A friend asked me to share her story with you – and I am delighted to do so. Valerie is a new mom to a darling little boy. She, like most of us, has struggled with her body image but is finding joy in the way her son responds to her body. Here’s her story:
by Valerie Bojarski
One warm morning, after nursing my son, I was sitting on my bed with him in front of me. I was in a nursing sports bra and shorts, he in just his cloth diaper. That morning he officially turned 20 weeks old. I started telling him about what things were like 20 weeks ago, when he was first born. Upon hearing my voice and seeing me interact with him, he smiled and started excitedly kicking his feet. I told him, “Not too long ago, you were kicking me from the inside, now you’re kicking me from the outside!” and tickled him. He squealed with delight and kicked harder. The heel of one of his feet hit my stomach and sank into it pretty far. He pulled his foot away, and repeated the movement, alternating both feet, an expression of great concentration on his face, fascinated by the squishy surface into which he was pressing his feet. A happy moment immediately turned into one of embarrassment, and I felt hot all over as shame washed over me. I looked down at my stomach, lined with stretch marks, and felt disgust. My inner voice told me, “One day he is going to be ashamed of you. He won’t even want to be seen with you in public. You’ll just embarrass him.” I stood up and scooped him up, holding him against me. I looked in the mirror and was struck by the contrast of our sizes.He picked that exact moment to start squeezing and pinching my upper arm. I turned away from the mirror, too ashamed to look any more.
When I first learned that I was pregnant, I immediately asked God to give me a boy. Being fairly new on my journey towards body positivity, I didn’t want to risk causing a daughter to have the same issues that I had. While I know that boys can be insecure in their appearance as well, I felt like having a son was “safer” somehow. I was so relieved when I learned that our little one was male! As I carried him within me, I promised him that I would never cause him to feel as though he was not good enough. I pledged that I would never, not even when he was a baby, speak ill of my body or anyone else’s, and if I heard someone else do it, I would make a point to say to my baby, “We don’t talk about people’s bodies that way, because there is no right or wrong way to have a body.” I had the best of intentions.
That evening, after feeling ashamed of myself in front of my infant son, I told my therapist about the situation, how my squishy tummy was entertaining to my baby. Saying it out loud, I felt ashamed all over again — both of the situation and my response to it. I was enjoying my baby, interacting with him, playing with him, and I ended it because I had an emotional response to an innocuous behavior by my baby. While we processed it, I thought of other ways he has interacted with my body. While nursing, he will press on my breast or stomach, palpating it, almost as if the softness comforts him. He squeezes my upper arms and smiles. He will reach up and squeeze my chin. He nuzzles into my bosom when tired. He turns to me, my body — as it is now — for comfort. He loves me, all of me, as I am. This body, as it is now, carried him for 39 weeks and five days. It nourishes him. It cradles him. It comforts him. It protects him. That sounds like an amazing goal body to me. This body belongs to his mother. And he accepts it, without question.
I can either let other peoples’ perceptions of what a good “goal body” looks like cause me to question my own motherhood, or I can choose to be a good mother right now. Deciding that my body is a reason to hide, to be ashamed, and to judge myself will only take me away from these innocent moments where my son doesn’t know what fat or thin is. My therapist pointed out that If I carry myself in a way that shows that I am embarrassed of myself, or I refuse to go out and engage with the world, he will think that there is a reason to be embarrassed. If I go out and do things with him and not allow my size or fear of judgment affect me, he won’t be embarrassed. I can say that there is no right or wrong way to have a body until I’m blue in the face, but if I act like my body is a wrong body, it will mean nothing.
A few days later, I went to the zoo with a friend. I briefly agonized over whether I should wear a sleeveless shirt. Ultimately, I dressed comfortably, and had a great time at the zoo. I posed in pictures with my son. After looking at the pictures, I immediately noticed stomach rolls and flabby arms. I looked again, and saw a mom with her son, having a great time and making memories. There is no reason to hide. When my son looks back on these pictures, I hope he doesn’t see an embarrassment; I hope that he sees a mom who loves her son and took him to the zoo.
Regardless of whether or not I achieve society’s standards of a goal body, I hope that my son learns that our bodies, as they are, are worthy. Loving them should not wait until or unless a change happens. Our bodies, as they are, are good. As long as we use them to love one another and be there for one another, they have already achieved a goal. Also, squishy tummies are fun for kicking.
