By Cathy Norman Peterson
I used to steal my sister’s clothes in high school. My entrepreneurial brother was happy to rent us his sweaters for $5 a day, but my sister and I were a bit less methodical. Many mornings after she left for her early class, I snuck into her room and “borrowed” something—maybe one of the V-neck sweaters we wore backward Flashdance style, or her denim skirt and cowboy boots. The boots were too small, but pinched toes were the cost of looking good.
Her wardrobe was better than mine for two reasons: one, she cared about fashion and had a way better sense of style than I did; and two, she invested her babysitting money in supplementing her closet.
I, on the other hand, hoarded my waitressing tips, afraid to spend money, especially on anything as fleeting and trivial as clothing. In keeping with all the best religious dualists, I knew it was superficial to care about appearances. Spending time or money on how I looked was selfish—not only was God disinterested in that stuff, but such trivialities were borderline sinful.
But of course I cared. I wanted to fit in with my peers as much as anyone, wanted to be noticed, to be seen.
So I tried to hide the fact that I spent hours putting hot rollers in my hair, pretending that my painstaking efforts were just my natural look. Since I wouldn’t spend my own money on clothes, I had to steal my sister’s. My behavior reflected my own internal dissonance—and led to further secretive habits.
I snuck into the basement to eat frozen cookie dough out of the freezer. I disguised myself in baggy clothes, grew my hair long so I could duck behind it. Later I dieted in secret, drank in secret, and kissed boys in the dark.
All the while I was quietly trying to erase myself. “Deny yourself and follow me” meant I was supposed to cast off any desires or longings. Being a Christian meant inhabiting as little space as possible, curled up tight. With all that focus on self-denial, how could I savor any physicality—food, drink, activity, sex? How could I love my life, my embodied self?
I lived in that conflicted state for a long time.
Now squarely in middle age, I’d like to embrace my physical identity more fully. I know now that God created a material world and sent us a physical person to love us. In my head I know God invites me to live in the world with delight.
That doesn’t mean it’s easy to shake those old gnostic ghosts. As I get older, I’d like to relish the deepened beauty that I see in older friends. I’d like to find the calm wisdom of less striving. I’d like to be able to settle in well with my own body.
But the scale inches upward these days, and my waist widens maddeningly. Injuries that once healed quickly now linger for weeks and months. The skin on the back of my hands sags with new wrinkles. What would it look like to embrace my corporality in this season? Learn to accept the extra pounds I carry—or increase my workouts to keep the weight down? Accept the graying hair—or refuse to go gently into that good night? Indulge in good food, or ascetically refrain from gluttony?
Probably some combination. On the bad days, I’ll still wrestle with self-loathing. On good days I’d like to find new ways to live with this older body. It’s scary to admit these struggles, and we’re not especially great in the church about this conversation.
I wonder how we could find ways as the Body of Christ to accept—even rejoice in—God’s good gift of our physical selves. What would it look like to inhabit our bodies better, more honestly? To see each other’s frailness without turning away? To celebrate not just beauty, but illness or age or difference—first in myself, and then in another person?
Today that sounds like a stretch. Doing that for others sounds a lot easier than doing it myself. So I begin by asking God for grace to accept this broken body, with all its beautiful flaws. And then for the ability to let go and love others more generously, embracing all their faults and cracks just as I am learning to accept my own.