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Confessions of a Calorie Counter: Caring for Our Bodies as a Spiritual Discipline

      Our bodies are God’s good creations and should be honored as such. Furthermore, our bodies allow us to live out our callings, part of which inevitably involves loving the people around us. Think about what it would mean to love someone if we were not material beings, if we were pure spirit–I cannot imagine it. It matters that God became a material being, that Christ loved us by walking among us and sacrificing his body. Our bodies matter, and I think that caring rightly for them is a matter of being spiritually centered. I’d like to explore how this plays out specifically with food and exercise.

      When we approach food in the right way, we recognize it as a gift from God–a source of nourishment to be celebrated. However, we are often tempted to eat solely for instant gratification and not for nourishment, leading us to eat more than our bodies can really handle, or to choose sources of food that don’t actually give our bodies what they need. On the other hand, we can also fall into thinking of food as our enemy and end up demonizing everything that doesn’t fall into a very narrow category of “acceptable” food.

      A similar pattern exists with exercise. At its best, exercise is something done out of a love and respect for our bodies. But I find it easy to exercise out of a desire to punish my body for not looking a certain way–and this usually turns into an attempt to make my body take on a shape that it doesn’t naturally have. We often hear language like “slimming down” or “burning fat” that makes it sound as if we are trying to chip away at our bodies the way a sculptor chips away at a block of marble. And I wonder, in all of this “trimming and slimming,” if I am really just trying to carve an idol out of my own body.

      I was 11 when I first started trying to lose weight. I was an active, healthy child, but I hated the baby fat that still clung to my stomach. I picked up some basic ideas about “nutrition” and started making changes. When my family ate burgers for dinner, I ate mine without a roll. When the moms in our carpool group offered me snacks on the way home from school, I politely declined. I walked on the treadmill every afternoon. By eighth grade, I had slimmed down, and people noticed. Ladies at church commented to my mom about my changing figure, and I soaked this up as praise.

      Through high school and much of college, I continued to feel the pressure to keep tabs on my appearance, and I consistently looked at my body either with vanity or loathing (more often the latter). All of my attempts to “care” for my body were rooted in insecurity. My friends praised the healthy lunches I packed for school, not knowing that the real reason I was eating half a turkey sandwich and some carrots was that I hated how I looked. In college, I discovered fitness apps that track your calorie intake, and for weeks at a time I would try to limit myself to as little as 1200 calories a day. Inevitably, stress and hunger would cause me to break down and eat whatever I wanted. But that would just make me all the more determined to make my calorie limit stick the next time.

      It pains me to think how distorted my perspectives on food and exercise have been. But even though I still struggle not to be sucked back into this pattern, I’m at least closer to an understanding of what it would mean to care for my body in the right way. I know I need to treat food as a gift created by God to fulfill my needs and avoid demonizing it or treating it as a source of instant gratification. I also need to treat exercise as a matter of self-care and not an attempt to carve my body into something it was never meant to be. The answers are there; the problem is getting away from the enormous pressure to fit a certain standard of beauty. The problem is escaping the visions of models and actresses and Pinterest fitness gurus that dance in my head, tempting me back to my calorie-counting “fitness” apps. I’ve found that I’m most quickly snapped out of this trance when I think about my little sister: it kills me to think that I could be modeling those destructive behaviors for her, and I feel a duty to love my imperfect body in a way that gives her permission to love her body too.

      Caring for our bodies well means doing so out of love and appreciation rather than out of loathing. But ultimately, I think that to care for my body well is to be constantly aware that the state of my body is not the center of my life. It means that Christ is at the center of my life, and while caring for my body is important, I am called to many other things that matter much more. I think that when we care for our bodies well, our bodies inevitably fade into the background, overshadowed by the people around us whom we are called to love and the good work that we are called to do in the world.

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