It is past time for an update on my faith and fatness work. Here’s what I’ve been up to since I last shared with you:
I am writing a book!
Fortress Press and Theology for the People will be publishing my book on Fatness & Faith in 2018. Most of my writing the past year has gone into this project and I can’t wait to share it with you. My prayer is that it will speak truth and light to those who are afraid their body is too much for God.
Fat & Faithful Podcast
Beginning August 1, you can listen to a podcast featuring myself and Amanda Martinez Beck of Fat, Catholic, and Loved. We’ll be talking faith, politics, and culture as it relates to fatness. You can download the pocdast now and hear our short introduction episode. We’ll release the first few episodes on August 1st and then will have new ones for you a couple times a month after that.
I wrote a few articles on Fatness and Faith
1. Our Bodies are Imperfect Temples at Christianity Today.
God dwells in us whether we’re Olympian-level muscular or morbidly obese.
2. I Saw Myself in This is Us at Christianity Today
I am rooting for Kate. Rooting for her to find hope and redemption and joy. Rooting for the deep insecurities planted in her childhood by a well-meaning mother or insensitive friends to be vanquished by truth and light and love.
3. Fat, Faithful, and Fruitful: Bodies in the Church at Evangelicals for Social Action
I asked a few women that I know who care about body image and the church to answer a few questions about their experiences with how the church has talked, or failed to talk, about bodies. Their answers are instructive about the ways that calling fat “bad,” or excluding fat people from the discussion on bodies, is damaging to the Body of Christ.
I am guest-posting today at a new website dedicated to providing resources for fat Christians. I hope this article is helpful both for pastors and church leaders and for fat Christians who feel unseen.
As a teenager, I professed faith in Jesus at a summer camp in the mountains of Tennessee. I remember badly wanting to ask my youth pastor to baptize me right there, that week, in the pool on the college campus. Not because of any spiritual urgency, but because I was afraid that if I waited to return to church the next week that there would not be a baptismal robe large enough to fit me. My adolescent reserve won out and I waited until we returned to our church to be baptized there. The robe was snug, but did technically fit. A few years later after I was finished with my white high school graduation robe, I donated it to the church and told them to keep it in their baptismal robe supply – just in case.
There are a variety of ways that our churches can be inaccessible to people of size. Often church leadership doesn’t know to look for these areas and church parishioners don’t know they are allowed to speak up. I sat down to talk with my current pastor, Brian Wright, D. Min., about these issues. This article provides some starting points to make your congregation welcoming to people of diverse body sizes.
Wright worked as an eating disorder counselor during his undergraduate days as a psychology major, ministered as a pastor for many years, previously served on the board of the Interfaith Disability Network, and is currently in medical school to become a doctor.
In other words, he is an excellent person to talk with about the intersections of faith and bodies!
Read the rest at Fat Privilege
I had the privilege of writing an article for Christianity Today this week.
This article first appeared on October 14, 2015 on Her.Meneutics
In all of my remembered days, two truths remain constant: I believe in God, and I am fat. While there have been seasons where I struggled with my faith or my fatness, neither has ever left me.
As a teen, I thought that being a good, effective Christian meant being thin. Fatness was associated with a lack of self-control, one of the fruits of the Spirit. So I came to view my weight as an outward sign that I must not really believe or obey. I was terrified that my witness would be hampered by the size of my thighs. Surely no one would believe in the power of the Resurrected Christ if his Spirit wasn’t strong enough to keep me from gaining weight.
It is very common for me to hear, “I can’t believe churches talk about weight loss!” Or, I have people who have a long history with church tell me they don’t remember their church talking about weight-loss. (My instinct here, given that people who went to the same church I did tell me this, is that weight-loss at fat-shaming is so common in our churches we don’t even notice it.) However, I also hear from countless people who have. In addition, my research has easily produced countless faith-based weight-loss resources. So, I never question whether or not it’s worth it for me to talk about body-image in the church. But, the next time someone tries to tell me I am imagining things, that I am too sensitive or in-tune to the idea somehow, I am going to show them the 2015 Christian Book Awards.
The overall best Christian Book of the Year award, the best book published out of the many many Christian books published last year, goes to the weight-loss book The Daniel Plan (TDP) by Rick Warren. The books for these awards are considered to be “the highest quality in Christian books.”
