This Is My Body, Broken

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.

 

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  15 comments for “This Is My Body, Broken

  1. Michelle
    March 23, 2015 at 7:31 am

    Wow, Cathy, this is beautiful. Thankful for this vulnerability.

  2. March 23, 2015 at 8:47 am

    Cathy!
    Thank you for your transparency!

  3. jengillan
    March 23, 2015 at 10:40 am

    Beautiful, Cathy. This also makes me think of my journey of embracing my body. I grew up in a church and school community that consisted of many cultures and ethnicities. When I went to college I was one in a handful of Latina women and part of a small group of women of color. Beauty that was celebrated was fair skin, blonde, blue eyes, European features, etc. I was rarely asked out. So you can imagine that I wrestled with embracing my darker skin, thick, dark hair, and more Mayan features from my parent’s Guatemalan side. I eventually did and now I LOVE the body I inhabit (and I love that phrase). Thank you for reminding us about true and lasting beauty and claiming the bodies we inhabit as good and beautiful in every culture and season of our lives.

    • Cathy Norman Peterson
      March 25, 2015 at 10:20 am

      Jen, it’s so meaningful to hear your own experience–thanks for sharing that. It deepens this conversation.

    • April 22, 2015 at 8:44 am

      Jen – I was trying to tell our 5 year old son how great it is that we have bodies but cut myself short as I didn’t want it to sound like the real us is immaterial and the other us is material – Gnosticism 101! When I hear/see words like embody and inhabit I sometimes get the same vibe even though I know that’s not your intention or the interntion of others who use those terms. I am at a linguistic bypass that I need help traversing!

      • Cathy Norman Peterson
        April 22, 2015 at 12:00 pm

        Andrew, I am with you on that bypass/impasse! Once we start trying to deconstruct our assumptions here, I found it startling how often I kept slipping back toward phrases like “my real self” or other tendencies to separate my physical being from the rest of me. Unsurprisingly, I appreciate the push to say what we really mean…!

  4. March 23, 2015 at 11:19 am

    Many of us are taught our entire lives that to be a Christian is to deny our body, so how then do we one day not only accept that actually God GIVES us desires and bodies (which I think so often go hand-in-hand) but wants us to live uniquely within those bodies and desires? It’s such messy and difficult work and I’m so grateful for the vulnerability in your words, Cath, because in your truth you are inviting us to honestly step into this struggle along side of you with our whole-selves.

  5. March 24, 2015 at 3:02 pm

    Beauty is such a weird deal for women. Our culture invites objectification and most women fall right in line with it; judging their own and other women’s bodies by crazy unreal standards. The comparison game gets rolling in our heads as we are convinced that our value is tethered to this one thing. Someone recently made a comment that “Pretty is a costume that some people get to wear for a while”. My costume is getting a bit worn and saggy these last years. 😉
    Seen or unseen? Your exploration of longing to be seen but then not, as it is sinful felt like you naming out loud something I have struggled with for a long time. I am slowly learning to trust that God has purpose in my design and delights in all of who I really am. He wants in on the adventure of the unfolding and the redemption of all of me. I am loved first and foremost, that grounding reality makes all the difference for me in being at home in my skin. Thank you so much for sharing your story here. I am encouraged in the depths of me.

    • Michelle
      March 24, 2015 at 6:18 pm

      So great to hear from you Kerry! I always appreciate the thoughtfulness of your comments.

    • Cathy Norman Peterson
      March 25, 2015 at 10:22 am

      Kerry, I love the idea of God wanting to be in on the adventure of each of us. Thanks for that image!

  6. March 24, 2015 at 3:08 pm

    Ergh. So timely Cathy. I keep wondering when I will all the sudden evolve into a self loving – self accepting mature person who can embrace the changes and pounds. When and why do we get so caught up in that and make it such a primary part of our relationships with . . . everything?

    I find you beautiful, gracious, and painfully aware of life. Thank you for sharing wisdom, wit and insight.

  7. pastordt
    March 24, 2015 at 11:39 pm

    Beautifully done, Cathy. Thank you for your honesty and your invitation to step into who we are, warts, wrinkles and all. Tara Owens has a beautiful new book out on this topic called, “Embracing the Body.” Timely, yes?

  8. April 22, 2015 at 8:42 am

    “Those old gnostic ghosts” are with many of us in many ways. They die hard. But the shrivel in the light of the resurrection. Thank you for sharing yourself with us about how this ghost is shrinking in Jesus’ name.

    • Cathy Norman Peterson
      April 22, 2015 at 11:52 am

      “Shrivel in the light of the resurrection.” I love that phrase–and that truth.

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