I was at the gym yesterday, pounding away on the treadmill while Kanye rapped over a bass beat through my headphones. My legs were aching, and I was frustrated, remembering how much easier this used to be for me. When I got home I lay on the floor, sweaty and gross and feeling entirely the same as it used to when I would come home after running far more miles than I am capable of these days.
The difference between then and now is more than just how many miles I can cover. It could be measured in the space between a size 10 and a 16, two miles and 10, a girl of 16 and a woman of 22. But most of all, it’s that then, I had an eating disorder.
When I entered high school, I was 14 and had never stepped foot in a public school. Some might say that being homeschooled in relative isolation for the majority of my youth contributed to the eating disorder I developed after entering the school system, and I think that was certainly part of it. Looking back on it now, though, I can trace the slow ease into the cycle of starving and bingeing, starving and running, bingeing and running, directly back to church.
Sounds like a drastic claim, I know. But I was a pastor’s daughter in a church that adopted its own strain of fundamentalist charismatic evangelicalism, and there’s nothing they do better than drastic. My parents were the youth pastors and I grew up under strict modesty doctrine, internalized before I even hit puberty. If you haven’t heard of purity culture, it’s full of True-Love-Waits, purity rings, courtship, limited sex ed access, purity balls where daughters pledge their virginity til marriage with their father as their date, rules on what you can wear to the beach, to school, to church, rules on what you can wear, period. If it sounds a little focused on women and girls, it’s because it is.
Purity culture is, essentially, the fear of women’s bodies. Side effects vary, but include repression of sexuality, self-expression, and as I’ve mentioned, policing women’s clothing. Frankly, it mirrors rape culture in many ways. This is a brief and incomplete description, and others have written about it far better than I can. All I can tell you is what it did to me.
Imagine growing up in a world where you are told that your body is dangerous to men. Your body is a distraction, one that is your responsibility to keep hidden and demure. Being a woman is power, but only power of a certain kind. If you are not careful and diligent, your body will cause someone to fall and you will be to blame. Premarital sex is the biggest bogeyman hiding under the bed, and even the smallest slip can lead down that deadly road.
Now imagine that you are held to a higher standard than others, because you were born to a daddy who has a calling to the ministry, and your family sets the example for other church families. Anyone in the church can find fault with your appearance and approach you to set you straight. Imagine having your body on public display, in all the worst of ways, exposed to critical eyes and words. The girls who are flat-chested and small-boned never get asked to change. As soon as you develop into even a hint of your curves, your body is a war zone, a temptation, a wound.
You might begin, as I did, to believe your body was a curse. My hips, long legs, and C-cup breasts became my worst enemies. It’s not that I woke up one day and decided to have an eating disorder; I don’t think it works like that for anyone. It crept up on me slowly, after a rocky adolescence of feeling conflictingly too ugly and too tempting at the same time. I would eat less, skip a meal or two, and notice the difference after a while. I would end up eating more than I could hold after a little while of less than enough, and I would run across town to try and work it off. I never had the conscious thought that I shouldn’t eat, or that I needed to burn calories. It just happened.
While it happened, and kept happening, I hated my body. It was a mark of shame that I couldn’t escape. My teenage girl self wanted boys to want me, and felt like they never would; my pastor’s daughter internal monologue was terrified of boys wanting me, and felt like they would eat me alive unless I lost the parts of me that were so dangerous to them. So I ran, and I starved my growing body. I binged, bloated and sick, and hated myself some more.
Meanwhile, no one in my life would’ve noticed, since I did not ever appear dangerously underweight or even skinny. The cycle was so repetitive that I never dropped too much, and I was complimented many times.
There wasn’t really a moment in which I saw the light and tried to get help. I told the story of my eating habits to a friend once I was in college, and she was the first person to suggest that it had, in fact, been an eating disorder. “But I wasn’t skinny,” I said. “I never decided to start and I don’t know when it stopped. It couldn’t have been… right?”
Possibly what saved me was a change in body chemistry. Right out of highschool, I developed fairly severe poly-cystic ovarian syndrome, which resulted in rapid weight gain and doctor’s visits and blood tests. My eating eventually balanced out, and became much less destructive. It happened around the time that I moved out and stopped attending my parents’ church. Away from the restrictive mindsets, the constant reminders that my body was a torment to innocents faded from my ears.
My relationship to food has its ups and downs, and has remained fraught with emotional issues. Finding a balance is difficult still. I’ve been fighting against the insulin-resistant effects of PCOS for a while now, and working with my doctor to find a healthy weight for my body.
It’s strange, though, now that my body is bigger, how much I love it. I’ve been so afraid to try to lose weight, afraid that I will devolve back into destructive mindsets and the hatred I used to carry for my physical self. Earlier this year I lost more than I have since I gained it all in the first place, and I was surprised how easily I accepted it. I didn’t feel like it wasn’t enough, and I didn’t feel like I had to pressure myself.
I used to say it took me becoming fat to learn to love my body, but I don’t think that way about it anymore. I think it took me walking away from church, from a culture that taught me that possessing a woman’s form was a crime, to reach a place where I could appreciate my body and what it has been through, what I put it through. Instead of fearing what my body will do to others, I love it for what it does for me.