Leslie, a gym teacher, was active, working out every day. Then she moved, switched jobs, and a few months later looked down to find a tire around her waist. She was so embarrassed that she found it difficult even to think about sex. All she wanted to do was to pull the covers up over her head.
Almost all women have something about their bodies they don’t like, usually related to weight. Those who are only ten pounds overweight can feel just as abysmal as those who are fifty pounds overweight. Indeed, an American Health for Women survey found that 23% of women felt too fat for sex. We have an image in our heads of what we should look like, and when we don’t meet those expectations, feeling comfortable enough in our bodies to want to make love can be very difficult.
Little can make women feel as guilty as being unable to lose weight. It’s easy to believe that excess weight means a lack of self-control, which is a character issue. Then our self-image is threatened, making loving and respecting ourselves, something necessary for any healthy sex life, increasingly remote.
Guilt Weighs us Down
Four of my friends and I sat at a Wendy’s restaurant recently, picking over our french fries and comparing our “weight issues.” You could almost taste the guilt.
“I try to exercise, but I’m just so busy,” lamented Esther.
The others all agreed. They had all been on diets before, but the weight had never stayed off. They had no “self-control.” There they sat, depressed and defeated, because they could not stay thin.
Heather, of Waco, Texas, knows exactly how they feel. She was taught that if she relied on God, she wouldn’t need to turn to food. “Whenever I ate,” Heather says, “I felt guilty, like I had rejected God. My extra weight was proof that I was a sinner.”
For many Christian women like Heather, weight gain is not just a health issue. It’s a spiritual battle they are waging — and all too often losing. The alarming increase in obesity certainly constitutes a serious health crisis. But we can sometimes ignore the spiritual crisis that is also occurring. Heather felt she couldn’t read the Bible without feeling condemned. My friends felt that they lacked many fruits of the Spirit. These women dealt with guilt of varying degrees, but they all suffered from the same problem: feeling that they were failing God because they could not control their weight, and feeling low self-worth because of it. How can we enjoy fun, intimate relationships with our husbands if we don’t feel worthy of God’s acceptance?
In recent years, many Christian leaders have been challenging our whole approach to weight loss. Best-selling author Liz Curtis Higgs once started a weight loss group. Then she began questioning the values involved in weight loss, and she wrote “One Size Fits All” And Other Fables to free women from the guilt of weight gain. Health professionals are encouraging us to look at our motivations and methods of losing weight. Let’s take a “weight reality check” and examine some of the faulty premises we may cling to, as we punish ourselves — and inadvertently our husbands — for not living up to society’s unrealistic demands.
Premise # 1: “It’s all my fault I’m heavy”
We all know we gain weight because we eat too much and don’t exercise enough. Studying historical weight trends, though, shows it’s not that straightforward. According to a recent Harris poll, more than 80% of us who are over 25 are overweight, a rate that has increased 61% over the last decade alone. With numbers like these, our weight problems can’t be simple personal failures.
A far more logical explanation is that our society has set up the conditions for us to gain weight. Fifty years ago, my friends and I would not have been sitting in a Wendy’s eating fast food. We would have been in someone’s house, and instead of five vans in the driveway, there may have been some strollers, since most of us would have walked. Our lives are completely different today. We drive everywhere, we sit at desks, and we watch TV, at the same time as unhealthy food is so readily available.
Premise # 2: “I’m letting God down when I don’t lose weight”
Some women no doubt do use food improperly, perhaps by turning to it for comfort as Heather did. But is it appropriate to feel such spiritual condemnation? We all struggle with sin. Even Paul said, “I do not do what I want to do; and what I hate I do” (Rom. 7:15). Yet just because we struggle — and often fail — does not mean we’ve lost God’s approval. Remember, this is the God who said, “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).
Premise #3: “I can’t feel good about myself if I’m big”
When we feel like we can’t accept ourselves, we forget something very important: God felt we were precious enough to die for. He doesn’t say, “I’ll only love you if you’re a size 8.” He simply says, “I love you.” We don’t need to become something perfect; instead, we have value because He made us and redeemed us.
