New Hope Publishers
When I was a little girl, I had innumerable Barbie dolls. I had her townhome, Corvette, and even her family wagon. I once created a shopping center out of cardboard for my Barbie. I think that what I loved most about playing with Barbie dolls was that I could assign to them the identity of someone else by calling them the names of different celebrities. My dolls had the most amazing imaginary lives!
As I think back to my Barbie days, I don’t recall her ever going on a diet or worrying about her self-image. Why do you suppose that was? Why did Barbie never diet? Why did it never occur to me that she might need to diet? It must have been because she was perfect and had a perfect life. She got everything she wanted—boyfriends, jobs, and clothes that fit perfectly. Years later, Mattel created the heftier Rosie O’Donnell doll to be Barbie’s friend. But I didn’t want that doll. I wanted the “normal-sized” Barbie. I wanted my perfect Barbie. I liked her skinny. Why did I think that way? Because in my mind, I wanted to be perfect like Barbie. I always pretended to be her. She was my standard.
Many girls are like me. They have spent their lives trying to mold themselves into a perfect image like Barbie. Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like to grow up unaware of my body. What would it have been like to never ask: “Do I look good?” “Have I gained weight?” “Am I pretty?” Barbie never thought about her weight. She never compared herself with Skipper.
I want to pose a question for you to ponder: How does a girl survive in a Barbie world? Over the next few chapters I will help you understand how to survive in a beauty-obsessed culture and a world that holds before you to an unattainable standard.
You, no doubt, recognize this familiar statement: Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. I remember yelling those words at my older brother when he was antagonizing me. He would say something mean, and I would yell back, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
What have I learned about this declaration of independence? First of all, it’s not a true statement. Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can break my heart and crush my spirit. Words have power—a power that can be used for good or for bad. Often, I don’t think about the power I possess with my words. Matthew 12:36 says, “But I tell you that every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment.” To be careless means “to neglect or pay no attention.” Many times I will speak careless words either to someone or about someone. I forget the power of words. I neglect to think about the other person’s feelings.
I have also been on the other end of careless words, and they hurt me. They left scars—not physical scars, but hurtful scars on my heart and my mind. Those wounds left me feeling lonely and dead inside.
When I was ten years old, my family moved to Cleveland, Tennessee. We moved from a small town about 30 miles away, so it wasn’t a big move, but enough to make me miss my friends and long for new ones. A girl at my school, with whom I also went to church, invited me to her house for her birthday party. It was a pool party. I was excited about going to this party so that I could make some new friends. I was also nervous. The idea of a pool full of new people intimidated me.
Mom dropped me off at the house where the pool party was being held. I shut the car door and waved good-bye. Armed with a present in one hand and a bathing suit in the other, I headed down the path toward the front door. As I joined the party, I recognized many girls from my school and church. The girls were huddled together chatting. I entered the room and stood at the edge of those huddled girls. It’s interesting that even though I am now 27 years old, I still have moments when I feel I’m standing at the edge of the huddled group. Some things just never change.
We walked out to the pool, but I still was not inside that group. The only friend I made that day at the pool party was a float—a float ring that fit around my waist and had an animal’s head on the front. As I was playing with my new “friend,” the float, something happened. I’m not sure how, but the float burst and deflated in my hands. I looked around to see if anyone was watching. I was so embarrassed that it had popped. In that moment, I heard something that was even more embarrassing. One of the girls from the group pointed and said, “Sarah’s so fat she popped the float!” I was absolutely humiliated…totally crushed…devastated. I couldn’t believe those awful words came out of that girl’s mouth. I looked around and saw the other girls laughing, too. I tried to laugh with them, but couldn’t. I tried to smile; even that was hard. Could they tell I was utterly humiliated? Could they see the tears welling up in my eyes? In that moment, I realized for the very first time that I had an imperfect body. I was ten years old.
From that moment on, I knew I never wanted to be in that situation again. Something had to be done. I determined I would never again be on the wrong end of criticism about my physical body, so I began dieting—at the age of ten! I took my lunch to school every day so that I would be sure to have a meal consistent with my diet. By the time I reached junior high school, the dieting had become obsessive. I watched what I ate like a hawk. I would not let myself exceed 1,200 calories a day. I carried a little spiral notebook with me everywhere to keep track of what I ate and how much I exercised. And it worked: I lost weight. I started getting compliments on my new figure, and I loved it. But I still wasn’t satisfied. If the popular diet of the day didn’t work, I would try something else. Either I wouldn’t eat or I would binge and then throw up because I felt guilty for bingeing. I couldn’t even eat something normal without feeling guilty.
