Losing My Religion

I’ve belonged to a certain church my whole life without realizing it. It is the Church of Female Inadequacy. I’m quitting.

Some people grow up in strict, dogmatic, oppressive religions that make them feel sinful and toxic about themselves. Some eventually realize that they no longer accept the contradictions and rules that they were raised with and leave the church, or look for a more accepting community.

I’ve written about my epiphany on one of my other blogs, so I won’t recall it here, but in some ways gaining a connection to God was losing the religion of hyper rationalism and the assumption that experiencing the mystical meant accepting all the most strange, dogmatic, and often brutal aspects of organized religion. So in a sense, gaining God meant discarding the religion of Atheism, which can be pretty dogmatic and elitist.

This is a bloated way of segueing into my topic de jour: radical self-acceptance. I grew up in the 70s and 80s on the heels of the feminist movement. I knew that as a woman I could go to school and study what ever I wanted to. I could be an astronaut or a lawyer. I could be smart, political, well-read, and intellectual. What I couldn’t be was fat or ugly. I got this message EVERYWHERE–I grew up in Southern California. ‘Nuff said.

So while I didn’t grow up in the gilded cage of the Victorian girl, or the stunted expectations of women of my mother’s generation before the sexual revolution, I still occupied a tiny, painful, and ever shrinking cage. As my adolescent body grew and filled out, the bars got tighter and more painful. (The medical industry’s definition of a healthy weight also shrunk.) I absorbed the idea that my mind and my abilities were valuable, but my body was subject to valid and indisputable criticism by others. Any others. If anyone had a problem with how I looked, I was in trouble. I was defective.

I was a healthy, smart, talented teen. I wasn’t particularly fat or thin. I believed  I was grotesquely fat, and I fantasized about getting liposuction on my thighs and plastic surgery to make my neck thinner. I hated myself for eating and enjoying my food. I constantly badmouthed myself, and lived in constant fear of anyone else noticing my “flaws.” I hated my body.

I eventually “took control” by going on more and more extreme diets, until I was eating 800 calories a day or less. Weight Watchers had told me that I needed to weigh between 98 and 113 pounds, and I couldn’t make my body that thin, so I just ate less and less. By the time I got down to 117 lbs, I was getting dizzy and seeing spots. A few friends and teachers were concerned about my weight loss, but I mostly got positive feedback on how I looked. I went to the doctor without any idea that my lack of food intake was causing the problem.  At the doctor, after screening me for drugs, I was sent to a nutritionist who asked me about my food intake. She told me I had no fat left on my body. “But what about my thighs? Weight Watchers says I should weigh no more than 113 lbs.” The nutritionist told me I needed to start eating sandwiches for lunch instead of a lone apple after my diet shake breakfast.

Eventually, I came to terms with the fact that I had been flirting with anorexia, and that if I had continued to lose weight I would have died. So I gained weight. And more weight. Every time I had to go up a size, I hated myself more. I hated looking in the mirror (although not any more than when I was underweight). In the opera industry, my voice teachers felt free to tell me when they thought I needed to lose weight. I started to fight back. I eventually decided (after a crapload of therapy) that the nasty, self-annihilating little voice in my head who told me I was repugnantly obese was full of shit. So I left the little cage behind, and found a bigger one. A cage where it was okay to be “overweight”. Where I could accept that my fat put me at risk for myriad health problems (according to the lowest common denominator of the medical and diet industries) and  if I was smart, eclectic, confident, and accomplished enough I could still be loved and admired. I guess I traded orthodoxy for reform.

Today I’m a bigger girl. I love food, I love to cook, and I limit my sugar intake to fight the weight I started to put on when I turned 40. I run, do yoga, walk, and belly dance. I feel pretty comfortable in my skin, as long as I stay in about a 20 lb range. I’m married, have a fantastic daughter, am happy, and accomplished. It’s a comfortable, livable cage. I don’t watch commercials or read women’s magazines (besides the occasional Oprah). I’m in a profession that does not subject me constant physical scrutiny as opera did. I’ve found some balance between compensating for my inadequacies and rejecting social norms. Still, if my jeans get tight, or I’m having a bad day, or someone takes an unflattering picture of me, all that shit from my adolescence comes right back up, and I feel once again like miserable, dimorphic teenager.

What if this whole religion of self-denial, self-hatred, and voluntary discrimination was total and utter bullshit? What if it was predicated on a biased and corrupt social system that spawned a medical industry that makes billions of dollars on teaching women we’re innately flawed?

