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Vanesa Zuleta GoldbergDecember 27, 2020
Photo by Septian simon on Unsplash

I have struggled with eating disorders since I was 10 years old. I was raised Catholic in a Hispanic household where faith and food were deeply integrated in our everyday experience. Food was a double-edged sword: I was to eat everything that was on my plate, but the moment I started to become curvier, the gift of food suddenly felt like a curse on my body. I remember my grandmother making comments on my fluctuating, prepubescent, 13-year-old body, telling me that boys only like pretty girls and that pretty meant skinny.

Disordered eating crept slowly into my everyday existence. In second grade, I started throwing away my lunch. Eventually, I needed a teacher’s aide to sit with me to make sure I actually ate my lunch every day. By age 16, I found myself in the high school’s bathroom after lunch, leaning over a toilet bowl.

Growing up Catholic, I was always told that my body was a temple for God and that it needed to be treated as such. But we live in a world where bodies that are curvy, have stretch marks and fluctuate on the scale are not temples; rather they are deemed as forsaken and incapable of beauty.

Food was a double-edged sword: I was to eat everything that was on my plate, but the moment I started to become curvier, the gift of food suddenly felt like a curse on my body.

I had hoped to find solace in my faith as a teenager, but I quickly learned that even faithful Catholics believed the concept “your body is a temple” meant “your body is a temple if you are a size 4, have thin arms, and thighs that don’t touch.” As I grew older, this same message was tangled up in the women’s talks I heard at conferences and retreats, in the speakers who were chosen to speak at those events and in the narrow way Catholic women around me talked about “body positivity.”

The only way I could continue to feel accepted in these Catholic circles was to force my body to look the part. Every time that I put my finger in my mouth, I told myself, “I am doing this because my body is supposed to be a temple—a skinny temple.”

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

Struggling with bulimia opened the door for another eating disorder in my life: binge eating. Binge eating created a new isolated space in my mind and heart. After a binging episode, I would be disgusted with myself and believed that God was disgusted with me. Not only was my body bad, but now my soul was, too. The shame that came from my relationship with bingeing and purging became a barrier between me and God’s grace and mercy. But even as my eating disorders gained absolute control over my life, I hid my struggle and cultivated an image of myself as a woman of faith who had it all together.

I know how isolating eating disorders can be, especially around the holidays. I am here to share some hope with you.

I share this with you because I know how isolating the struggle of dealing with eating disorders can be, especially within the context of the Catholic faith. And I know it can be especially difficult around the holidays. Most years, Christmas means gathering around the dinner table with loved ones—and for me, that means grappling with my anxiety about what family members or old friends will think or say about my body. Christmas Mass has often been not a refuge but rather a place where the older Spanish women of my home parish make snide comments about how I have put on weight and how their daughter was successful and still a size 4.(Can we please stop pitting women against each other?)

If you relate to this on any level, please know you are not alone. I am here to share some hope with you, from one person with an eating disorder to another.

First, your body really is a temple. And its size, its curves, its stretch marks, its dimples, its cellulite, its shape—all the things the world deems as imperfections—are beautiful signs of your marked existence in this life. Signs that you live, breathe and move with great purpose. In too many Catholic circles, bodies are talked about in a way that perpetuates an ableist perception of the world and excludes certain people from the table. Who are we to limit where God can reside?

As we approach this New Year, may it be the year you come to love the body you live in and give that body the gratitude it deserves.

Second, it is O.K. to seek help. For years, I lived isolated, hidden within the secret of my eating disorder. There was a time when I thought that I could simply pray away my eating disorder. In reality, prayer is not and should not be our only resource for healing. Seeking specific therapy for my eating disorder has allowed me to connect with my body in ways I never could before, to listen to her needs and her movements. God does not limit our healing to one path; rather healing is expansive and fits the space we need to learn how to love the temples that are our bodies.

Finally, as we approach the season of New Year’s resolutions, do not fall into the trap that you need to lose weight or gain weight to be a better person or to deserve love. Rather, as we approach this New Year, may it be the year you come to love the body you live in and give that body the gratitude it deserves.

When we say that our bodies are temples for God to live within may we remember the true meaning of that phrase: Our bodies are temples because of the great restorative love that came from Christ, a love that deemed every single body worthy of being liberated from any shame.

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