I have never worried much about my weight.
This is not to say I have never hated my body, or worried that some arbitrary part of it was the wrong size or shape.
But I’m not the dieting type. At 5’3″ and around 140 pounds, I am the same size as Lena Dunham, only not as famous.
Though I continue to work toward becoming stronger and faster, and would not mind being able to reach the top shelves of my kitchen cabinets without standing on a chair, I think my weight is just right.
I’ve been this size since high school, with one notable exception.
Like everything else in my life, it all started with church.
The summer before my senior year of college, I worked at an awesome parish, with a supportive and thoughtful priest. My title was “Pastoral Intern,” which meant that I spent most of my days speeding around town on a rusty bicycle, visiting congregants in their homes and retirement communities.
I loved my job, and I enjoyed making home visits. When a parishioner named Sharon invited me over, and suggested that I bring my wife (who, at the time, was not my wife yet), I said yes in a heartbeat.
We went to her house for Sunday dinner. Sharon was a gracious host and gave us a lovely tour of her home, but I started to have second thoughts when she served the meal.
She described it as a “seafood salad.”
What I saw on my plate were partially thawed clumps of tiny frozen shrimp, mired in a thick, heavy mayonnaise sauce.
My not-yet-wife shot me a look that said Are you kidding me?
I matched her gaze with an icy glare that said If you are rude I will make you regret it.
We got through the dinner without incident. My wife ate enough to avoid insulting our host, and I, in a heroic feat that would haunt me for weeks thereafter, managed to clean my plate.
Before we left, Sharon clasped our hands and thanked us profusely for coming.
“It was such a treat to have you for dinner,” she said. “Living alone like I do, I never get the chance to cook.”
By the time we went to bed a few hours later, we were both feeling a bit uncertain, gastrointestinally speaking.
I awoke around three in the morning, feeling NOT UNCERTAIN AT ALL.
By way of sparing you the grisly details, I’ll note only that the sickest I had ever been prior to this occasion was in Ecuador, after I blithely ignored some very good advice about avoiding street food.
This was much worse.
While my wife also suffered the effects of the Salad of Doom, she never got as ill as I did. I remained completely out of commission for four days, during which I was unable to eat and didn’t have much luck with water either. Nor could I kick the fever that left me wracked with chills, even in our sweltering apartment.
[As a side note, I spent years referring to this episode as “food poisoning.” Recently, a friend pointed out to me that normal food poisoning lasts about 24 hours, and that what I was describing sounded a whole lot more like E. coli. I’ll let you be the judge.]
My disgusted and frightened roommates offered to take me to urgent care, but I assured them, through my feverish haze, that I didn’t need to go. Instead, I asked them to cover me in wet towels, to help my fever break.
“Are you sure you don’t want to go?” they asked. “You seem awfully sick.”
This was their gentle way of saying, “GET IN THE CAR, YOU DIMWIT! YOU PROBABLY HAVE E. COLI. ALSO YOU ARE SO DANGEROUSLY DEHYDRATED THAT YOU NEED AN IV STICK.”
But I stuck to my limp, sweaty guns, mostly because going to the doctor just sounded so tiring — standing up! putting on shoes! walking all the way to the car! — and it seemed easier to stay on the couch.
Fortunately, my dimwittedness did not bring about my early death. My fever did eventually break (the wet-towel trick works every time), and I began a slow, tottering journey back towards health.
The brief bout of illness, however, had ravaged my body. My eyes were sunken and my cheeks hollow. My calf muscles, once so sleek and taut from a summer of biking, had withered away.
I was horrified. In those four days, I had melted off almost fifteen pounds.
When I looked in the mirror, I saw a pale, waxy shell.
Like many people, I had always wondered what I might look like if I lost a little weight. Now, I finally had an answer: like a character from a Tim Burton movie.
But why am I telling you this?
All of this happened in July. By the time I went back to college in August, I looked a little bit less like a leukemia patient, but I still hadn’t managed to get back to my normal size.
The mirror was still showing me Tim Burton characters, so I was not eager to return to campus.
Even so, I was not prepared for the response I received.
Acquaintance: Wow! You look fantastic!
Me: Uh, thanks.
Acquaintance: Have you lost some weight?
Me: Yes. I had food poisoning.
I had this conversation literally dozens of times.
To be fair, I didn’t really expect my classmates or hallmates to greet me with “Jesus Christ, you look terrible!”
But neither did I expect all the positive reinforcement for being so thin.
I couldn’t decide what was most troubling about it.
Was it that people saw only my newfound skinniness, and somehow couldn’t see the obvious fact that I had become skinny in a terribly unhealthy way?
Was it that those same people were showering me in praise for the body I had acquired by losing too much weight too fast?
Did they REALLY think I looked better? Prettier? Healthier?
Or were they just trying to do the polite thing, in a society that insists that women always become better, prettier, and healthier by losing weight?
Looking back on that summer, I was lucky in a lot of ways. I did not get nearly as sick as I could have, and had I indeed required hospitalization, I also had health insurance that would have helped me pay for it.
By resuming my normal relationship with food (and what a delightful relationship it is!), I was able to get my fifteen pounds back within a couple of months.
Still, I couldn’t stop wondering how much weight I would have had to lose before somebody touched my shoulder and said:
“You’re not looking too good. Have you been eating enough?”
In my Christian tradition, we spend a lot of time eating.
We believe that the bread and wine we share are more than symbolic; they are imbued with the real presence of the living God.
This is the same God who watches over us, and the same Holy Spirit who dwells within us.
But we are an incarnate people, made up of both body and soul: Even our experience of the transcendent is rooted in the material world.
And our souls cannot stay rooted in our fallible bodies unless we take care of the basics: Light. Water. Food.
There is no shame in this. We share these simple needs with all of God’s creation.
And we believe that our eating and drinking connect us not only to God’s creation, but also to God.
So we repeat Jesus’ words to each other: “Take this bread and eat it.”
We echo the words of the Psalmist: “Taste and see that the Lord is good.”
If we really mean this, it might be time for us to give the wider culture a little kick-start in the way we talk about
food weight eating exercise beauty health.
Lisa Bloom wrote a great essay about her one-woman campaign to engage young girls in real conversations — about the books they’re reading or their take on the world — instead of telling them how pretty they look.
Could we do the same for adults?
I don’t expect Western ideals of beauty to change overnight, but perhaps we could take a break from gossiping about the women we know by saying that they look fat, or complimenting them by saying that they look thin.
If our idea of “attractive” is dependent on life-threatening foodborne illness — or starvation or purging or compulsive exercise, all of which are life-threatening in their own right — maybe it’s time for a change.
Sick people do not look beautiful.
Beautiful people do not look sick.
All I’m saying is, I looked pretty good BEFORE I had E. coli.
By the way, I did run into Sharon again that summer, near the end of my time at her church.
“It really was such a pleasure to have you and your friend over,” she said. “Could we get together again before you go back to school?”
“That would be wonderful!” I replied. “Maybe we could go out for tea.”