Not only did I control my eating habits, but I also exercised relentlessly. Scared that I would lose my new shape because I had eaten too many cookies, I would exercise in the morning and then play tennis in the afternoon. I followed all this with a midnight run to burn off any excess calories I might have eaten during the evening. This behavior is called exercise bulimia. When you have this disorder, instead of forcing yourself to throw up after you eat, as happens in food bulimia, you force yourself to exercise because you ate something.
At this time in my life, I couldn’t really see what I looked like. I would look in the mirror with disgust and think, “How could my body look this terrible?”
There was a void in me. I wanted to be noticed. I needed to be loved. I felt trapped and wanted to escape, but I couldn’t. I wanted something, but didn’t know what. Food was on my mind constantly. I thought about it when I woke up in the morning and during my classes, and it was the last thing I thought about when I laid my head on my pillow at night.
Between seventh and eighth grade, I lost 30 pounds. I went from a size 10 to a size 3. I looked like a completely different person than I did before I lost weight. Yet the positive comments I received still didn’t quite satisfy me. They only fueled my obsession. With every year, my obsession grew; with every year, my dissatisfaction with myself grew; and with every year, the hole inside me got deeper and deeper. I felt trapped.
I have a feeling that as I tell my story I am also describing a lot of other young women, most of whom have not been diagnosed with clinical eating disorder. In order for such a diagnosis to be made, certain side effects, such as loss of a menstrual cycle, must be experienced.
Most young women with thinking like mine do not have anorexia or bulimia, but suffer from lesser-known eating disorders. Girls with lesser-known eating disorders, since they cannot be clinically diagnosed as having an eating disorder, tend to believe they don’t have a problem. But I still call obsessive thinking about eating and body image as I experienced a disorder, because that is what I believe it is. According to the dictionary, a disorder is “a medical condition involving a disturbance to the normal functioning of the mind or body.” I got to the point I did not even know what was normal. My obsession seemed normal to me because it had been my mindset for so very long that I knew no other way to think. Two of the lesser-known disorders are anorexia athletica (compulsive exercising) and body dysmorphic disorder. A person who suffers from body dysmorphic disorder is obsessed with her looks. Instead of asking everyone if she looks fat, she will ask if she looks ugly. Many lesser-known body image disorders have been described, but I believe these two are the types most likely experienced by young women.
You might be reading this and wondering whether you have a problem. You, like many young women, may believe lies about your body. I remember reading information about eating disorders and being too afraid to see if the symptoms described me. I didn’t want to have to admit that I had a problem. An unhealthy body image has some warning signs. Most of the following statements describe what I personally experienced. Do any of them ring true about you?
• I am critical of my body.
• I constantly think about what I am going to eat even if it is hours before a meal.
• I feel the need to exercise after I eat.
• I am always on a diet.
• I always think I could lose a few more pounds.
• I am scared to weigh myself because the number will plague me.
• When I get dressed, I wonder if others will think I look fat.
• I ask people to critique my appearance.
• I compare myself with other girls.
• I weigh myself often, and I am affected by the results.
• I choose what I eat based on what others eat.
• I am scared to eat in front of others, especially guys.
• I think that my life would be better if I were more beautiful.
• I find it hard to accept compliments from others.
I was never clinically diagnosed with an eating disorder, but the way I thought about my body was not normal. This obsession with my physical appearance was deeply guilt producing and self-defeating. I was hurting myself. I was incapable of loving myself, let alone loving someone else.
At this point, you may be squirming in your chair because I am describing you. You haven’t felt normal in a long time. You feel trapped, and there’s no place to go. How can you escape from something that is so consuming? I must tell you that you do not have to be consumed. Hope exists, and we will discover it together.
Eating disorders have many different causes. For me, the careless words of another girl were what started me on the eating disorder path. That might have sounded like a small incident to you, but words can carry a mighty punch. I’ve never been in a physical fight before, but I can imagine how a fist to my face might feel. In addition to the immediate pain, it might leave a bruise that can be seen. Words bruise, too. The Bible says that words can either build up or tear down. Ephesians 4:29 says, “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.” The apostle Paul is said to be the author of the Book of Ephesians. He wrote the book as a letter to the Christian church in the town of Ephesus.
It’s interesting that Paul chose the word “unwholesome” to describe words that could proceed from our mouths. “Unwholesome” is the word used to describe something rotten. I cannot eat food that is close to its expiration date. I’ve been told that milk is OK to drink even up to a week after its expiration date, but I can’t do it. It freaks me out. Once I opened a carton of milk after its expiration date, and I experienced the worst smell I had ever smelled. Consuming rotten food is like taking poison into your body. Our words can be rotten and poison us and hurt others when directed at them.
