Today, I’m so thrilled to share with you the story of my reader friend, Mindy and her journey to finding body image freedom. Mindy’s words are powerful! She breaks down this issue in a way that I know will help so many of you who are struggling to find clarity on it. Read what she says and encourage her with your story in the comments!
My name is Mindy and I have lived with body shame and revulsion for almost as long as I can remember.
The first memories I have of feeling ashamed of my body are from fifth grade and I cannot remember a time since then when that shame and revulsion wasn’t there in the background of my life, hounding me. I’ve had 25 years of it now.
There’s a lot I could say about how I grew to have this body image issue in my heart, but how it got there isn’t nearly as interesting as what God is starting to do with it. Let me share with you a little of my experience with body image struggles, how God brought it to the forefront of my life, and what he’s beginning to do about it in my heart with his glorious gospel.
I have not sat down without covering my middle with my arms or a pillow since I was a child. I have not looked in the mirror without an onslaught of silent words of disgust since sometime in late elementary school. Even now, as a grown woman, after I’ve met a new person or gone to a social event, I will find myself wondering if I put enough of my personality in the conversation to help people like me despite my appearance.
I wonder sometimes if all the beautiful women I meet automatically assume we have nothing in common. I get nervous to meet my husband’s clients or friends because I feel like they might have to work at understanding why my charming, handsome husband would marry me. In my darkest times, I worry that my two daughters might grow up afraid that they will look like me. I am afraid in my own heart that maybe they have too many of my genes.
You wouldn’t know any of this if you met me, I seem much more confident than I am. Generally, these thoughts are not in the forefront of my mind, they’re more like constant static in the background of my life. Body image static is distracting and takes energy and focus to ignore, so when I am low on energy or focus, it gets much louder. In the time that I’ve been married, my 5’7 frame has worn every size between ten and twenty and none of my toxic thinking budged from my heart anywhere on that journey. I didn’t feel at peace with my body or my performance as a dieter in any of those pairs of jeans.
I have done every diet and diet/bible study known to man, and the whole time I really believed that the problem was what I saw in the mirror. And the ugliness I saw in the mirror was there because I couldn’t pull it together and just force the restriction and physical punishing that was required to get and remain thin.
“Mindy, don’t you know your body was made to be the temple of God? Look what you’ve done to it. You’ve ruined it. You were fearfully and wonderfully made and you ruined it all. You’re an ugly mess now, especially that belly and neck of yours. You’re fat and gross and what does that say to the world about God? Apparently you love French bread more than your beloved Jesus. You’re a pig and you won’t just stop eating. Jesus died for you to be free from sin and you aren’t trying hard enough. Stop being a glutton. Other people do it all the time. Haven’t you got any resolve or self respect? Just imagine what people think of you. You know, you wouldn’t feel this way if you could just be thinner, prettier, and more together.”
Friend, I’m sorry you had to read that harsh quote from my mental life, but I include it because I know I have sisters out there who will feel a pang at reading their own thoughts in mine.
We have a common enemy who spews this kind of evil at many of us. This line of reasoning has been reinforced all over culture and in many words from important people across the years of my life. I am emotional writing those words up because although I see now how horrid they are, I believed them, and I’m fighting not to be embarrassed by them now. What cruel shame. What an unbearable burden and bondage.
You see, I didn’t know I had a body image issue. I thought I had a fat issue.
I didn’t know I had a shame issue. I thought I had a dieting issue.
I didn’t know I had an idolatry issue. I thought it was a failure issue.
I prayed and apologized to God for what I’d eaten, how much I’d eaten, or how I didn’t exercise enough on such a constant basis that I really thought he was as concerned about my thinness and dieting as I was. I thought he was as fed up with me as I was. I thought his first priority for my sanctification was for me to win the battle on the scale so he could use me to the degree he wanted to. I thought he was waiting on me to clean myself up in response to what Jesus did for me on the cross. I thought it all depended on me.
I did fasting and cleanses, and diets and starving and massive amounts of exercise. I also did stress eating, comfort eating, and no exercise and then I would throw in the towel and try to forget how bad I was, until the shame crept up again and I started all over. That sounds super healthy right? Clearly not. I thank God he hasn’t left me there.
This last year, my husband and I started going to a new church after a very long time at our previous one. God moved us at just the right time, and many good things have followed. One thing I hadn’t expected however was how uncomfortable I would feel in my body while trying to get connected to a new church family. These people didn’t know me. I was walking through the doors wounded by my previous church experience, feeling very exposed and vulnerable, and how could I show I was likable or useful when I all I could give them was first impression after first impression? I would find myself looking around the room at a lot of very beautiful women in beautiful clothes, and feeling out of place.
There was this one transformative moment in worship service several months ago when I was singing my heart out to the Savior I genuinely love while simultaneously worrying about looking fat while doing it. Seeing that duplicity in my heart, something broke off in my spirit and I got mad. I thought, “Ok, that’s it!! I am so sick and tired of thinking about myself and what I look like! I am standing here worshipping Jesus, the King of the Universe, with my mouth, but part of my heart is focused on fat?! That is wrong. It is sin. It is stealing this moment of worship away from me and Jesus. I repent! Lord God, I repent of this constant fear and focus on my fat. I know it isn’t right. I don’t know how to stop it. I am desperate to understand what I am missing. I know the beautiful gospel I’m hearing should impact this area of my life, but I don’t know how to do it. Teach me. Give me a new prayer.”
