Friday, January 13, 2023

On Body Image

This may be one of the most vulnerable posts I have ever made. It would be easy for me to say nothing. To keep this to myself. I have so much fear in exposing this part of myself. So much shame.
And yet…
What if I’m not the only one? What if somebody else needs to know they are not alone?
So here goes…
I don’t make New Year’s resolutions but on New Year’s Day, without even thinking about it, I told my husband a handful of things that I would like to see happen by this time next year. These words flowed off my tongue like they were part of me, deep inside, and had been waiting for the right opportunity to come tumbling out.
This may sound silly to some of you but one of those goals is to be able to look at myself in the mirror… to look at my naked, changing body… and not recoil in shame. And I want to be able to go to a medical appointment and not dread having to stand on a scale. I want it not to matter.
Perhaps I run the risk of sounding either petty, vain, or deeply pathological. Please understand. I cannot remember a time in my life, from a tiny person on, when the size of a female’s body was not the most important thing about her. Having fat thighs was a fate worse than death. My mother was a perpetual dieter and I was privileged to follow in her footsteps. Some of you know that story. My teenage eating disorder dominates the landscape of my adolescent life.
Fast forward through my 20s, 30s, 40s. I recovered. I had babies. I learned to listen to my body and eat when I was hungry. I was given the gift of a small body whose metabolism responded well to whatever I wanted to eat (which has always been mostly healthy) and a reasonable, but not obsessive, amount of exercise.
But life does not allow you to cruise from start to finish without change. And that’s a good thing. We welcome that change when it comes with gain: of life experience and accrued wisdom and sometimes wealth. We are less enthusiastic when the changes of life come with loss: of beauty, of youth, of fitness.
I have struggled for a good many years in watching my body change. At first it was nothing short of alarm and despair. I remember looking down at my body a few years ago and I heard a voice in my head say, “But what else do I have to offer?” My value was still hogtied to my size. I was appalled that it still mattered so much.
But over time and with work I could find myself rolling with the punches. I would have periods of embracing my changing body. But most of the time I bounced back and forth between acceptance and suffocating shame. This past summer the shame got the best of me.
While at a family reunion, my children and I swam one mile (likely more with all of the zigging and zagging of swimming in a strong current) across a lake in Wisconsin. It was an absolute blast and a memory I will cherish forever. And yet all of the joy, the thrill of having accomplished something hard and doing it with the people I love the most, was sucked from me the minute I saw the photos and watched the video. The before and after: cheerful and dry and ready for adventure, each of us taking a running dive, and then our exhausted smiles on the dock on the other side. All of the good, all of the joy, it evaporated when I saw my body. This wasn’t the body I remembered having. This wasn’t what I bargained for. Not that there was anything wrong with my body. It just wasn’t me. Those weren’t my hips, my thighs, my arms. Still, after all those years, my identity was tied up in what I looked like. I felt like I had lost myself
Later that month I had an annual physical where I discovered I was indeed almost 10 pounds heavier than a few years before. The despair deepened. And I feared the change would never stop.
About the same time my daughter added me to her Y membership so that I can take our granddaughter. There I witnessed a steady parade of women obsessively, frantically working out. Many of these women appeared to be considerably older than I am and I found it impossible for me not to compare my body to theirs. And I knew that in order to have a body like theirs.. in order to be able to maintain a body that I would feel safe in, I would have to adopt a lifestyle and a mindset that would not be healthy for me. I know too many women in their 50s, 60s, 70s and even 80s who constantly worry about their weight or spend their days pursuing a degree of fitness that just seems exhausting. That is not a life I want to live.
Perhaps it was time to go back and open up the can of worms I had tried to slam shut so many years before.
I began listening to podcasts addressing eating disorders and I saw myself everywhere. Not in the eating behavior, as I have not dealt with food restriction or disordered eating for decades, but in the inner landscape. The shame so deep that it swallows you whole.The feelings of failure and never being enough. So I made a decision. I made it without even consulting my husband, which is unusual for me, especially when it is a decision concerning a major financial layout. I decided that perhaps it was time to see a therapist who specializes in body image work.
Back when I had an eating disorder in 1980 and 1981 nobody was a specialist on eating disorders and nobody knew what to do with them. In my adult life when I would see a therapist to deal with various issues, I was always working with somebody in order to address something else. I decided it was time to stare those demons in the face. And that is what I am doing now. And it is very good.
If you’re still reading this, I want you to know that this is about as vulnerable as it gets for me. I don’t want to admit that body image is still a struggle. Nobody in my generation talks about this (my therapist says that younger generations do). I don’t want to appear weak or pathetic. I don’t want those who knew me when I was starving myself to death and the weird kid in high school to think that I am still as lame as I was back then. I have a lot of shame in sharing this. But the reality is I don’t think I’m alone and struggling with this stage of life.
Some of you may be tempted to tell me I should be thankful for the body I have and I realize on an objective level that I am indeed very, very blessed with a small frame and a pretty decent metabolism.
Some people may fear that I don’t take the need to safeguard my health while aging seriously, Do not worry about that. I do.
For some of you the issue of body image and weight may seem incredibly vain and frivolous because you are dealing with life-threatening issues. I do not want to come across as vain or frivolous or shallow.
A woman’s relationship with her body is a very complex thing and some of us were taught from the time we drew our first breath that our size and our appearance was what mattered most. Some of us grew up with our brains developing with these messages as the very baseline of our being. Some of us knew that being small and pleasant to look at meant connection and approval. Sometimes those messages are so deep inside us that it can take six decades to get down to the bottom of it all.
Some of us have never been able to see ourselves as having value outside of our appearance. It is a tragedy of epic proportions.
I would like to ask two things:
1. If you are, like me, struggling to embrace who you are and to affirm your own dignity because your body does not meet a standard, please reach out to me or someone else. Shame grows, multiplies, explodes in secrecy and silence.
2. If you are someone who is driven to work out and eat only certain things in order to make your body what you want it to be even if it is in the name of “health,“ be very careful of the message you send. Teenage girls are not the only ones who struggle. Eating disorder relapse in midlife is very common. Everywhere we turn we are told to fight our bodies, to fight age, to hang on with every cell the little bit of youth we have left. We need less lecturing, not more.
It takes hard work to find out who you are apart from who you've always known yourself to be. It takes hard work to fight back the messages that define your value in your appearance or performance. It takes hard work to dig deep inside and find things of great worth that you can share with others.
Life itself is hard work. This stage of life can feel like a free fall. I’m working hard to find a soft place to land, one full of gentleness, kindness, and self-acceptance.