Paul then goes on to say that our words should be used for edification. He means that our words should build others up. I love compliments, and I know that you are the same way. Edifying, building-up words can make my day. Sometimes I wonder how my life would have been different if that girl at the pool party had chosen different words. What if she had chosen words that edified me? How would I be different? I think the sticks and stones saying should be revised to say, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but careless words can leave me lifeless.” One girl’s words sent me into a tailspin, and I ended up trapped because of the lies that I believed.
For some people, eating disorders are caused by the pressure they feel at home, at school, or in relationships. The pressure to perform can lead you to be extreme with your body. It can lead you to try to control something in your life, because everything else is being controlled by others. I have known many girls who have developed eating disorders because of pressure. They have unrealistic expectations put on them either by others or by themselves. I’ve seen girls get into dating relationships and then become obsessed with their bodies because they are afraid that if by chance they gain weight, the guy will be out the door. When I was in high school, someone told me that the way you get a guy is the way you will have to keep him. If you win him over by your appearance, then you will feel the pressure to keep him with your appearance. If he is only attracted to your body, then you will have to work hard at keeping your body perfect. The pressure pushes you down a deadly spiral and, as with careless words, you are left lifeless.
According to Anorexia Nervosa and Related Eating Disorders, Inc. (ANRED) statistics, more than half of teenage girls are or think they should be on a diet. I rarely meet a girl who doesn’t think she could or should lose a few pounds. The average woman is 5 feet 4 inches tall and weighs 145 pounds. Proportionately, Barbie is estimated to be an even 6 feet tall and 101 pounds. If she is our ideal, it is no wonder so many of us have a complex. We grow up being fascinated with a figure that no one can achieve.
The pressure to look good can lead to drastic measures. In order to fit into what the culture deems as fit, girls succumb to dieting. If dieting doesn’t work, some turn to starving themselves or to bingeing, only to throw up what they ate. In response to pressure, girls may develop an imbalance and do everything to the extreme. Starving yourself is not living in balance. Exercising three times a day is not living in balance. These things constitute drastic measures.
When you suffer from an obsession with your body, it leaves you feeling lonely and isolated. When that girl said that I was fat, I was the only one not laughing. I felt as though I was watching myself from afar. I felt totally alone at that moment. My obsession drove me to more loneliness. Embarrassed about my disorder, I didn’t want to tell anyone about it, so I battled alone. I didn’t invite anyone to help me, and no one prayed with or for me. I was all alone.
When you suffer from an eating disorder, you not only feel alone, but you also get discouraged. When you are displeased with yourself, nothing makes you happy. Every time you walk past a mirror, you inspect your appearance. You never leave a mirror encouraged by what you see. Every time you see another girl who is pretty, you compare yourself and become discouraged with the way you look. The discouragement feeds your eating disorder.
We cannot separate our emotions from our physical state. Think about premenstrual syndrome (PMS). I cannot think clearly when I have PMS. I adore my mother for three weeks of the month and then fight her on everything during that one week of PMS. During PMS, I always feel differently about my body. Someone might pay me a compliment, but because I have PMS, I will have a hard time believing the compliment.
In the same way, our body image problem starts with our minds and our feelings. We let our feelings dictate what we believe. We feel lonely. We feel discouraged. We develop the belief that if we can change ourselves enough, we can replace those bad feelings with endless good feelings. All we have to do is get the right kind of body. A normal impulse to feel better becomes an unhealthy obsession with food, weight, and our physical appearance.
Over the course of my life, I have constantly been the guest star for an imaginary game show in my head called The Comparison Game. I used to play it every day. This game began when I compared myself with celebrities. I was fascinated with the Hollywood stars. I wanted to know what they were wearing and whom they were dating. I watched all the entertainment shows and read all the gossip magazines. I would look at them and mentally size myself up by them. A few times, I actually felt like I stood a chance next to them.
My fascination with Hollywood seemed innocent, until I found that I was constantly comparing myself with the stars, which was not so innocent—not so harmless. My comparison game went further than that, however. I was actually comparing myself with everyone I met, not just celebrities. I would ask myself comparison questions: “Do I look like her?” “Are my hips as big as hers?” “Am I prettier than she is?” I reached the point at which I couldn’t even see who I was or what I really looked like.