Remind yourself that your failures — even imagined ones — never stop God from loving you. Ask God to let you feel Him put His arms around you, and you may soon feel more welcoming of your husband’s arms, as well!
Premise #4: “But I need to be attractive!”
For many of us, losing weight has little to do with health and everything to do with appearance. Why else would so many people choose obviously unhealthy ways to lose weight, like fasting, eating only grapefruit (blech!) or purging?
Yet the Bible never describes what the ideal Christian woman should actually look like. Instead, God says “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7). If physical attractiveness is not high on His priority list, perhaps it’s time to rethink ours.
Embracing Your Body
Expressing Ourselves Physically
Nevertheless, even if we stop deriding ourselves for our bodies, we still need to find a way to actually like our bodies if we’re also going to enjoy making love! One of the best ways to do that is to feel confident physically during the day. Sometimes when we feel unattractive, though, we deliberately wear nondescript clothes that make us feel dowdy. But anyone, no matter what her body type, can find clothes that make her feel wonderful and reflect who she is. If you are extroverted, buy some bright, dramatic clothes. If you’re a wise listener, a helpful comforter, buy some soft, feminine clothes that reflect that, too. Let what you wear be an extension of who you are, not an attempt to hide or punish yourself. If you don’t know how to find something you look good in, go shopping with some girlfriends. Almost all women love making someone else look great!
Uncovering Your Beauty
Many of you may be thinking, “Great, I have the clothes, but if I’m going to have sex I have to take them off!” You know God accepts you, but what about your husband? And what about you?
Here’s some encouragement: probably very few people look better naked than they do clothed. There just aren’t that many perfect figures, and the ones that we do think of as perfect are probably unnatural anyway. The biggest enemy of a healthy body image, and a healthy sex life, isn’t the mirror revealing all our flaws. Instead it’s the television screen that promotes something that, for most of us, isn’t even possible, even with dieting and exercise. If we want to feel better about ourselves, one of the best things we can do is to switch it off.
Looking good is largely a function of exuding confidence. The Bible says a woman’s beauty is her spirit. Think about the women you think look fabulous. Is it their figures, or the way they carry themselves? Beauty does not come from having a perfect body. When we cultivate our characters, revelling in the grace that God has given us, we will be beautiful.
Treat Your Body Well
If we should not aim to lose weight to feel good about ourselves, to be beautiful, or to feel closer to God, then should we worry about weight at all? Let’s view our bodies not as a source of our self-worth, but as the vehicle through which we can fulfil God’s energy than if we’re lethargic and sick.
My mother’s weight was slowly creeping up, and finally she decided to do something about it. She started exercising for forty minutes every morning. And while she does, she has found time to pray like she hasn’t had for years. As we start to exercise, we actually pay attention to our bodies. Instead of ignoring them, we treat them like friends. When you have a friend, you nurture that relationship by talking and listening. Let’s do the same for our bodies. Take a brisk walk. Stretch. Do sit-ups. Begin the day by feeling — even if it’s feeling your lungs work — and you’ll be more inclined to want to end it by feeling, too.
“By embracing a life of self-care — eating well, exercising, getting restful sleep, taking time out,” Christian nutritionist Pam Smith explains, “we can rise up to our calling.” We’ll stop feeling miserable about how we look, and instead we’ll feel confident, comfortable and in touch with the bodies God gave us.
A Note to You Men
Most women hate their bodies. Perhaps you find that hard to understand, because your wife looks good to you. Little produces guilt more in a woman than feeling like she has no self-control and can’t lose weight.
Remind her that she is important because of how God made her, and tell her repeatedly what you find beautiful about her. Help her to focus on being healthy rather than losing weight. Exercise with her. Change your diet so it’s healthy, too. Finally, never, ever mention how beautiful you think another woman is. Save all your compliments for your wife, and she may start believing them!
Copyright © 2004 Sheila Wray Gregoire, used with permission of author.