Some Diet Devotionals talk just about “health” or “lifestyle changes” and don’t actually market themselves as a weight-loss book, though many still are. Not TDP, it is up-front about its weight loss goals. From the press-release from the Christian Book Expo: (emphasis mine)
The highest honor of Christian Book of the Year™ went to The Daniel Plan by Pastor Rick Warren (with Daniel Amen M.D., and Mark Hyman M.D.). The New York Times bestseller with a strong and regular presence on the ECPA Bestseller list, is described as “creating a health plan” that adds faith, focus, and community to the usual “food and exercise” approach to weight loss and health. The plan is credited for helping 15,000 of Warren’s church members lose 250,000 pounds in the first year. Warren is the author of The Purpose Driven Life, the highest bestselling non-fiction hardback in publishing history with more than 32 million copies sold.
Warren says that the goal is to make “health a form of worship [because] God made your body, Jesus died for your body, and He expects you to take care of your body.” This is not an inherently body-shaming approach, but the cultural connotations of “take care of your body” get us quickly there.
I have no problem advocating for people to take care of their bodies as well as they can. I just believe that including “weight loss” in that care speaks more to our cultural obsession with thinness than it does to physical, mental, or spiritual health. I take care of my body by honoring what it does. I take care of my body by providing it with food when it’s hungry, exercise for enjoyment and strength, rest when it’s weary. I take care of my body my monitoring my health. I take care of my body by not assuming it’s bad and diseased just because of the size of my dress.
Also worth noting, once Warren decided to write the book, one of the people he recruited to give him medical advice was Dr. Mehmet Oz, the talk show host who has recently been called-out by people as far up as Congress for promoting snake-oil tactics for weight loss. On the Daniel Plan website, Oz is still listed as a “founding doctor” of the plan. These doctors are described as: “Some of the best doctors and contributors in the world have collaborated to transform your spiritual, physical, and emotional health.”
The “inspiration” behind Warren’s diet books, as reported in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, came to Warren while he was “doing baptisms ‘the old-fashioned way’—by physically raising and lowering people into the water.“ Warren said that as he was “lowering people, [he] literally felt the weight of America’s obesity problem [and] thought, ‘good night, we’re all fat!’” There were reportedly 850 people that Warren baptized that day, certain to qualify for some tired arms for the pastor no matter the size of the people.
What strikes me, as a person who once waded into baptismal waters with jiggly thighs and a snug baptism robe, is that this sacramental moment that tells us of new life and being made holy became a moment of judgment on the very people who were commemorating their new life.
And that judgment produced a book to add to the ever-growing collection of how we don’t get it right enough to be acceptable as we are.
On Dr. Oz’s own website, his promotion of this book includes the line, “Pastor Rick Warren is waging a holy war on fat.”
While 850 baptisms is certainly tiring, I also wonder about what it was that triggered Warren’s “we’re all fat!” revelation. Water is friendly to gravity, theoretically easing the force needed to lift. I wonder if it was the sight of wet clothes clinging to every roll and wave of the bodies that walked out of the pool that made Warren want to rid his field of vision of this “unpleasant” sight.
We don’t need a holy war waged on anyone’s body. We need the holy beauty of God on earth, here with us us, in flesh and blood. And when we go under the baptismal waters, we should come out knowing that the only judgement upon us is the one God issues: “This is my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
[image: enjoying a swim in a friend’s pool during the hot days of summer]
It’s almost summertime. If you haven’t already seen them, you’ll start seeing the “Get your body beach ready!” advertisements floating around as we head into summer in a few weeks.
This is just a quick reminder of two things:
1. They are trying to sell you something. You don’t need it.
2. If you have a body, it’s beach (or pool or gym or family picnic) ready.
If you appreciate this reminder, feel free to share on your favorite social media network.
In Luke 24 we see Jesus, after the resurrection, appear to his disciples. Two of the disciples have just invited the man who was walking with them on the road to stay the night, they didn’t recognize him as Jesus until he broke bread. Then Jesus disappears from their midst.
The disciples hurried back to Jerusalem to find the others and proclaimed that the had seen the risen Jesus and they knew it was him by the “breaking of the bread.” (v. 35)
And then Jesus shows up in their midst again. They are still startled, recognizing him as Jesus, but thinking it is perhaps a spirit and not really him.
He shows them his hands and his feet and they still are a mix of disbelief and joy and then Jesus says, “Have you anything here to eat?”