After playing the comparison game for a while, I learned that when you compare yourself with others, you lose every time. You lose by either putting yourself down or by exalting yourself.
Comparing yourself with others may seem innocent, but it is actually sin. I had never looked at it this way until I read Galatians 1:10, which says, “For am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I striving to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ.” In Greek, “seeking the favor” means “to seek to persuade or solicit or entice.” Many times in my life, I sought to persuade people to focus on me.
Have you ever heard a scriptural passage a thousand times, but then you suddenly glean a new truth from it? Let me share a time that happened for me. While I want to be a humble person, I realize I do have a tendency toward pride, so one time I looked up some Scriptures that focus on pride. This following passage grabbed me:
You younger men [women], likewise, be subject to your elders; and all of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, for God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time, casting all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you.
—1 Peter 5:5–7
The verses address humility and pride. Pride is self-absorption. Eating disorders are very prideful diseases, because they force us to focus on ourselves. You can understand why the passage grabbed me when I read “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”
When I was younger, I had no idea what it meant to humble myself. When I read this passage from 1 Peter 5, I could not understand why the admonition to humble yourself was followed by the instruction to cast all your anxieties on God. In reading this passage over and over, God spoke to me, and I finally understood: God wants us to clothe ourselves in humility toward everyone. We are also to humble ourselves under God, and He will exalt us in due time. Therefore, we need to cast our anxieties about our bodies on God, because He will exalt us in due time—His time—whether that be on earth or in heaven, or whether it is in front of others or alone. His attention outweighs the attention of others.
I didn’t date much in high school. I thought the reason was because I was ugly. Because of my belief, I came up with a plan. I decided I would enter beauty pageants. I wanted to be Junior Miss. I began preparing my piano solo and picking out dresses. Before registration even began, the pageant was canceled. It was the only year that it was ever canceled. Do you think it was coincidence, or did God have humbling motives behind what happened? However, a canceled pageant didn’t stop me.
I then decided to try to become Miss America. If I succeeded no one could ever deny my beauty and talent. All those guys who didn’t ask me out would regret the day they looked away from me. (I hope you’re laughing at me right now, because I am.) Once again, God didn’t open the door for me to enter this pageant either.
Then I realized that I was seeking the favor of men rather than the favor of God. Pride had crept into my life. The pressure to look good can lead to drastic measures. The Greek word in Galatians 1:10 for bond-servant is doulos, which means to be altogether consumed in the will of the other. I was altogether consumed by my own will because I was consumed with the way I looked. Are you altogether consumed by something? How can you be altogether consumed in yourself? Let me put it this way. Do you inspect yourself in front of every mirror? Do you constantly think about your body? Do you think about your lunch and dinner before you’ve even eaten breakfast? Do you eat something and then immediately feel the need to exercise? Do you always think about the calories in what you eat? Is every meal a battle of what to eat and what not to eat? I have realized that I want to be a servant of God, but I can’t when I am consumed by my own will. God created us. Romans 11:36 says, “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.” We are from Him, and we were created for Him. We need to be altogether consumed by His will.
Not only are we to be altogether consumed by His will, but the Bible also says that our ambition should be to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord to please Him.
For this reason also, since the day we heard of it, we have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you will walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.
— Colossians 1:9–10
Therefore we also have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him.
— 2 Corinthians 5:9
What does it mean to walk in a manner pleasing to the Lord? Our primary ambition should be to please Him rather than to please others or ourselves. When we compare ourselves with other women, what is our ambition? Is it to please others? Is it to please ourselves? Is it to please God? I don’t believe that comparing ourselves with other women pleases God.
In the Bible, Abraham’s wife Sarah compared herself with Hagar. She was jealous of Hagar because Hagar could bear children and she, Sarah, could not. Nowhere in this story does it say that Sarah’s actions pleased God. (See Genesis 16.)
Comparing ourselves to others only leads to loss. The rule I have established for myself is this: Go out of your way to celebrate publicly whatever threatens you privately. I keep a magnet on my refrigerator that simply says the word celebrate. I am reminded every day to celebrate others. I don’t mean that I actually throw a party for the person of whom I am jealous. To celebrate means to show happiness about something or someone. If you are jealous of someone, celebrate first with God whatever it is that threatens you, and then celebrate it with that person. The more you celebrate, the more jealousy will be weeded out of your heart. If you celebrate without reserve, your jealousy will be cured.
