Why Lent can be a dangerous time when you’re recovering from an eating disorder

It took me a long time to believe that God was not disappointed with my body. It took me even longer to learn that Ash Wednesday was not my yearly diet launch date, that Lent was not a time for me to give all my food-related desires to God and come out the other end a better person, slimmer and with more self-discipline.

Unfortunately, Lent is the time of year where my Catholic faith threatens to derail my hard-fought healing—a years-long process of learning to accept my large body and to realign my relationship with food amid an eating disorder diagnosis. The whole “give up sugar and lose weight during Lent” impulse? That is the impulse of diet culture, and it is a problem when it surreptitiously slides into our churches unchecked.

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Diet culture is the miasma of social expectations that to be considered “good,” a body must be trim and healthy. It is a message that saturates the cultural fabric, and no matter where I go, I witness its demands—in commercials, in online interactions, in the harsh whisper of my inner critic—that my very large body is a disappointment to God and that I need to change it. I am not even safe in church.

It took me a long time to believe that God was not disappointed with my body. It took me even longer to learn that Ash Wednesday was not my yearly diet launch date.

I joined the Catholic Church as an adult, full of joy at finding a home after many years of searching for peace. The heaviness of Reformed theology had weighed me down, and the Catholic understanding of the incarnation, the sacraments and the goodness of the created world was a breath of fresh air for me. I am several years into my Catholic journey now, and the church is a refuge for me in almost every way. There is room for my big and bold personality here; I have saints, both women and men, who have blustered their way toward Jesus and leaned into holiness. There is room for my paradoxical desire for a robustly intellectual faith and a faith that is more easily understood by a child than a scholar.

But here comes Lent, and words are thrown around like obligatory and fasting and abstinence, and the temptation to dive right back into my eating disorder, with its rules and regulations, returns with a vengeance.

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“Eat this and not that,” “Let God fill the hunger instead of food,” “It’s not hard to cut out an entire food group for the sake of knowing God better”—these are the phrases that jumble about inside my head, and at Lent, the echo is so loud that I am afraid I might succumb again: to the food rules, to the earned love, to the allure of potential weight loss, to the chains of fear and control that I have worked so hard to break.

Most days, I can stop myself from descending into the downward spiral. It is harder as Ash Wednesday approaches.

“I will hear what the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace to his people.” I recite the words of Psalm 85. Anxiety and fear are not God’s intentions for me. He has peace for me, especially when it comes to food. So why is Lent so hard?

Lent is not the time for hating my body or ignoring it or making it suffer for things that I have done, no matter what the voice of my eating disorder says.

The mortification of the flesh is a good and hard thing, but what is even harder is to know that the “flesh” in need of killing is not this very large body I live in. The “flesh” that needs to die is not the skin I walk around in—no, that needs very much to live! I can’t live in a dualistic spirit-versus-flesh antagonism, because it is not the church’s teaching for me to declare one good and not the other. The “flesh” that must die is my unrestrained desire to put myself first.

As Lent approaches, I have to remember the words that came to the Catechism from the Second Vatican Council:

“Man, though made of body and soul, is a unity. Through his very bodily condition he sums up in himself the elements of the material world. Through him they are thus brought to their highest perfection and can raise their voice in praise freely given to the Creator. For this reason man may not despise his bodily life. Rather he is obliged to regard his body as good and to hold it in honor since God has created it and will raise it up on the last day” (No. 364).

Lent is not the time for hating my body or ignoring it or making it suffer for things that I have done, no matter what the voice of my eating disorder says as it tries to persuade me to stop eating sugar, just to please God and lose weight.

God made our bodies for relationship, not thinness or ability. The cultural demand for us to be smaller steals our joy and our capacity to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.

I need the church to speak the truth of Lent to me because the voices of my eating disorder and of diet culture tell me that losing weight and “getting healthy” are the most important things that I can do with my time, money and energy. They tell me that if I do these things and make myself physically smaller, I can love God and my neighbor better.

The church urges me to the Scriptures for life-giving words. I read St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians, where he tells me that giving up gluten or sugar has no benefit for my soul. I read the message that God gives to Isaiah, that fasting’s power is about bringing justice to the oppressed, not moving the number on my scale in the downward direction.

 

Instead of fat jokes during the homily or bulletin announcements for the parish weight loss program, can we grieve the fact that Lent is a great time for an eating disorder to parade as a spiritual discipline? Instead of proclaiming the gospel of a more disciplined body for the sake of some physical health fantasy, can we fling wide the doors of our hearts and our parishes to welcome those gripped by the oppressive physical standards of secular culture and say something like this?

All who are weary of being “too much” and all who have only ever wanted to make themselves smaller: Come to Jesus who gives us food and wine that delights and satisfies. Eat until you are filled to the brim, and take up as much space as you need. You do not disappoint him; you don’t have to make yourself smaller here. Come and be loved, in your today body.

God made our bodies for relationship, not thinness or ability. The cultural demand for us to be smaller steals our joy and our capacity to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Let us ask God to make Lent about bringing freedom to the oppressed, not giving up an arbitrary nutrient our body either needs or enjoys or both.

Could it be that the chains of injustice waiting to be broken for us and for our neighbors are the chains that bind us to the demands of diet culture? What would life look like if the 40 days from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday were neither about going on a new restrictive diet nor about letting ourselves go but rather about letting ourselves—and our neighbors—simply be? To be just who we are, in our today bodies, not needing to be anything but who we are, echoing the confidence of God when he declared to Moses at the burning bush, “I am who I am!”

I am not letting myself go; I am letting myself be. To be myself. That is it, no more and definitely no less.

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