Thursday, October 20, 2022

Trauma and the Empathetic Witness

We all hear a lot about trauma these days. It seems to be a sort of buzz word, perhaps becoming so common as to lose its meaning. And yet we are hearing about trauma for a reason. Science is catching up to what so many of us know: that an event or series of events so painful and so profound can change us and even cripple us, sometimes for life. 

There are different kinds of trauma. There is what I've heard called the "big T" trauma: the natural disaster, horrific warfare, the unthinkable catastrophe that comes out of left field. That is what most people think of when they think of trauma. And those events certainly fit the bill. PTSD is very real. 

And yet there is a different kind of trauma. I've heard it called the "little t" trauma. Sometimes it is  developmental trauma. Sometimes it relational trauma. They call what follows complex-ptsd or c-ptsd. And complex it is.  

So why do some people cruise through hard events with nary a scratch and others wrestle with the intense mental and emotional and even physical pain and disability for years...or a lifetime? Especially when it comes to the "little t" trauma, what make trauma...well...trauma? 

"Trauma is not what happens to us, but what we hold inside in the absence of an empathetic witness." 

When I first read this quote from Peter Levine then it all made sense.  It is the "in the absence of an empathetic witness" that is, to me, the most crucial point. It certainly has been in my life. When I think of the hard things in my life, the most painful events by far, especially in my childhood, happened when I was utterly and completely alone. There was nobody to turn to. Absolutely nobody. Even now when I try to describe those times, the pain can take my breath away. 

