In commenting, please respect the sensitive nature of this issue. And as is standard for eating disorder recovery discussion, do not use numbers in your comments (weight, calories, etc.)—any such numbers will be edited.
Note: I originally posted this under the name “Tirzah.”
I’ve found, unsurprisingly, that one of the more challenging aspects of recovering from an eating disorder is that of living in a culture that is pretty much crazy when it comes to issues of food and eating and the way that bodies are supposed to look. I wish I could say that it doesn’t get to me, but it does. Even when I can intellectually critique these messages, they still sting. I do my best to stay grounded by keeping in touch with the bubbles of sanity in my life: therapists and therapy groups, my comrades in recovery, supportive siblings and friends—people who challenge the toxic ideas that are so pervasive, remind me what I really care about and want in life.
In thinking about my need for these support systems, it’s finally made sense to me what people mean when they talk about church as a kind of refuge, a place to remember what matters, a counter to destructive and dehumanizing messages. My relationship with the church has been rocky enough that I haven’t often felt that way—church has all too often been a place of awkwardness and alienation for me—but I think I have a greater appreciation of what that kind of community can do at its best. I’ve always been wary of the “us” and “them” paradigm, in which “the world” is the enemy, but I can also see real value in having those connections which affirm your faith, question problematic cultural norms, and give you a language of hope.
But when it comes to these issues, of eating and body acceptance, I can only say that I would love to find more resistance at church to the philosophies of (wo)men. Unfortunately, my experience is that we’ve pretty much gone along with the culture on this one. In fact, by far the place where I feel the most self-conscious about my appearance, the mostly likely to be judged, is at church. To some extent this might reflect my particular life sitaution—I’m accustomed to the world of grad humanities students, which has been pretty low-key when it comes to this stuff. And I’ve spent a lot of time in singles wards, where I suspect the problem might be more acute. But throughout my life, in various circumstances and locations, when it comes to settings in which I might worry about appearance, church has generally been the place I dread most.
Things were especially hard when I was a teenager. At that point in my life, I had no bubbles of sanity, no refuge from a relentless cultural pressure to look a certain way—and church, if anything, exacerbated the situation. We don’t do a lot of teaching our young women about things like body acceptance and healthy attitudes toward food. Instead, we hammer the message of modesty—which, it seems to me, reflects a very male view of where teenage girls are going to get in trouble and what messages they most need to hear. The bloggernacle has produced a number of eloquent feminist critiques of LDS modesty discourse, pointing out that they objectify women. And lest they be dismissed as simply feminist theory run amok, I would like to talk about this from a more personal perspective.
I was, as I imagine is the case with the majority of teenage girls, intensely self-conscious about how I looked. It did not help that I came from a family which rarely bought new clothes, making me feel like I stood out in a largely middle class ward. But much more painfully, I was acutely aware of my weight, which was on the higher side when I was an adolescent. Six years of sitting through YW lessons was absolutely excruciating. The message I got, loud and clear, was that yes, how you look matters—in fact, it matters crucially, and is something you should be seriously thinking about. Your purpose in life can best be fulfilled with an appropriately attractive appearance (because that’s the path to temple marriage: attractive enough to get to the marriage, but modest enough to get to the temple). For me, this did not spark a desire to be modest, but rather reinforced some already intense self-hate. I learned to cast a critical eye on my body not only from movies and billboards and magazine pictures, but also from what I learned at church. The fact that I had a lot of caring YW leaders mitigated the pain somewhat, but lessons on modesty (and appearance-related issues that showed up in other lessons) still hurt in ways that at the time I could not even articulate. All too often, church reminded me that even God was unhappy with the way I looked, that my weight was a moral failing. During the modesty talks I would stare at the wall and wish desperately to be elsewhere, certain that my physical appearance was being evaluated and judged. The fact that I was not in fact dressing immodestly was beside the point. The meta-message was all too biting.
As an adult, I’ve generally escaped the modesty madness. But I still find that the American religion of thinness and eating “right” has enmeshed itself in Mormon culture. As do women in so many settings, LDS women bond by complaining about their bodies and comparing diets. Sometimes this is done with a Mormon tinge: the Word of Wisdom gets interpreted in all kinds of ways, and people at times describe their particular eating choices not only in the language of personal preference, but also in the language of morality and what God wants. Righteousness gets tied to eating correctly, connected to the prized values of self-discipline and restraint. Sometimes I go to church and find it overwhelmingly depressing to see bright, accomplished, articulate, attractive women talk about the latest diet they’re trying.
And once in a while there is outright contempt. I would definitely describe myself as a liberal Mormon, but on this issue, I at times part company with some of my fellow travelers. I’ve heard far too many snarky comments about the supposed hypocrisy of orthodox believers who avoid alcohol and coffee but engage in the absolutely horrifying behavior of eating foods which the Nutrition Police have labeled evil. I’m similarly exhausted by those who complain loudly about how judgmental conservative Mormons can be, but who have no problem criticizing the eating behavior of the unenlightened. These attitudes are not necessarily tied to one end of the political or religious spectrum, of course—I’ve met plenty of more traditional members of the church who also talk about food in charged and moralistic terms. But I find the attitude particularly ironic when expressed by a group which so often argues for tolerance and objects to proselytizing. Or perhaps I simply find it more personally stinging to encounter those who can accept my heterodoxy, no matter how wild–but who run for cover at the mere mention of high fructose corn syrup.
Every so often I run across a casual bloggernacle comment that makes me flinch. A suggestion that weight should be added to the temple recommend interview. Dismissive comments about overweight Mormon women. Accounts of going to church and being perturbed by the unfashionable, unattractive people there. It’s not just Mormon blogs, of course. A few months ago, I read a comment in the NYT comments section about how we should just kill all the fat people. (I imagine that if such a thing had been said about women, or blacks, or gays, it would have been moderated. But evidently it was supposed to be funny.)
So I cling to my safety nets, and I feel very fortunate to have them. And while I’ve focused on the negatives here, that’s not the whole picture—as I hope to discuss in a future post about religious questions, there is much in Mormonism I find helpful. But as I said earlier, this is an area where I wish the church were more counter-cultural, and less prone to adopting toxic cultural norms about dieting and appearance.