Hi, I just finished reading The Beauty Myth, and I am well and truly pissed off.

The book was written in 1992, and the social phenomena it documents and interprets were what I grew up during my childhood and teenage years. Until recently, I was woefully ignorant of the history of feminism. For the past year I’ve been glutting myself on the more populist feminist literature, while studying sociology for my PhD. These books are not what my school would consider “source material” but they reflect what was going on at the time they were written. And where The Feminine Mystique taught me what my mother’s generation faced, The Beauty Myth describes my life and inner world in technicolor. Most importantly, it puts my experience in historical context of earlier practices that advocated various forms of self-inflicted or condoned violence against women. Read it.

I grew up down the street from a vibrant, brilliant woman who was a kindergarten teacher. She was large, and her weight made it hard for her to work because of the strain on her knees. She eventually enrolled in a medical weight loss program. It was an all liquid, incredibly low calorie diet. She lost weight, hair, and her teeth started to come loose. But it was medical, so it must be healthy and ethical, right? Losing her hair and teeth was better than being fat, right? The book says that the Beauty Myth requires that women “live hungry, die young, and leave a pretty corpse”. This certainly seemed to be the goal of this medically-supervised weight loss program. When my ex-boyfriend’s mother was dying of cancer, radiation caused her to lose most of her body fat.  Ruth had beautiful skin and a good wig. Her friends told her she looked more beautiful than she ever had before. Thin does not invariably equal healthy. I promise.

When I was a young woman and someone told me I was too fat, or I needed to watch my weight or face dire social (not health) consequences,  (This happened many times. Can I tell you what I would do if someone said that to my daughter? Hell. Would. Rain. Down.)  I would fight back. I would say that I was fine the way I was. But I eventually internalized every message and every paranoid fantasy that I was being  fairly and impartially judged by the world at large as flawed and unworthy.  I would fail in my profession, and never by loved by a worthy and worthwhile man. I was and would be an outcast.

My story is not unique. A girl who bullied me in elementary school died of anorexia at 23. A friend’s student died from gastric bypass. I have a friend who is a high school counselor who watches girls slowly kill themselves with eating disorders.

Let me break it down for you. The diet industry makes money by teaching women that they are mentally defective, which in turn makes them physically defective. This is not science, this is a sales strategy. The health industry uses science that is sometimes credible, sometimes biased, and sometimes false. We are not educated on how to evaluate the credibility of a scientific claim. What type of methodology was used? What were the variables? Have the conclusions been tested? What have subsequent studies shown?

The food industry sells diet products riddled with chemicals and additives that are far worse for our bodies than fresh food cooked in organic butter.

The cosmetic and beauty industries also play on our collective insecurities, most of which they created. Don’t even get me started on the ethics of advertisers using psychological research to manipulate people with no ethical safeguards. I’ll save that post for another day.

So, I’ve decided to leave the Church of Female Inadequacy. I will love my body, love eating, love moving, and love being me. I will not compensate for the things I was taught were ugly or shameful about myself. I will not teach my daughter to accept the subjective judgements of others as her mirror. I will love my fat, my curves, my big round butt, my strong calves, my baby stretch marks, and my frown and smile lines.

The scariest part is thinking about letting go of my cage. I’m really comfortable in my cage. In my cage, bigger jeans=BAD! same jeans=okay, smaller jeans=Awesome! Cutting sugar out of my diet is a way to stay in my cage. It’s not a bad thing; sugar is pretty clearly at best extraneous and at worst toxic for our bodies in large amounts. But I refrain partly because I fear getting too big for my cage. And when I get too big (i.e. bigger jeans), all the old fears come back. I’m not loveable, not valued, not worthy.

I’m going to work really, really hard on learning to listen to my body instead of the dogma I absorbed in my early life. I believe my body wants me to be healthy. I don’t exercise just to control my weight; I exercise because it makes me feel fantastic. Because running through the nature paths in my neighborhood and counting frogs and rabbits and deer makes me feel delight and lights up my daughter’s face when I come back and give her my critter count. Because shaking my butt and belly to music with a bunch of other beautiful, juicy women is joyful and liberating. Because walking outside and looking up into the huge Texas sky makes me feel loved by God. Also, my back hurts less.

I’m going to work on making decisions for my body and soul, instead of to keep the demons at bay. The demons are made of nothing but the collective weight of a culture that can’t stop oppressing itself.

Join me! Leave the Church. Choose a different spiritual path that honors and upholds everything that makes us women, at every age. And let me know how it goes.

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