I remember the first moment I realized I had an eating disorder. I had just come home from college on break, my freshman year, and I was getting changed in my room. In the mirror I could see my hip bones for the first time in my life, and I could count my ribs. I didn’t think anything of it until my mom walked in, looked me up and down and said “You look good.” That was my red flag that something was very, very wrong. We all tend to notice the differences in our bodies before others do, so if my mom could see that my body had changed, then it had really changed. Not knowing the real reasons for why my body was the way it was, my mom thought that I had been trying to get healthier and that she was encouraging me. I’d always had difficulties with my body image. In high school I channeled that difficulty with my body into sports. I ran cross country, played tennis, and did horseback riding because it helped me feel better about my body - like I was allowed to be the size I was because look at all the things my body could do.
Things changed a lot when I got to college, though. I wasn’t involved in sports anymore, and I spent most of my time holed up in the library working on papers and assignments. I was constantly walking around campus, going to class, mass, student life events, or studying. I became so busy that I stopped eating because I felt like I just didn’t have the time, and sometimes I got so busy I forgot I needed to eat at all. I could see and feel my body changing because of how I was treating it, but I didn’t register those changes as problematic.
My mind was changing too. I wasn’t allowed to eat unless I had walked somewhere or done some kind of physical activity that day. When I did eat, there were certain foods I wasn’t allowed to eat, and I wasn’t allowed to eat over a certain quantity of other foods. Even with all of these rules and all of the changes in my body, I still felt too big, like I was taking up too much space. I remember one evening, at dinner, I hadn’t eaten all day and I was so hungry. I was so tired that I didn’t feel like controlling my eating, so I piled a plate with food and started to eat. One of my male friends looked over at me, mid-bite, and sarcastically said “Well that’s attractive.” I didn’t eat much more of that meal, and I’m fairly sure I skipped breakfast the next day too.
While my behavior was, in part, about my size, a lot of it had nothing to do with my size. I felt like I needed to have control over something, and food was something in my life that I actually could control. I knew I needed to figure out how to solve it. I knew the statistics about eating disorders - anorexia has the highest mortality rate of all mental illnesses. About 50% of women who have anorexia are able to recover. Another 20-30% partially recover, and about 20% end up having anorexia as a chronic mental illness. I knew, essentially, that I was dealing with something serious, and if I didn’t figure it out quickly, I was going to damage myself permanently.
Around the same time all of this was going on, we started reading about St. Augustine in one of my theology classes. St. Augustine was born in the 4th century and lived in northern Africa. His mother, St. Monica, was a devout Christian while his father was a Roman pagan. Augustine was extremely intelligent. He studied rhetoric and had an impressive command of the Latin language. He was also kind of a jerk and liked to sin - a lot. He looked down on Christianity because he thought it was simplistic and lacking in wisdom. He was awful to his mother - he once tricked her into going into a church, and while she was praying, he sailed away to Italy and left her there, in Africa, alone. Despite his questionable behavior, I liked St. Augustine. He had spirit, he was fiery, and he was hungry for truth and wisdom - for something that could satisfy him. He also spent years of his life struggling with the goodness of his body.
St. Augustine was part of a religion called Manicheanism. In this religion, the spirit and soul are good, and the body is bad. Anything of the body (like food or sex) was also bad. Some Manicheans would restrict themselves to certain diets in order to deny their bodies and free their spirits. Augustine joined this religion because it promised to give him elite truths about the world, truths that no one else had access to, but he struggled with how this religion thought about the body. Augustine liked food and alcohol, and he especially liked sex; he struggled with lust more than any other sin. He believed that his body was bad, but he didn’t know how to remove himself from his own gluttony and lust because he liked the pleasure too much.
When Augustine went to Italy (yes, on the trip where he left his mother in Africa) he met a Christian bishop named Ambrose. Augustine had gone to Italy to be an orator for the Roman Emperor. In listening and engaging with Ambrose, Augustine found himself moved and convinced by the arguments Ambrose was making and the homilies he was giving. He came to a point where he recognized that Christianity was true, but that old struggle with his body came back to haunt him. Augustine knew that if he was going to be a Christian, he couldn’t keep giving in to his lust. In his Confessions he talks about how he was at war in himself, one part of himself wanting to cling to his lust, and the other part wanting to become Christian. One day, in a courtyard with one of his Christian friends, Augustine heard children singing “Take up and read.” There with him, Augustine had Paul’s letter to the Romans. He opened the letter and read from Chapter 13, verses 13 and 14: “Let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in promiscuity and licentiousness, not in rivalry and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh.” St. Augustine got the message, loud and clear, and became a Christian, a priest and eventually a Bishop.
When we talked about St. Augustine’s conversion in my class, my professor said that Augustine thought of this passage in a special way. When it says “put on the Lord Jesus Christ,” my professor explained that Augustine thought of this as a call to literally put on Christ’s own body, to take Christ’s body as his own. Augustine could recognize that Christ’s body was good, and that God thought that bodies were good since He became man and had a body. I had never really thought about bodies that way before - that they could be good things, and that God must think so too since He made them and He had one. In class I remember thinking to myself, “I wouldn’t treat Jesus’ body the way I treat mine. And I don’t think Jesus would treat my body the way I treat it.” So I decided to do what Augustine did - I would put on Christ’s body, and I would treat my body like it was Jesus’.
It still took a while to sort everything out (over 3 years, actually). Prayer and spiritual growth are not replacements for psychological help, so I went to counseling. I forced myself to eat three times a day and to eat the foods that were “forbidden” before. I learned how to talk about it with my friends, to ask for help. I had to reprogram how I thought about physical activity and exercise so that I can just enjoy it. But I still hold on to what I learned from St. Augustine about my body - that it’s good, that God has one too, and that I should treat mine the way I would treat Jesus’. And now, when I look at my body and think about it, I think it’s something extraordinary. My body isn’t something I have, my body is me, and God and I both think it’s beautiful.