This past summer, when (in)courage announced that its annual retreat for its writers would be in Cancun, my first thought wasn’t, how generous or I can’t believe I’m going to an ocean with warm water. I didn’t think, I have never been to a resort, or on a vacation like this. I didn’t think how amazing it would be to see all of the other contributors and catch up with them in person. I didn’t think it would be fun to film some segments for the A Moment to Breathe devotional that was about to come out.
Instead I thought, I will have to wear a swimsuit. A big one.
This thought stunned me. I’ve made peace with so many things over the years. My body is one of them.
When I was a girl, I didn’t know there were other people who said #metoo. I didn’t know that the lethal burden of silence and shame I carried from sexual abuse was something I could lay down. When my breasts grew and my body betrayed me with a new level of attention from men, catcalls and locker room talk, boys will be boys and you-should-be-flattered comments, I didn’t know it wasn’t my fault. That I wasn’t asking for it just by being a woman. I felt unsafe in a world of wandering eyes.
I started overeating for a lot of reasons. Because food was scarce sometimes. Because it made me feel good. Because it was the thing my dad did with me, taking me for a treat, for something special when I had his full attention. Because it was the way Asian mothers love their children and I was starving for affection and self worth. Because I had been a very sick child and was undernourished and frail, and my mom was always trying to fatten me up.
Even though I had a loving family, I had dirty secrets and when I finished the carton of ice cream, sinking my spoon deeper and deeper hoping to fill the great void, I felt momentarily satiated. If my mom ever brought home anything special, a package of cookies or a bag of chips, I’d hide some in my room or gorge myself in one sitting because I didn’t know when I would be able to have it again. I was never full no matter how much I ingested.
When I went to a friend’s house, I was awed by their pantries, cupboards, and fridges stocked full of Little Debbie’s waxy snack cakes, Hot Pockets, or Keebler Fudge Stripe cookies. I knew better than to binge in front of friends, but I envied their access to it all.
Eventually, I noticed something else about the food. It insulated me from the world. The fullness spread through my belly and thickened my arms until they were fleshy at the tops like a pair of 80’s shoulder pads that had slipped down too far. My face filled and my cheekbones were swallowed as my chins wobbled. It was like I had donned an invisibility cloak. Those men that used to ask me for my number or whistle, they mostly left me alone. I felt safer in the world even as I hated my body.
I’d cry when I had to try on clothes. I’d grab fistfuls of my fat in front of the full-length mirror and I’d curse myself for letting it get this bad. And then I’d vow to diet, to make myself better, to make myself worthy. I’d exercise and eat right and I’d lose some weight. And then when my smaller form began to emerge, I’d panic. I’d skip the gym, I’d pull into a Taco Bell drive-thru and order a Nacho Bell Grande, a few tacos, two Burrito Supremes, and some cinnamon twists — and then I’d order three different small drinks so they would think I was meeting up with other people and I wouldn’t be judged for my wayward food indulgence. I’d pull away and find an empty parking lot and I’d eat everything. I’d throw away the extra drinks and go home to make dinner for my family. I’d let my flesh swallow me back up and instead of buying smaller-sized clothes, I’d pick out a new lipstick.
But somewhere along the way, I found my lips are good for more than binging; they speak truth. Somewhere along the way, I found my voice. And I realized for the first time, something I knew logically but couldn’t grasp emotionally: it’s not my fault. Those things, those #metoo moments. I didn’t ask for any of that. I could come out of hiding.
But by then, I’d been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. By then, I’d found out I have polycystic ovary syndrome. By then, I’d realized that this weight had become a part of me and wasn’t so easy to shed. By then, I was on meds known for weight gain and I had hormonal issues that make weight loss ridiculously hard.
I don’t talk much about my diet but to keep my moods, hormones, and blood sugar better balanced, when I’m home and not traveling, I don’t eat any sugar, grains, processed foods or fast food. I don’t binge anymore, haven’t in forever, but it doesn’t make a difference in the weight department.