They hand Jesus a piece of broiled fish, and Jesus eats it.
Then Jesus explains the scripture and the prophecy and their responsibility to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins to all nations.
I am stuck on Jesus, in the midst of his disciples freaking out that he’s there and alive, asking for food.
My tunnel vision for all things embodiment is surely at play, but it is such an interesting moment. The bread makes sense – so closely mimicking the breaking of bread just a few days prior. This is a natural memory cue.
The fish even makes sense in the greater story – there have been other pieces of broiled fish shared among these people. There’s something in that too I’m sure, but it seems to me that Jesus is asking for food, eating, and participating in this very bodily act of digestion as a way to say:
“Yes. It’s me. The embodied Christ risen again. I am not a spirit. I am not an imagination. I am not some new form. This body was dead and now this body is alive. Resurrection. Restoration. The body is important and it came back, too.”
And a few verses later that body ascends to Heaven – holes in his hands, digestive tract in tact.
Disciples are trying to figure out why they’re seeing the previously dead Jesus standing before them. And Jesus asks for food. It seems ridiculous. It seems inconsequential. It seems incredulous that the risen Messiah, Jesus the Christ is hungry. How base, how completely human to be hungry. Which is exactly the point. Jesus took on the form of human. Jesus was incarnated into body. We live an incarnational faith.
We have a long history in Christianity that devalues the body, that makes the body less than the spirit and soul. I believe these thoughts are more connected to the ideas of Plato and the Gnostics than to Jesus Christ and the Christians. Over and over again in the Bible, God honors the body and esteems it – starting from the very beginning when humans are created in the image of God and including the ultimate endorsement of human body when Jesus Christ showed up on earth with hands and feet and human hunger. Our bodies matter for a whole host of reasons – not the least of which are that they are created in the image of God and that their value is proved when Jesus shows up in human flesh.
God’s provision for the body in the form of food and nourishment is repeated throughout scripture. Manna from heaven. Ravens in the desert. Oil that never runs dry. Land of milk and honey. 5 loaves and 2 fishes. Nets that strain underneath the weight of their catch. A piece of broiled fish.
I often think that one of the most damaging aspects of the faith-based diet and weight loss industry is that it hinders our ability to see the provision of God in food.
If we allow it and we are so privileged to have it: food is a constant reminder of God’s provision in our life. Multiple times a day we eat. We put in sustenance that nourishes our mind, body, and soul. Alone or in groups – this is a chance for us to stop and remember to be thankful. And I believe that if those privileged enough to have ready access to food take the time to enjoy it rather than fear it – we would be more in tune to the needs of those who do not have food security.
For so much of my life I thought that I was supposed to act like I didn’t like food since I was fat. I was supposed to suppress any pleasure I got from the satiating nature of food or the way the tastes heightened my senses. I was supposed to feel guilty about the starving children, as if my fear and sense of failure could help alleviate that tragedy.
Our culture at large and the Christian diet industry specifically largely sees food as an enemy, temptation, guilt, rules, and something to be feared. In addition to our own nourishment needed for survival – food is a way that we enjoy life. If we are so blessed, food is not tasteless, bland, and boring. It has flavor and texture, intoxicating smells and visual appeal. I do not believe this is an accident – food is a good and beautiful gift given to us by the creator. Yet, we fear it, we fear what it will do to us if we enjoy this gift.
There are good and true teachings and practices for fasting. There are things to be learned from periods of abstaining. But, for the vast majority of us, these practices of extreme deprivation are not how God calls us to live our lives. We are right to avoid an over-indulgence that comes at the cost of exploiting others or become hedonistic, but this does not mean there should be no joy in food.
Food draws us together; it provides community. In John’s gospel we see a different post-fish resurrection story. Jesus gathers with his disciples on the beach, as they had done before. There are feasts and festivals throughout the Bible. We are invited to a great Wedding Feast. Our cultures and our touchstone moments often place food in the spotlight: holiday feasts, birthday cake. When we invite neighbors over, we fire up the grill, pop open the wine, pass the basket of bred.
Food sustains us in pleasurable ways. It draws us together. It is part of being a body.
After the resurrection, as Jesus is taking the time to appear to his disciples and remind them of what is important and to give them their instructions for how they are to live their life – he takes a moment to remind them that he is body, that body matters. In a world where we are still desperately trying to make our bodies acceptable to God, I do not think this is a small thing.
