My wife recently turned me on to a book called On Living by Kerry Egan which is a collection of stories and life lessons from a hospice chaplain surrounding her work caring for folks who are in their final stages of life. Included in her reflections are many of the expected realizations that being near death brings: love more, stress less, life is to short to have regrets, etc. It’s incredibly humbling to remember how much we take for granted and just how precious life really is.
Out of all the stories I’ve read so far, one chapter in particular hit home for me. The chapter is called “if i had only known, i would have danced more”. In this chapter Kerry recaps some of her interactions with a woman named Cynthia who shared about one of her life-long struggles and regrets; her relationship with her body:
“Everyone told me- my family, my school, my church. When I got older magazines and sales girls and boyfriends- even if they didn’t say so out lout. The world’s been telling me for seventy-five years that my body is bad. First for being female, then for being fat, and then for being sick.” (p 56).
Kerry, the author then goes on to share that out of the numerous regrets that her patients have confided in her, the regret of hating our bodies ranks as one of the more devastating:
“There are many regrets and many unfulfilled wishes that patents have shared with me in the months or weeks before they die. But the time wasted spent hating their bodies, ashamed, abusing it or letting it be abused- the years, decades, or, in some cases whole lives that people spent not appreciating their body until they were so close to leaving it- are some of the saddest.” (p 56)
As I read through her reflections, I found myself deeply resonating. Growing up as an overweight kid, I’ve never liked my body or the way I look. While I’ve had some victories loosing weight and establishing some healthier habits, I still carry a deep sense of shame and guilt when it comes to my body. Some mornings I wake up after having a big meal the night before, or having a late night snack when I didn’t need it and feel the need to confess or repent. Usually when I look in the mirror at my body I feel sadness.
When I look at our world today and think about all of my friends, I think our relationship to our bodies is sicker than we probably realize. So many people I know have similar experiences to mine, and our culture is obsessed with telling us we don’t measure up in some form or another. Whether we know it or not, we measure people’s worth by their appearance, especially women, but it’s also very common to body shame men, and in some ways more accepted. And as a man, I think it’s less acceptable for me to struggle with these insecurities, but I know that many of us do. Probably all of us.
So here is the deal. It’s my experience that we’re all feeling this whether we’re out of shape or we’ve got the body of a model. If you struggle with how to relate to your body however you identify, know that you’re not alone. I’m sorry for the ways I’ve made fun of others bodies and I confess that I deeply struggle too. If you’re a guy and you carry these emotions, know that I’m right there with you. I’ve met so many guys who feel like these emotions are not valid because it’s not manly to be insecure about your body. From height to hand size, from weight to voice depth, from hairline to penis size (yeah I said it), so many of us guys are deeply insecure and feel ashamed and guilty for being that way. To that I call bullshit.
As Kerry closed out her chapter, she quoted the same patient, Cynthia, “Even though I’m fat, even though I’ve had this cancer for twenty years, and I haven’t had any hair in I can’t remember how long- even though all of that, I don’t hate my body. They were wrong, and they always have been. I think because I thought I was going to die for so long, I figured it out. And that’s why I’ve been happy anyway.” (p 60)
My hope for myself and others is that we can altogether learn to be honest about our bodies, and empower one another to celebrate what little time we have with them.
There is a lot more that can be said here theologically including discussions on what it means that we were created in the image of God or the fact that in Christ the divine embraced our material bodies, redeeming them and showing us that our bodies are not to be shamed but embraced as vessels of love, but I’ll just close with few words from an ancient prayer that captures most of that:
“I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made….”