When I first started working for Body Oak Cliff, I was a merciless taskmaster. I would sit at my desk in our windowless, fluorescently-lit office and command myself to complete my to do list. It might be 2 or 3 o’clock in the afternoon, and I hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast (if I’d remembered to eat breakfast), but I would tell myself that I couldn’t stop until I’d reached my goal.
I had this little pep talk I’d give myself, loosely inspired by some comments I’d read in Richard Foster relating to fasting. (Which, I should say, he probably didn’t intend to be used the way I used them.) It went something like this: “You’re fine, Deborah. That hunger you feel? It’s a lie. It’s not real. Your stomach is a spoiled brat, whining because it’s used to eating at this time. But you don’t need food right now. You’re stronger than that. Get your work done. Finish this assignment and then you can go home and have something to eat.”
And for a time, this sort of “worked” for me. That is, I didn’t die. And I guess I got my work done.
Have you ever done something like this? For me, it was about control, and about not being weak. I didn’t want to be at the mercy of my physical body. Mind over matter. My willpower was strong, and I could will myself to do things that other people couldn’t. That made me better, somehow. And it was also somewhat self-flagellating. I’d probably fallen behind on some deadline, and needed to do more work in a day than was humanly possible. I say “humanly” possible, because many of us do have a “machine-mode” we can shift into that allows us to do things that we couldn’t otherwise do, but at the cost of our health and wellbeing. It’s a short-term win, and one we can take advantage of every once in awhile. But if we start living this way, day in and day out, we will pay for it. The payment will first be extracted from our bodies, and then from our hearts and minds, and eventually from our souls.
Looking in the Mirror
Let’s reimagine the conversation I had with myself as a conversation between a parent and young child. It’s late afternoon, and your 5-year-old daughter has had nothing to eat all day. She’s starting to get a little irritable, and isn’t thinking clearly. She asks if she can please have something to eat. You respond, “You’re fine, kid. That hunger you feel? It’s a lie. It’s not real. Your stomach is a spoiled brat, whining because it’s used to eating at this time. But you don’t need food right now. You’re stronger than that. Get your work done. Finish this assignment, and then you can have something to eat.”
What kind of parent treats their child that way? We have a word for it: abusive. That’s abusive behavior, to deny another human food needed for proper functioning. To deny them until they perform or achieve or do whatever it is you’re demanding of them. I’m not talking about telling your kid she can’t have dessert if she doesn’t eat her vegetables. I’m not talking about trying to curb excessive consumption that’s leading to health problems. I’m talking about denying basic nutritional needs.
And yet…how many of us do this to ourselves? It won’t look the same for each of us; there are many different ways we can dehumanize our bodies. Here are just a few:
- Denying healthy nutrition. This might look like eating less than your body needs, skipping meals when they’re inconvenient, or even starving yourself. It could also involve filling your body with things that aren’t actually food, or eating so much of something that you feel sick.
- Denying adequate rest. This might look like not getting enough sleep, and/or never making space for rest when we’re awake. Rest – i.e. time when there are no tasks before you, no people to take care of, no agenda – is something we need integrated into our daily and weekly routine, and it will not happen if we aren’t intentional about it. How do you know if you’re getting enough rest? Ask yourself: Do I frequently feel tired? Anxious? Overwhelmed? Forgetful? Physically sore? Irritable? Sad? These are all signs of lack of rest.
- Denying time for exercise and play. Imagine your body was your pet dog. Do you take it out on walks? Let it run around the backyard? I know it’s a weird comparison, but it seems like we often treat our pets better than our own bodies. Especially if you have a sedentary daily routine, it’s important to incorporate some kind of movement into your life. It will remind you that you have a body and that you exist in the physical realm.
Some of what I’ve outlined above may seem excessive. Isn’t the point of being an adult that we can do whatever we want? Well…I suppose so…but the way you treat your body – is that actually what you want? Ask yourself this question: How would I feel if someone treated my child this way? Maybe you don’t have a child, in which case, try to imagine that you do. Or if that feels out of reach, think of another child you love dearly. How would I feel if someone treated ______ like this? How would I feel if their caretaker denied them food, or only let them eat potato chips and ice cream? Look at what you’re eating and ask yourself: Would I be willing to serve this to a dinner guest? Look at your patterns of work and rest and ask yourself: Would I want this for someone I love?
How pregnancy changed the way I view my body
Think about the person you love the most in the whole world. Maybe it’s your spouse, or a parent, or a sibling, or a best friend, or a child. Have someone in mind?
Now think about what you want for that person.
What do you want for their health?
What do you want for their happiness?
Now imagine that the way to give them everything you want for them is to give those things to yourself. Want them to be healthy? Eat healthy and exercise, and the benefits will automatically (magically) transfer to them. Want them to be happy? Do something that makes you happy, and they will feel happy too. You’re not forcing anything on them, and they don’t have to put in any effort, they simply get to experience the benefits of your love directly.
This is what it’s like to be pregnant. It’s the only human condition in which it is impossible not to live out Jesus’s famous words: Love others as you love yourself. If you want to take care of your unborn child, you have to take care of your own body. There’s no way around it. Your body is their body, and theirs is yours. You share nutrients and blood and emotions.