To think of the body of Jesus during Holy Week is nothing out-of-the-ordinary. We know well the scenes of how his body was flogged with whips. We know that his back carried a rough wooden cross as his feet and legs carried him through the crowded streets of Jerusalem. We know that his hands were pierced by nails, his side speared, and his brow felt the painful impression of a crown of thorns. We know that his body died. We know that somehow, mysteriously, bread and wine become his body and his blood and we join in this story of love.
These painful, sacrificial moments in the literal body of Jesus are center stage to Holy Week.
Yet this week I have been paying attention to other ways the Body of Jesus was treated during the days surrounding his death and resurrection.
There are two striking stories that frame the death of Jesus. Both involve women. Both involve loving and tender care for Jesus’ body. This focus on life and beauty a bit of foreshadowing perhaps for the resurrection that will soon come.
All four Gospels tell the story of a woman who anoints Jesus with costly oil. Some of the details differ, but the story is there.During the week in which Jesus will celebrate Passover with his disciples – where he will say, “This is my body, broken for you” – a woman approaches Jesus, breaks a jar of expensive oil, and pours the fragrant offering onto his body. The oil goes on his head or his feet depending on which gospel author is telling the story.
The men who have joined Jesus at the table dismiss this act. They call it wasteful. They say there are better things to do with precious oil than to spill it on the body.
Jesus honors this act of tender care for his body, this act of love and worship.
And then, some time later after women stood near the cross and watched the bruised and bleeding body of their Lord breath his last, they returned to the tomb where he had been placed.
“Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome brought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.”
We are told that these women, and others, ministered to Jesus while he was in Galilee. (Mk 15:41) These women knew the Messiah. They gave tender care in life and death for the man who had been their friend and teacher.
Part of me wonders how much this attention to the body of Jesus is due to the fact that Jesus saw their bodies and called them good. These women lived in a culture that called their bodies and lives “less” – where their bodies were regularly deemed “unclean” for days at a time. This is a Jesus who heals women from diseases and enters them back into society as a result. A Jesus who stands on the side of a woman whose body has been used in sin and tells her accusers to lay down their stones. This is a Jesus who protects the bodies of women, and they honor his physical body in life and death.
I used to beat myself up with Romans 12:1 – offer your bodies as living sacrifices – certain that verse meant I needed to beat my body into submission to whatever was deemed to be the “correct” way of having a body. The way that Jesus honors the expensive, wasteful, extravagance of oil poured over a body reminds me that offering our bodies as sacrifices does not mean making them conform to a worldly standard. There is no size or health requirement to live as Christ. There is no exclusion for who can offer their heart, their life, their all up to the transformative life of following Jesus the Messiah. Jesus tells us even those excluded by traditional authorities are welcome. Even the sacrifices that don’t make sense to others have a place.
Yes, the story of Holy Week includes much about the suffering of Jesus and the cruel torture his body endured. There is pain and cost to following Jesus – but that is not the whole story, and the pain and suffering definitely should not come form trying to conform your body to a societal ideal. (I’d argue that Jesus’ pain and suffering came because he confronted and opposed so many of society’s ideals. It was his truth and his love and his confrontation of the power structures that got him killed.)
There is room in the Gospel story for the truth of tender love, care, and attention to the body.
One body-positive “activity” that I first hear from someone many years ago is to put lotion on your body. Arms and legs, torso. This act not only nourishes your body as an act of self care, but it allows you to feel your own body – the curves and the lumps. Smooth or bumpy skin. You begin to know your own body. If you actively practice body-positive statements and thoughts during this, it’s a move towards accepting your body. I’ve had this exercise in my mind while I’ve been thinking about the anointing of Jesus’ body.
There are differences: Lotion, not ointment or spices. Your own hands, not the hands of another. But, perhaps you might like to consider taking the time this Easter weekend to put lotion on your body. It is one way to remember the tender, loving moments of Holy Week and remind yourself of the way Jesus calls the body good and worthy and important.
J. Nicole Morgan is a sought-after speaker on the topic of fat positivity. She is the co-host of the podcast Fat and Faithful and her writing has been featured in Christianity Today, Sojourners, and Christ and Pop Culture. Nicole earned her master of theological studies from Palmer Seminary of Eastern University.
Professional Photos of Nicole on this page by Faryl Ann Photography.