.
One of the most frequent pieces of body image advice I received growing up in the conservative church was that women, and in particular their bodies, are directly responsible for the actions of men. The logic went something like this: It is a woman’s job to not to cause men to lust, but at the same time her job to keep her husband interested. The way a woman stops a man from lusting is by making herself small, not drawing attention to herself, and covering up as much as possible. At the same time, when in the context of a marriage, a woman is suddenly to become a sexy fireball that maintains her husband’s interest at all times. A man that had an affair, the cause was undoubtedly the fact that his wife did not keep the bedroom spicy or had let herself go.
Words cannot express how strongly I feel that this logic is unfortunate, untrue, and harmful.
It’s pretty outlandish to be honest to tell someone that their very existence in this world is a problem for others and it’s simultaneously their responsibility to fix it. It is not the responsibility of any woman to keep a man from lusting (I’ll refer to the words of Jesus here, he had a suggestion about this and just a helpful reminder it wasn’t an injunction to the ladies to cover up—if you can’t tell sarcasm is strong here, let me clarify that I don’t personally suggest that anyone gauge out an eye). Further, it is not the woman’s responsibility to keep her husband interested either.
Both these ideas perpetuate a harmful ideology that burdens women in unhealthy ways. Women and men are both equally responsible for how they act towards each other regardless of whether they are married or not. If you truly love and honor others, you will live in ways in which that belief manifests itself. Your actions always reveal your heart. It really is that simple. There is no biblical reason to believe women (or any person for that matter) will ever have to give account to God for the wrong actions of others.
Society is no bettered by women who are afraid of their bodies and men who are told they can’t control their desires. We must celebrate, honor, and affirm the bodies we have. They are a gift. They are sacred. They are worth redeeming. We must celebrate, honor, and affirm the need for all of us to be responsible for how we treat others. We can and should all be involved in honoring and encouraging the highest expression of the divine in all of us by loving our neighbor as we love ourselves. Love doesn’t look at its neighbor and treat them as an object. Love sees God in the other and treats them accordingly. How much more for those who follow Jesus? We are called into holy community, to love each other as brothers and sisters. What would it look like for us to live into this calling?
Basically all my life I heard and internalized a message “Your body is bad”. And I believed it for the longest time. But this was just simply not true.
My body is not a problem, it’s a gift.
My body not a stumbling block, it’s mine to steward.
My body is not for hiding away, it’s meant for housing the very essence of who I am.
My body is part of this universe that God deemed worth saving, not just for some disembodied future, but to be resurrected and renewed. It is not someone else’s possession or someone else’s to make decisions for and about—it was always mine. It is a divine gift that exemplifies goodness, love, and grace. Broken and imperfect, but mine.
It’s a complicated thing, learning to love and accept your own body—in its beauty, its flaws, and all its humanness. It’s such a simple endeavor, but one which has never felt so right, spiritual, and healing for me.
If you read all the way through, thanks for sticking with me. I know that these topics can be hard to talk about. I share my experience for two reasons. First, I want people who have had similar experiences to know that they are not alone. Secondly, I believe that the church needs to improve the ways it talks about women and their bodies. I’ve observed among too many people in the church an ideology that promotes the idea that women are responsible for men’s responses to their bodies. This teaching leads to harmful consequences for the ways that women then view their bodies. This has to change.
What about you? Have you had a similar experience? Have you heard any of these ideas taught in church? Are there lies you have believed/do believe about your body? What is your relationship to your body? I want to hear from you! Leave a comment below, feel free to be anonymous if that makes it easier for you to share.