I was told when I first arrived in South Africa that within the black cultures of the country when a woman looks at you with twinkling eyes and remarks, "you're getting fat," she means it as compliment. She means to say, I'm glad you are enjoying life and enjoying my country. She means to say, I'm glad you are happy and your are healthy. She means to say, I think you are beautiful.
But for my American ears it was so hard to hear.
It was so hard to accept those biting words that brought up all my insecurities, that reminded of all those years hating my body and hating myself, that recalled all those times I told myself I'll be complete when I am skinny--skinny and beautiful.
More than once I gently admonished, "Thank you for your compliment, but in my culture that is a hurtful thing to say." And I tried to erase the words and the fears they brought up and erase how much I hated them for saying it when I knew it wasn't true and I knew it was not the thing that defined me anymore.
But then there were the younger women. Women in their twenties and thirties. Women highly influenced by the Western media prevalent on their TV screens and streaming through their radios. Women who were beginning to see their bodies differently and the bodies of their peers differently. Women who when they said "you're getting fat" meant it not as a compliment but as a cutting, hurtful judgement.
These moments, the moments when one of my peers commented on my weight in judgement. These moments, when our Western polished, politeness didn't stop the cut from being said. These moments, my heart cried out in sorrow.
I cried for my ten year old self, starting to hide her heart in the food she consumed. I cried for my sixteen year old self, hating her body and her self so much she binged and binged and begged to be allowed to go on the latest fad diet. I cried for my twenty-two year old self over-exercising to purge the binge from the day before and trying to wipe away the last decade of binging and purging. I cried for women and all of our unhealthy relationships with food. I cried for how we hurt our sisters with our judgemental words. I cried for our love-hate relationships with our bodies. And I cried for the woman in front of me, not hating my body but in truth hating her own.
Then there was the day when the group of us set around chatting in our small "windy house" (a small, cheaply built, wooden shed commonly used as office spaces in the rural areas). We chatted about the things women chat about when work is slow and you are trying to pass the time. We chatted about soapies (South African soap operas) and beauty products and relationships and babies. And slowly as one topic was put down and another picked up, we made our way to loosing weight and keeping our bodies trim and perfect.
And then she said it so casually, so naturally, I almost didn't catch it with my broken Setswana. But there were English words I knew mixed in. So I asked her to say it again, in English please.
And she told me. She told me--this woman with a two month old child at home--she told me how she was losing the baby weight. She told me how she ate just a little, just enough, and then went to the toilet and vomited up the just enough.
I know the look on my face was horror. I know I could not poker-face the horror back down inside of me.
I tried to gather myself. Not to scream at her, How can you do that to your body?! How can you do that to your nursing child?!
I don't remember exactly what I did say once the horror subsided. I know I shared with her that she was keeping her child from getting the nourishment it needed, that she was not only starving herself but starving her child as well. I shared with her that this thing she was doing had a name. That it was called "eating disorder". That it was called "bulimia". I don't remember if I prayed with her. I hope I did. I remember praying for her. I remember praying for women. I remember asking God's forgiveness for doing these things to our bodies. I remember asking God to forgive us for not loving what he created. I remember asking God for the grace to love what seems so unlovable and so imperfect.
I know the dormant thing living within me. I know the thing called "eating disorder" and how if I don't care for my heart and my spirit and my body how it will wake up and cry out in hunger. I know how I'll rush to the kitchen and look for something to quiet it. I know how I'll hate myself the next day. I know, and I hate that I know.
But I also know, if the thing awakens, how to search through the clutter in my mind and pull out the tools my counselors have given me to combat it and lead it back to it's hibernating place. And I know how I'll take the thing to God in pure trust, knowing he knows how to deal with it's ugliness.
I don't believe an eating disorder, just like any addiction, is something you ever truly recover from, at least not in this life anyway. I know I'm always just a few stressors away from it's awakening. But I do believe in loving and caring for your body and spirit in such a way that no stressors great or small can awaken the thing. I do believe in practicing self-control and listening to your heart to know if something might make the dormant thing stir. I do believe in daily dying to yourself and living for Christ and allowing his all pervasive goodness to sing soothing lullabies to the sleeping thing. I do believe that God is bigger than any eating disorder or self-hatred, and I do believe God can teach us to love our bodies and to love our selves.
I believe it because I'm the walking, talking testimony of that belief.
And I believe that us walking, talking testimonies need to share our testimony in every possible way until every woman knows she is beautifully and wonderfully made.
It's a great responsibility we've been given, and I take it seriously.
So if you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, please send me a mail and I'll get back to you with resources were you can get the support you need.
Because this is the story of women overcoming and it is a story that you cannot right alone.