I believe God used that moment to show me there was a spiritual battle going on for my soul, and He answered my request for a new prayer right then and there. Into my heart fell the words, “Lord, captivate me with your glory, your beauty and your body.” I could see that I had been focused on my own glory in my concern over what other people thought of me. I had been focused on my own beauty because I was so ashamed of my perceived lack of it. I had been concerned about my own body instead of all the people around me. That’s how it started. Now, when I find myself focused on my glory, beauty, or body, I just pray this prayer over my fears. Some days I pray it a lot.
After that moment, God began to work in quiet but mighty ways. He showed me that I needed to let the Holy Spirit be Lord of my sanctification. I had been living with a mental list of flaws and failures and I decided which ones I needed to work on and prayed for God to help me—like he was some kind of power boost to my own aims. I repented of that as well, through tears, because I was afraid that God may not want to work on what I wanted to work on, and that was my weight. Here was this beautiful, good God with his hand outstretched and I was in tears because I was afraid to put down my trinket and grab hold of Him.
Once I really saw the lie in my fear, I could begin to call this mental prison what it was: idolatry. I believed happiness, security, health, longevity, better relationships, acceptance, confidence, respect and joy were all on the other side of losing weight consistently and finally. I thought they were in being able to stay on a diet plan so I could feel accomplished and more beautiful. I believed being more beautiful would save me from shame and guilt and give me the favor and peace I craved. I knew my mindset was wrong, but I didn’t know how to live without it. How should I eat? What about exercise? Should I stop dieting? How will I keep from getting fatter? How will I get thinner? How will I know when I’m bad, or good?
Did you hear that last question? It is a powerful question that held the key to my prison door. All of a sudden I saw I had been constantly asking myself this question through diet and exercise. When I got on the scale every morning I was asking, “Am I good or bad?” After every meal I was asking, “Am I good or bad?” When I looked in the mirror, when I did my hair, when I saw myself in a photo, I was asking it.
For me, there has been no way to be on a “diet” without it being exactly like this. It is no small thing for me, an overweight woman with a family history of diabetes, to consider letting go of dieting completely, but it’s where I started. I prayed and told God that I hadn’t lived like he was enough for my battle with food and weight. I figured the ancients just didn’t know about carbs when their promised land was called a land flowing with milk and honey, or when Jesus called himself the Bread of Life. I wanted to genuinely try to rely on him alone to show me how to live free of self imposed rules, and embrace consistent moderation in all things while really trying to glorify Him in my eating and stewardship of my body. I put the scale out in the garage and hoped it wasn’t the same thing as giving up.
I knew I needed help, so I went to the internet and typed in, “Christian and body image” and found the blog Compared to Who? I was riveted from the beginning because I was reading what I had never heard anywhere else. I will admit that I have read every post in the archive because they were like water to the dry places in my heart. It was on Heather’s blog that I finally found words to piece this all together. I have a beauty idol and that’s what gives power to all my confused and destructive behaviors with food, diet, and exercise. I gave my idol the power to declare me good or bad, clean or unclean, and I served it with tremendous energy, reverence and fear.
That’s the thing about idols. It’s not always what you have most affection for that will lead you to your idols, sometimes it’s what you fear. The Israelites didn’t serve false Gods because they had more affection for them as much as because they feared bad crops, harvests, fertility, and battle outcomes. When you worship an idol, you adjust your behavior, you make a sacrifice, you bow down to please your idol in order to get an outcome or prevent an outcome.
That’s what I have been doing. I have served beauty with the religion of dietism and it has failed me, stolen from me, and imprisoned me. By grace, I have since renounced this idol, and repented before my gracious Lord, who was so good not to let my idols save me. What I needed was the glorious gospel of our great God. Jesus is the hero of my story. He is the one who stepped in and paid in full for my sin and shame—even my body sin and shame. His grace is what makes me beautiful. His sacrifice is what makes me valuable. His righteousness is what makes me presentable. His touch is what removes my shame. Smaller pants, fewer chins, and more compliments can never ever do that.
I have a long road to go still.
As of today, I am still learning to recognize and resist when I am tempted to return to this rubbish of an idol, and I am learning to focus more on Jesus and his glory, beauty and body, than my own. I bought a swimsuit (that wasn’t even black) and took my daughters swimming and still looked people in the eye.
I have more peace.
I feel lighter.
I no longer struggle in worship service.
I have more frequent dance parties in my living room with my girls.
I have been more free in social settings.
I even forgot to wear makeup to the store one day.
I jumped like a kid across some stepping stones even though I was jiggly, and I was happy. I even took my shirt off and stood in a waterfall at the top of a hike in front of my husband (who was pleasantly surprised). I still also have lots of thinking and habits to unlearn. I still need to lean into grace in order to walk out the freedom Jesus has provided me, but praise God there is less static. I feel like I need continual deliverance, but it’s a start—a start full of hope and grace and the truest beauty.
Mindy Pickens a wife and mother who loves Jesus, her husband, their two daughters, coffee, books…and coffee. She spends her time homeschooling, tutoring in her homeschool community, and trying to figure out this whole home-maker thing. She’s a regular woman who is captivated by the gospel of Jesus Christ and is learning to surrender to the grace and goodness of God.