Never before in my life have I given so much thought to how I treat my body – what I put inside of it, how well I rest, how to exercise in a way that strengthens without doing harm. Now, before I put something in my mouth, I ask myself, Does this have nutritional value? Will it give me energy, or will it make me feel murky and sluggish? I’m not being overly obsessive, I’m just attending to my body in a way I never have before. And why didn’t I? Because I wasn’t worth it, I guess. I don’t know how else to make sense of it. It wasn’t worth doing the things I knew to do to take care of myself when I was only doing those things for me. So what if I eat crap and feel like crap? So what if I don’t sleep well, or don’t remember that I have a body that needs movement and play and fresh air? It only impacts me, right?
Wrong. The way we treat ourselves impacts how we feel, and how we feel impacts every person we interact with throughout the day. When I eat well, and exercise, and get the rest I need, I have energy and creativity and love to offer the world. When I neglect my body, I’m grumpy and irritable and take more than I can give. It’s not a crime to do this every once in awhile, but why would I intentionally make this a way of life? Why would I choose to be this person day in and day out?
What if we all treated ourselves the way we would treat our children? What if we gave ourselves the things we want for them? What if we didn’t starve or overindulge any aspect of our physical health? What if we gave ourselves the nutrients we needed, and exercised and rested in a way that left us feeling energized? How different would your life be? How different would our world be?
Exercise #1 “Feeding yourself like a guest”
- Take one day this week to observe your current food habits. (If your eating habits are highly unpredictable and irregular, you might do this for 2 or 3 days.) At the end of the day, write down everything you had to eat. Don’t worry about calories, fat, or other official nutritional information (unless you want to), just write the name of the food or beverage. Then reflect on this question: How do I feel physically? How do I feel emotionally?
- Another day this week, only eat foods/meals that you would serve to a guest. It doesn’t need to be fancy, but aim for real (unprocessed) foods with nutritional value (protein, fruits, vegetables). To set yourself up for success, create your meal plan in advance, and make you sure you have the necessary ingredients in your fridge and pantry. If you enjoy cooking, make time to craft a home-cooked meal. If cooking isn’t your thing, or if you’re too busy to cook, purchase pre-made meals and snacks that work for you. The goal is not to be “healthy,” per se, but to listen to your body and to eat things that allow you to function at your best. Make sure you get enough to eat, but pause and reflect periodically so that you don’t overeat. At the end of the day, ask yourself: How do I feel physically? How do I feel emotionally?
Exercise #2 “Making space for rest”
- Take a look at your schedule for the week and mark out a time for rest. The length of time is up to you, but try to stretch yourself beyond your normal routines. If you can set aside an entire day, do so! If you can only do a morning or an afternoon, go for it! If all you can spare is 1-2 hours, that’s better than nothing. Whatever you decide, mark it in bold on your calendar and treat the time like an appointment with a dear friend. That is, don’t flake out on yourself or let other commitments creep into the space. If someone asks you to do something else, you can truthfully respond that you already have other plans.
- Before your time of rest arrives, set aside 15-20 minutes to brainstorm what you might want to do during that time. This is not a commitment or an agenda, it is simply an opportunity to remember all the things you wish you had more time for. Feel free to use the following questions to generate ideas: If I had a whole week of free time with zero obligations, how would I spend the time? What do I need right now? What’s been missing from my life in this season? What hobbies or interests have I been unable to pursue for awhile? Look over your list and imagine doing the things you’ve written. Which activity or activities would leave me feeling most rested and/or energized?
- When your scheduled time of rest arrives, begin with 5 minutes of stillness to listen to your body and mind. Ask yourself: What would give me life right now? Then, do whatever you want. It might be something you brainstormed earlier, it might not. There’s no wrong way to spend your time.
- At the end, take a few minutes to reflect: How do I feel? What did this time do for me? What did I learn about myself? What practices might I want to continue in the future? What would I do differently next time?
Exercise #3 “Playing like a child”
Choose one of the following:
- Find a space where you can be completely alone and uninterrupted. Play a song that makes you happy and dance around freely. Try to channel your child self. Don’t worry about how you look or what someone might think if they saw you, just flail your arms and legs and twirl around and do whatever else feels good. If you can’t help but laugh at your own ridiculousness, you’re doing it right.
- Think of a game or activity you enjoyed as a kid, e.g. tag, frisbee, kickball, jump rope. Invite some friends to join you in one of these activities. The goal is to move your body and have fun at the same time.
- Consider the places you regularly go that are within a mile or two of your house, e.g. library, park, coffee shop, a friend’s house. Next time you go, use a mode of transportation that you would’ve used as a kid. Walk, ride a bike, skate(board) or rollerblade. Think of the journey as part of the experience and enjoy it. If you choose to walk, extra points if you skip for part of the way.
- What is one way you treat your body more like a machine than like a human? What is the impact of that?
- Consider the three categories of “body care” mentioned in this post: nutrition, rest, and physical movement. Which of these three do you struggle most with? Describe your current reality and your vision in this area.
- What factors influence the way you treat your body? What would motivate you to “treat your body like you would your child”?
This is Part 4 in a series on “Slowing.” Find part 1, “Slowing: An Antidote to Consumerism,” here.