Last fall I taught a class to international teen girls which I entitled “Life After ED,” where ED refers to eating disorders. I borrowed that title from a book I have not read because it so perfectly encapsulates what I want people to know: there is life after eating disorders. People need the hope of a life abundant when they’re in the midst of a struggle with scarcity.
When we talk about eating disorders, we’re talking about a range of struggles, including anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, orthorexia (obsession with “right” eating), and eating disorders not otherwise specified (EDNOS). The research I’ve read indicates that 75% to 80% of women will deal with some sort of food or body image issue in their life, and many are easy to hide, so when I talk about eating disorders, I’m not just talking about extreme cases. Food and body image issues are struggles for all of us.
[Men deal with eating disorders too, but I don’t know those stats, nor do I have significant knowledge of that subject.]
Most of the girls in that class were Third Culture Kids, and most of them didn’t know my story. It feels like such a healed part of my life that I rarely think about it nowadays — and I often forget to tell it. So I started out by telling my personal story through the lens of a cross-cultural transition, because that was my experience. Then I touched on some theology regarding our bodies (including the concept of Imago Dei), and finished with a discussion of ways to seek healing and freedom in this area.
Today I’m only going to share some practical ways to choose life in the midst of a body image or food struggle. As I’m still in the early stages of truly understanding “the theology of the body” (yes that too is a borrowed book title), I’m going to skip that section of my class. And because I’ve published my eating disorder story before, I won’t rehash it here, even though the story I told these girls had some additional (and also very personal) details.
So without further ado, here’s my list. And since this list is relatively short, feel free to ask for clarifications on any of the items, whether publicly or privately.
- Break the shackles of shame. I want to take away the shame of struggling with these things. They’re common to women. They’re not terrible or shocking, whether it’s to me or to God or to so many other women out there. So take a deep breath. These struggles with food and body hatred are just part of your life right now. The only way to move forward and get them out of your life is to acknowledge them. And remember, you are NOT alone.
- Get some help. You really need some outside help to fight your food and body image battles. It’s very hard to walk this path alone. So talk to someone – a parent, a counselor, a pastor, a teacher, another safe adult. But NOT a peer. Not a friend. It’s not that you can’t confess these things to your friends, but you can get into trouble partnering with a friend in fighting an eating disorder. It can become about competition. Or it can become about endorsement, where you and your friends all know you struggle, and you “accept” each other, but there is no accountability to grow or change. A counselor, on the other hand, will help you delve into the reasons why you stumbled into this eating disorder in the first place. A Christian counselor, in particular, will help you stand on the truth of God’s word and seek Jesus for the healing of your mind and your body. But make sure your counselor feels safe to you. If you’re not comfortable with one, look for another.
- Don’t expect a quick fix. There is no special prayer or special person’s prayer that will magically and instantaneously cure your struggle. There is only consistently walking with Jesus toward healing and restoration and consistently realigning your mind with the truth of God’s love. There is only “a long obedience in the same direction” (to reference yet another book I haven’t read).
- Don’t be thrown off guard by relapses. They are normal; I had three. Three separate times I stopped eating enough, lost too much weight, and stopped my normal female functioning too. It happened twice in high school and once after I had my second child. Remember, relapses are NOT the end of recovery or healing, and they don’t mean that no healing or recovery has occurred. They are just a temporary setback. So take a deep breath and start again to walk this road of healing.
- Don’t get your ideas of what your body is supposed to look like from magazines or images on the internet. This is simple to understand but difficult to live. I know how tempting it is to look at those pictures and compare yourself to them. I know how tempting it is to compare yourself to your own personal idea of a perfect body. But those images, whether on a screen or on a glossy magazine page, or inside your own head, don’t tell the truth. They aren’t real. Don’t let them lie to you about what is beautiful or valuable or what you must look like. Reject those ideas, they’re not from God. Put down the magazines or turn off your phone or your computer if you have to.
- Know where your value and worth come from. When God formed us from the dust, He stamped us with His image, something He didn’t do for any other creature. This is the idea of imago dei: the belief that all human beings, regardless of status or creed or “usefulness” or even likability, are valuable, because the God who created them is the one who gives them their value. Imago dei is what needs to be restored when we struggle with disordered eating, body image distortion, body shame, body hatred, or the effects of sexual abuse. So remember how much you are worth — body, soul, and all.
- Look in the mirror and declare God’s Word over yourself. This can be really hard and uncomfortable at first. Get into your underclothes and stand in front of that mirror and speak out loud statements like, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made,” or “I am created in the image of God, and God himself says that’s very good,” or “I am a child of God,” or “I am in Christ Jesus, and there is no condemnation for me, not even from myself,” or “The Spirit is setting me free from these things.” It’s hard at this stage to accept your physical body as something good, but try practicing these things and see if they help.
- Work on portion control, but avoid calorie counting. Portion control can be hard. Whether you’re accustomed to restricting OR overeating, it’s difficult to learn to listen to your body’s signs of hunger and fullness and to eat a normal, regular amount of food that’s not too big and not too small. Look up recommended portion sizes if you want, but don’t pay too much attention to calorie counts. Calorie counting is both legalistic and addictive and tends to be used in fear, not freedom. So don’t get hung up on calories.
- Hold onto hope for healing, restoration, and life abundant. I stand before you today free of obsessive thoughts of body hatred. I may have occasional thoughts of dissatisfaction, but I am free of obsession and the accompanying depression that my body is not good enough (and that therefore I am not good enough). So I want you to have HOPE: hope for freedom and wholeness and a full life after dealing with eating disorders.
- Remember that God is not giving up on you. God longs to live in you, in body, soul, and spirit. He will not give up on you, no matter how many times you binge, purge, or starve. He loves you the SAME. Always the same, eternal, everlasting, pure, perfect love. Of course we will make mistakes and let our beliefs and thoughts get all messed up. Of course we will make mistakes and make poor choices: that’s why Jesus came. God knew we would need Him, and He never gives up on us.
Linking up with Velvet Ashes