Discipline? Or Disorder? Issues of Eating and Exercise
Several weeks ago, I hopped in my car and turned on my radio after attending a group for those who struggle with disordered eating. I turned to one of the Christian radio stations to have some praise music accompany me on my drive home. Instead of music, I heard the voice of the host begin to talk about a wedding where the bride asked her bridesmaids to wear their own wedding dresses as they stood by her side. A few thoughts crossed my mind as I listened: “That’s a strange request,” and “What if the dress doesn’t fit anymore?”
You can probably imagine that this would be stressful for so many reasons. Then, the host mentioned excitedly, “And I am just so proud of these women that they all fit in their dresses!” A harmless comment, right? Didn’t these women work hard enough to fit into their dresses? Shouldn’t we praise them for this? Well, let’s have a talk and then you can come up with your own answer to that question.
So, let me tell a “quick story.”
I have struggled with disordered eating and idolatry of body image since my youth. As a gymnast, my body was on display, critiqued, and compared. Over time, I found that I could have control over my body’s appearance, and I turned to restrictive eating and excessive exercising. People praised me for my appearance and “discipline.” However, they did not know that they were actually praising me for a disordered heart. Eventually, by God’s grace, He began showing me that this was a problem. Then, a friend shared her struggle with me that helped me identify I needed to get help. I sought secular counseling that helped me to name, describe, and change behaviors. However, secular counseling put the emphasis on outside factors that contribute to eating disorders (i.e. media, family, culture), and it neglected the fact that this was a sin-based struggle for me.
It has been easy for me to feel like a victim because the lies about appearance in our culture are so pervasive but, at its core, my eating disorder is a form of idolatry. Living in it keeps me enslaved to sin. Now, let me give the caveat that there are many different causes of eating disorders including biology and trauma so the following is not written to shame those who are living with eating disorders. The rest of this article is aimed at those of us who believe that our struggle with disordered eating stems from not fully resting in God’s mercy, grace, and love acting in our lives.
I share this story because I am still living in enslavement, and I see other Christians enslaved to this idolatry as well. Philippians 3:19 says, “Their end is their destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame with minds set on earthly things.” This verse truly describes the sin of disordered eating for me because we are in a culture that is obsessed with food, fitness, and flat tummies (in earthly terms).
Sadly, the Church does not appear to be set apart when it comes to this issue. The radio host’s trending story she shared is just one of many examples of how Christians view what is praiseworthy, specifically in a woman. If we think a woman’s size or ability to fit into a pre-baby, pre-hormonal shift, pre-stress dress is praiseworthy, let’s think again. Maybe these women committed to healthy practices to lose the weight to fit into their dresses and, if so, then awesome!
But, what if they didn’t? What if they skipped meals? What if they felt fatigued all day due to lack of food and this kept them from serving others? What if they socially isolated themselves to avoid social situations with food? Or what if they sacrificed time that could be used for building the Kingdom by compulsively and obsessively exercising? Then, our praise of this would be supporting these women as they “glory in their shame.” And if they lost weight due to illness or depression (which is a common reason someone might have lost weight), then we would be celebrating their suffering.
In conclusion, eating disorders are very complicated issues and very individualized. Each person’s struggle is different but there are practical things the Church body can do to help those who struggle with this type of issue:
1) Avoid body talk (“Gotta lose 10 pounds,” “This cupcake is going straight to my hips,” “I’ll have to work this off later”). Body talk can be really triggering for people who struggle with this. Also, we never know when some of our young ones are listening.
2) Let’s honor women for praiseworthy qualities. I think of the woman in Song of Solomon whose skin had darkened from working outside in the vineyards for her family. She questions her lover’s view of her, but it is very evident that he admires all of her. Then, consider the Proverbs 31 woman and all the efforts she puts forth. I imagine it would be pretty difficult to find time to work on her pre-baby body amidst everything. This is NOT to say we shouldn’t care about our appearance, but that our appearance needs to take proper place in our lives, and our main goal with exercise and eating should be stewarding our bodies for the growth of God’s Kingdom on earth.
3) Let’s remember the One who is most praiseworthy, sweet Jesus who died so that we wouldn’t have to live imprisoned to sins like this.
If you or someone you love is struggling with disordered eating, here are some resources to help you:
Disordered Eating G4 Group (through the Summit Church)
Mondays at 6:30 pm
Summit Blue Ridge Campus