I need a big swimsuit.
I thought about lake days with my kids, how I’ve made peace with my plus-sized body. How I’ve pulled the coverup over my head and dropped it on my beach chair joining my kids in the water. How they’d swim toward me, my mama arms, the only ones they know, tucked around their bodies, pulling them through the water instead of cowering on the shore afraid to be seen. I thought about how we’d stay in long enough for our fingertips to wrinkle as we dunked each other or raced across the top, the first one to the floaty wins.
I thought about buying my royal blue swim suit, wrestling spandex and lycra and hoisting the tummy tucking fabric up my thighs and over my belly positioning the wide supportive straps and underwire cups to keep everything in the right place despite gravity’s cruelty. The weight of my full skin pulled at every corner of the fabric, the weight of my worth sagging in that dressing room stall.
And then I looked down at my baby girl watching me. She must have been four or five. I saw her eyes grow wide and she said, “Mommy, I want a suit just like yours! You look sooo beautiful! When can we swim?” She imagined floating on inner tubes, coolers packed with watermelon slices and the feel of my hands rubbing Coppertone on her shoulders and dabbing it on her nose, the smell of sunshine and coconuts. She had no comprehension of stretch marks or cellulite, of rolls of fat, or thighs that don’t just rub together but overlap and fight for dominion as first in line.
She saw me and loved me and my body became something beautiful. Something that gave life to three humans here on earth. A body my husband loves, a body that speaks comfort and peace to him. A body that, while very broken, is worthy of being present and seen in the world. A body without the burden of shame.
So I decided I could spend more time despising myself, wishing myself smaller and more tidy. Or I could get on with my life. Most days, I choose the latter.
My body is home to my family. And when I’m home, I know this.
But when I leave, when I fly across the country in a plane seat I had to ask for a seatbelt extender for and the person in the seat next to me squeezes in and I do my best not to lop over the armrest, shame is waiting. When I arrive in Cancun and the humidity makes all the extra bits sweat and I feel every ounce of that weight, it’s easy to forget. It’s easy to invite shame to come back.
I met Lisa Leonard in the airport because our flights came in at the same time. Have you ever stood next to a woman like Lisa? She looks like she’s been instagram filtered in real life. She’s elegant and effortlessly classy and she’s so genuine and friendly and gracious, you can’t even hate her. I had no choice but to instantly adore her. So I clomped along by her side, dragging my luggage, breathless and flushed while my skin went into overtime covering me in what could only be described as the fat sweats.
So I felt all of that shame when I sat on the couch a few days later to record my segment for A Moment to Breathe. The couple (in)courage contracted to do the filming were also warm and down to earth but they looked like they had stepped out of some advertisement that promised youth, outdoor adventure, fitness, and perfectly toned muscles.
I have several devotionals in the collection so I didn’t know which one they’d have me read. They handed me a printout and I looked down.
It was Day 8, On Being the Truest Version of Me. In it, I chronicle my experience with gym girl whose sweat was cute, my industrial strength sports bra that had enough velcro to stick a grown human to a wall and my battle with envy. My battle with shame and comparison and feeling like I don’t measure up because I don’t measure down. I read it while they filmed, and I thought, I still feel this way. It didn’t magically go away once I learned to lay down envy and make peace with my body.
I read the ending line. “I’m not looking for a better version of myself, but a truer version of who I have always been: loved, cherished, beautiful, strong.”
This battle with envy, shame, or comparison will be fought again and again. But God is so good at reminding me of the ground we’ve won. He’s so good at providing the reminders at just the right time. Jesus sees us despite our three way mirrors and bad lighting. He meets us in airport seats too small and dressing rooms where all we see is scars we carry, He meets us even after we’ve eaten the whole carton. He meets us while we’re finding our voice, and sometimes He meets us in things we wrote and believed and somehow forgot.