I think that some types of family dysfunction are so much more damaging than others because some things are absolutely isolating. There is nobody to turn to. 

Let's look at the Adverse Childhood Experiences, the ten traumatic experiences measured the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Study, what do you have? 

-Abuse: verbal and emotional, physical, sexual

-Neglect: emotional, physical

-Separation or divorce of parents

-Domestic abuse of mother

-Mental illness of household member

-Substance abuse of household member

-Incarceration of household member

Abuse within the family is isolating. Neglect within a family is isolating. Nobody talks about it. If the abuse or neglect isn't physical, nobody even recognizes it as abuse. You are alone.

If there is a death in the family everybody comes running (unless it is a suicide, of course). If there is a divorce people turn the other way, or worse, point fingers. The child is left to navigate these waters of loss or change alone. 

Substance abuse within the family is a hush hush situation, especially among the tidier in society.

And then there are the horrific secrets of sexual abuse...
And if you get the courage to tell someone and are met with unbelief or blame, all hope of an empathetic witness is gone.

While all of this is tragic, the worst part is that the church can compound it all, by ignoring the wound, by not recognizing the intense internal injury, by minmizing the pain, or blaming it all on your sin, thus compounding the trauma and leaving you to believe that not even God is an empathetic witness.

Far too many of us have had the opposite reaction. When we disclose our stories we are met with the silence of disinterest, discomfort, disbelief, or disapproval. Or we are chastised, exhorted to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, lose the "victim mentality," and repent of our sin. There is no way to quantify the damage this response does. Not only is this a cruel response, it is a horrific representation of the character of God. 

I recently finished the book Trauma in the Pews by Janyne McConnaughey. For the first time I understood why church has been so hard for me. (I would recommend anybody and everybody who goes to church to read this book.) One of the things she points out is how absolutely essential it is for church to be a safe place to tell our stories, stories that perhaps never before had an empathetic witness. 

McConnaughey says:

The litmus test for trauma-responsive faith communities is how leaders and laypeople respond to the vulnerable sharing of trauma.  

So what can we do? We can listen to people as they share the hard, hard things in their lives. We can listen and learn. Listen and weep. Listen and connect. Listen and affirm. Listen and validate their pain. Listen and see. We can be a village of empathetic witnesses. 

Thursday, September 15, 2022


It never ceases to amaze me how drawn we are to measuring life by the numbers. Not just measuring life but measuring our quality of life. Measuring our success. Measuring our worth.

But quality and quantity are not the same thing. 

But we measure nonetheless. We are so drawn to it, sometimes helplessly so, like starving ants to a picnic full of sugary goodness. 

We look at the numbers, longing for them to validate our existence on the planet. Our worth in comparison to everyone else. Because we are convinced that we are not enough. 

So we measure.

The miles we run. 

The trails we hike.

The pounds we lift.

The pounds we weigh.

The number of wins.

The number of sales.

The number in our bank accounts.

The number of children we have.

Even the number of souls we save. 

Because we really do think that our worth can be defined by the numbers. 

And it is a lie from the pit of hell. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Ginny Unleashed

Every so often somebody says something that turns your life upside down...or right-side up. The words are so powerful that you remember exactly when it was and where you were and what you were doing when you heard them. 

It was last week. I was in the basement. I was painting. 

I was listening to the Uncertain Podcast with Katherine Spearing (Hi, Katherine!). She interviews Polly and Bob Hamp and they are talking about abuse and trauma and they basically say this: "Freedom is not about the control of behavior but the unleashing of identity. The beautiful thing inside of you isn’t only to be embraced but also unleashed. The world needs that from you. The world needs what you specifically have inside. If you don’t embrace it then you can’t unleash it." 

The world needs what you specifically have inside.

Wait, what?

There is something inside of me that I should embrace?

There's something inside of me that should be unleashed?

There's something inside of me that the world needs?

This concept rocked my world. It literally took my breath away.