In Genesis, the first book in the Old Testament, two brothers are mentioned in a genealogy rundown. Sometimes it is easy to get lost in Scripture, especially when it starts talking about genealogy, but something really important can be found here, so bear with me through this. Genesis 4:17–20 lists descendants of Cain:
Cain lay with his wife, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Enoch. Cain was then building a city, and he named it after his son Enoch. To Enoch was born Irad, and Irad was the father of Mehujael, and Mehujael was the father of Methushael, and Methushael was the father of Lamech. Lamech married two women, one named Adah and the other Zillah. Adah gave birth to Jabal; he was the father of those who live in tents and raise livestock. His brother’s name was Jubal; he was the father of all who play the harp and flute. Zillah also had a son, Tubal-Cain, who forged all kinds of tools out of bronze and iron.
—Genesis 4:17–22 (NIV)
Several of these men are remembered for careers or honors that were impressive. One built a city. One had a city named after him. One was known for his livestock. One was known for being a great musician. One was known for creating tools of bronze and iron. These activities and honors are impressive to people; thus, these men were thought of highly by other people. These five men were noted for lives that pleased or impressed others.
Then, the Bible lists the descendants of one of Cain’s younger brothers, Seth. Seth had a great great great grandson who also was named Enoch. This Enoch was not remembered for anything that would normally impress others. In fact, we aren’t even told what his career was. But in Genesis 5:22 and 24, we are told that “Enoch walked with God”—that is what he is remembered for. That simply means he lived a life in communion with God, a life that was pleasing to God. And that, ladies, is what it’s all about. It’s about being altogether consumed by what pleases God.
Do you know what pleases God? Having the right view of your body is one thing that surely pleases God. Not comparing yourself with every other girl you see is something else that pleases God. Right thinking about your body pleases God. Treating your body with respect is pleasing to our Lord God, because, after all, He has a purpose for your body.
Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?
—1 Corinthians 6:19
As we begin this journey together, I want to challenge you to recognize three things: you may have a problem, you are not the only one who has suffered with this problem, and comparing yourself with others is a sin.
First of all, if you are obsessed with your appearance recognize that there is a problem. I know that it sounds something like a twelve-step program. That’s okay. This is where we need to start. We will talk more about how we should view our bodies, but for now I just want you to recognize that a problem exists.
Next, recognize that you are not the only one who has suffered through a problem like this. You are not alone in this battle. Many women have suffered and still suffer from eating disorders of many kinds. Not only are there many people who can empathize with you, but there is One being who is with you always. God will never leave you or forsake you. He is the One who feels your pain. You are not fighting this battle alone. Choose to take your feelings to God. Choose to cast all your anxieties upon Him. Choose to cry out to Him. I promise that He will hear you.
Finally, recognize that comparing yourself with others is a sin. Simply call it what it is—sin. Constantly comparing yourself with other girls and feeling either better or worse about yourself because of the comparison you made are sin. Comparison causes you to miss the mark about God’s intended purpose for your life. You never win when you play the comparison game. Some of us tend to think that pride is only exalting ourselves. But having a poor body image is also a prideful disease of the heart.
You might be saying: “But, Sarah, I don’t think highly of myself. How can I be prideful?” Thinking too little of yourself is just as prideful as thinking too greatly of yourself. It’s just the other extreme. Either way, you are being self-absorbed.
I want to challenge you not to compare yourself with anyone for the next few days. Whenever comparison thoughts enter your mind, turn away from them and thank God for the way He created you. Whenever you see a pretty girl, thank God for the way He created her. See what kind of difference it makes in your day when you don’t compare yourself with others.
For many, many years, my body was the only thing on my mind. I was distracted around other people because I had to think about what I was eating at all times. It was absolutely exhausting. It occupied all my thoughts—all my time. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Oh, how I wish that were true, but it is the farthest thing from the truth. Words can pack a powerful punch that can leave you obsessed, lonely, and lifeless. As you turn the page to the next chapter, turn the page in your life, and open your heart to the hope that God wants to give you.
1. Memorize 1 Peter 5:7. Write 1 Peter 5:5–7 on a card so that as you memorize verse 7, you will be reminded of why you should cast your anxieties on God.
2. What is your standard of beauty?
3. Read Matthew 12:36. Write down the names of persons who have offended you with their careless words.
4. Read Ephesians 4:29. Write down the names of those whom you have offended with your careless words.
5. Write down any of the statements on page XX that you have found yourself thinking.
6. What kind of pressure to be beautiful do you feel? How is this a prideful condition? Reread 1 Peter 5:5–7.
7. Read Galatians 1:10. How is comparison a sin?
8. Can beauty be a sin? What is your ambition in beauty? Read 1 Peter 3:3–4.