I have always been taught that all that is in me is wrong. Or bad. Or sinful, even. I have always felt that perhaps I shouldn't exist after all. At least not in my current form. 

It has been so easy for me to absorb the messages. The "Why can't you be like ______?"

From early on I was the Bounty Quicker Picker Upper of the "shoulds," from who I should be as a daughter and a student and a friend and a wife and a mother  and a professional and a Christian. Everywhere I turned the pressure was there to be someone I was not. Someone I am not. 

Perhaps if I can do more, try harder, perform better. Perhaps if I could be less sensitive, less emotional, less opinionated, less exhausted, less vulnerable. Perhaps if I could be more organized, more amitious, more driven, more intelligent, more competent, more upbeat...more "godly", more victorious, more confident, more resilient, more healed. 

Perhaps if I could be someone else. 

It never occurred to me that I should not only embrace who I am (ok, kind of keeping it to myself)  but that I am to unleash who I am.  And why? Because the world needs it. The world needs who I am? The world The world needs...ME! 

How is it that I am almost 59 years old and I am just hearing this? Never mind. What matters is that I am hearing it. 

I want to embrace. I want to unleash. I want to believe that the world needs what I specifically have inside. Even if it is unconventional. Even if it's messy. Because it's beautiful. 

Get ready, world. Get ready to meet Ginny Unleashed. 😃


Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Stick Figure

I just finished Stick Figure by Lori Gottlieb. It took me all of two days. It is written with the words from the author's own diary from 1978, when she was 11 years-old, and chronicles the development and details of her eating disorder and it hit way too close to home. But it was also an incredible reminder. A reminder of just how hard it is to be a girl at that age. A reminder of just how powerful the messages are that we send each other. A reminder of the incredibly powerful hold that diet culture has on females. A reminder that things really haven't changed all that much in 45 years.

I remember it all. I remember the message that being fat was the worst possible thing that could ever happen to you. I remember the shelves of diet books in our home. I remember the ways we would compare if our legs touched at the tops or our collarbones stuck out. I remember when our weight was on our drivers license and the heavier among us, or even just the self conscious, would scribble out the weight with a pen. I remember comparing waist sizes on our Levis. I remember EVERYONE wanting to be thin. I remember finally losing weight and getting the thin body people always wanted and finally, finally, FINALLY I was good at something.

And I remember the fear. The intense fear that no matter how much weight I lost, I needed to lose just a little bit more in order to have a "buffer." I remember the horror of gaining a pound, which meant that I was blowing up, uncontrollably, and my life as I knew it was over and I would be one of those sad, fat women who nobody loved.

I remember being so stuck and so hopeless. This book brought it all back.

It has been 41 years since I hit bottom. I never, ever, ever want to enter that hell again.

So when you see me pushing back...pushing back on the diet culture and the fitness culture (because nobody wants to admit to dieting to be thin any more), it is because I remember. I refuse to jump on any bandwagon, be it the organic one or the keto one or the intermittent fasting one or the vegan one or the "sugar is poison" one (it is also delicsious). I refuse to go with the special supplements that will fix all my ills except for those of my bank account (they are always super expensive).

The reality is that the horrific diet culture of my teens is still out there. It has just grown up. Now I go to the menopause support group on Facebook where I think I can find camaraderie for my achy joints and my saggy skin and the fact that I am indeed a brainless wonder with no ability to remember anything whatsoever and, while I do find some comfort with my menopausal travel companions, I also find an awful lot of women pushing their solutions to weight gain with "before" and "after" photos and descriptions of their insane personal training agendas and I am 14 all over again. And I.WON'T.GO.BACK.THERE.AGAIN.

Listen, people. The messages out there that say that you won't amount to anything unless you attain a certain body size and shape are just toxic. Yes, I know it is important to be healthy. But you can be healthy in a lot of different sizes and a lot of different ways and what good is a rock hard, super fit, thin body if your life is consumed with what you eat and how much you move? (I have to say this because I always get pushback from people who think I am encouraging them to "just be fat and not try.")

Eating disorders are real. Body dysmorphia is real. Exercise obsessions are real. And they can all be horribly destructive. They can literally suck the life right out of you.

I am staring 59 in the face and weigh the most I have in 35 years and that's ok (even though every article tells me how I have to stave off menopausal weight gain). But sometimes I have to revisit my former self to remember just how ok I am now. There is nothing out there worth the obsession over weight or diet or exercise.

And there is a lot to be gained (pun intended) in letting it go.

Friday, July 15, 2022

On Comparison


I have heard over and over ad nauseaum that it is bad to compare yourself to other people. Bummer! It's the one thing I'm good at. (Somehow the other person is always prettier, smarter, fitter, wiser, kinder, tougher, more talented or gifted, more successful, etc.)
Anyhow...apparently comparing yourself to other people can result in all kinds of discontent and discouragement. We go to some nasty places when we compare, typically either arrogance or despair. (Despair is my forte.)
This afternoon I stood and watched the end-of-the-week ceremony for my granddaughter at her day camp and sure enough, here come the awards. Really, all they had was one award for each group. The Christlikeness Award. (Sigh.)
At first I didn't even know what to do with that. The traits that were mentioned were not necessarily traits that I connect with Christlikeness but traits that are more likely from inborn temperament plus brain wiring. The jumping bean with ADHD doesn't have a chance against the highly compliant "good girl," no matter what the conditions of each one's heart.
That led me to thinking about just how problematic award ceremonies are. I know, I know, everybody rails against "participation trophies" and how we are rewarding mediocrity but seriously, people, not everybody can be the best. Not everybody was created to be the best. And when we build an entire childhood rewarding being the best how the hell are we not supposed to turn into adults who are forever comparing ourselves to each other?
The Bible talks about the "lesser members" being all the more important. We know that our body parts that don't get a lot of fanfare are absolutely essential. And yet we develop the young of our species telling them that only one of them is the best. And only one of them gets the recognition. And only one of them is worthy of being celebrated.
It sucks.
What if instead of measuring each kid against the other we found something beautiful in each kid and encouraged it? One kid might be encouraged for her kindness, another for her generosity. One for his courage, another for his gentleness. Not only will kids no longer be pitted against one another to be the winner but they will perhaps start looking for the beauty in each other.
And maybe when they grow up they won't strut with arrogance or wallow in despair because comparing won't be on the radar. Beauty will be.

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

The Spectrum of Fatherhood

I made a Facebook post on Fathers Day that caused quite a ruckus. Many who read the post either misunderstood what I said or didn't read what I said or disagreed with what I said or felt that what I said was entirely inappropriate for the day. One person took my words as an opportunity to lash out at me personally. That post has since been taken down but the sting lingers. 

Here is what I said: 

Wishing some of my friends a Happy You-Are-No-Longer-Under-the-Iron-Thumb-of-Your-Tyrant-Father Day! 

You know who you are. 😙

Here are some of the reactions I got: 

-I ruined Fathers Day for everyone else.

-I was making others feel guilty for posting positive things about their fathers.

-It is hard to be a father and we need to give fathers grace.

-Good fathers are so important for the functioning of society.

-Absent fathers are behind many mass shootings.

-Praise should be public and criticism should be private.

-I caused fathers to wonder if they are good dads or not. 

First, the primary audience of my post: I have a number of friends who grew up in the patriarchy movement. This is a movement that elevates the father to king and ruler supreme of his home and family. While some of these men may be very kind and can handle this level of absolute rule, other men use this as an opporunity to rule with an iron fist. Along with this patriarchy movement has come an especially odd thing called the Stay at Home Daughters movement. This movement views female offspring as possessions of their fathers. These girls are raised that their only function in life is to serve their fathers until their fathers hand them over to their husbands. The girl goes from the possession of one man to the possession of another. In addition, the only viable life option for these girls it to become a wife and mother, therefore homemaking is really her only needed skill in life. Therefore, no higher education is needed. I have friends who had to take college classes in secret because their fathers would not have allowed it. Most often these men hold control over their families, not only financially, but with threats of spiritual danger or doom should someone leave the fold. If this sounds like a cult, BINGO! 

I know women who have fought long and hard to get to a place of freedom. As you can imagine, Fathers Day is a hard day for these women. A kind, loving father is beyond their comprehension. Of course, there are guys who grew up under such structures as well who have their own issues with that system. I'm sure Fathers Day is a minefield for them as well. 

I also know plenty of people who grew up in families that weren't part of the patriarchy but where fathers were quite abusive in a variety of ways. They, too, may feel relief at not being under the control of these men. 

So, I wrote that post for these friends. An "I want to acknowledge and celebrate with you" post. In no way was a saying anything else. 

In no way did I say that all fathers are bad.

In no way did I say that it is wrong to post about fathers.

In no way did I say that fathers need to be perfect to be celebrated.

In no way did I say that fathers aren't important.

Anybody who has read anything else I have written knows just how strongly I feel about the role of fathers. Shoot, I preached an entire sermon on June 12 about the impact a father has on one's view of God. And on this very Fathers Day I posted a tribute to my own husband who was and is a kind and good father to our children. 

In reflecting on what caused all the ruckus, I boiled it down to a lack of spectrum thinking. We need to be able to see much of life, including fatherhood, along a spectrum. At one end is the perfect father who doesn't exist but who many may aspire to. At the other end is the tyrant: the abusive father who devoirs and destroys his children in any variety of ways, using them for his own ends. And in between are all the other fathers, working at various levels of effort with their individual temperaments and gifts and skills and ideas and saddled with their family histories and traumas and life experiences and particular circumstances. 

It is incredibly important to understand the spectrum lest we put everything into categories of black and white. When we see things in black and white, we ten interpret a mention of a tyrannical father as saying that fathers are bad or unnecessary and that the only way to not be a tyrannical father is to be a perfect one. That's just not true. 

For years I have walked alongside a number women who have been in abusive marriages. One thing they regularly run into is that, in trying to explain to others their situation, others will say, "Well, my husband and I had this problem and ......" or "Well, all marriages are hard....." or "Well, what on earth were you expecting???" and so on. Leslie Vernick, a therapist who specializes in working with people in destructive marriages has a wonderful article I regularly point people to. In this particular article she points out the difference between a Diffucult Marriage, a Disappointing Marriage, and a Destructive Marriage. And there is indeed a difference. A huge difference. If we refuse to acknowledge that difference then we will try to understand our friend trapped in abuse as being in our same situation of a difficult marriage and we will minimize the severity of the situation and try to thrust on this friend our own pat answers. We have to understand that marriages are on a spectrum from the very healthy to the horribly abusive. 

It is the same with families. 

It is the same with mothers.

It is the same with fathers.

If you don't understand this then it is time for you to do what I call "expanding your frame of reference." 

I expand my frame of reference by asking questions. By listening to people's life stories. By reading memoirs. By educating myself in a variety of ways. This is impportant so that when someone says, "My husband and I are having trouble in our marriage," I know to stop and ask questions and gently draw out what she is saying rather than offering a pat answer of what has worked for me. 

If you think that when I say "tyrant father" I am talking about some guy who wants so badly to love his children well but yelled at his kid out of fear or overreacted to a poorly cut lawn, then you don't know what a tyrant father is. 

If you think that my congratulating my friends for being out from under their tyrant fathers means that I'm demeaning the role of father, then you don't know what a tyrant father is. 

If you think that it is inappropriate for rejoicing with my friends at their hard-won freedom, then you don't know what a tyrant father is. 

If you can wrap your head around what the difference between all the other fathers out there and those fathers who use and abuse and rape and pillage and manipulate and maim and control and enforce and all, more often than not, in the name of God Almighty, then you should be thrilled, as I am, that those people who grew up trapped in such oppressive systems are finally free. 

I was trying, in my own imperfect way, to redeem this holiday for them with a nod to their freedom.