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do we take our bodies with us to heaven?

Posted on May 20, 2014. Filed under body image, religion | 1 Comment »

“The awakened and knowing say: body I am entirely, and nothing else; and soul is only a word for something about the body.” — Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Amid this tentatively temperate spring, its balmy-then-blustery cadence of days rife with sentiments of rebirth and renewal, I remembered a piece of writing I came across during this time a few years back. It surfaces in my mind every springtime, when beautiful, ephemeral things I’d somehow forgotten come back again.

In The Christian Mystery of Physical Resurrection, journalist and Washington Post religion columnist Lisa Miller explores the resurrection of Jesus in a contemporary context, particularly how this familiar narrative of corporeal revival has informed the way we envision our own lives after death — how even the most nonreligious and supernatural-skeptic among us likely still possess a belief in our own resurrections.

Do-We-Take-Our-Bodies-With-Us-To-Heaven?

“In most of our popular conceptions, we have bodies in heaven: selves, consciousness, identity. We do things,” Miller writes. “People yearn for reunions in heaven with friends and relatives — and even with their pets.”

The role of bodies in religion fascinates me, and until Miller’s article, I hadn’t attuned to the similarities between how we exist here on Earth and how we picture the hereafter. In most any rendition of heaven, hell or purgatory, we are there physically. Our bodies, too, somehow cross over. In this realm so inconceivable and perhaps even nonexistent, we take as a given that we’ll arrive in our current means of embodiment, earthly exteriors intact, equipped with the same breadth of physical qualities and capabilities. After all, as Miller writes, “If you don’t have a body in heaven, then what kind of heaven are you hoping for?”

The fairly straightforward concept resonated with me because of its unexpected discord with my Catholic upbringing, in which I’d learned that one’s sanctity and, ultimately, salvation, hinged significantly on denial of the flesh. We should be of the flesh but not in the flesh — safeguarding a “pure” body by resisting earthly pleasures, mind fixed vigilant against temptations of the flesh. The “flesh,” our bodies — a decidedly secondary, less desirable state to that which one will eventually attain in heaven should one prove worthy enough to gain entry.

But wouldn’t we need our bodies in this grand heaven we’re trying so fiercely to get into? What would we be — how could we be — in heaven unattached to our bodies? And what are human bodies if not distinctively, cumbersomely terrestrial?

“Without sight or hearing, taste or touch, a soul in heaven can no more enjoy the ‘green, green pastures’ of the Muslim paradise, or the God light of Dante’s cantos, than it can play a Bach cello suite or hit a home run,” Miller writes.

However one might balk at the idea of literal resurrection, what we perceive in a traditional afterlife does necessitate a belief in it.

But must “resurrection” always be physical? Must a person — someone we love? ourselves? — be tethered to a body in order for us to conceive of him or her?

Spring, for me, is also a time awash with memories of my childhood friend Melissa, who passed away in 2007 when she was 21. The idea that we would be without our bodies in any type of “beyond” dances just outside the edges of my understanding largely because of her. Unfixed to her physical self, she eludes my comprehension. How should I think of her? How can I relate to her still? How can I dream of one of my deepest desires — to see her again someday?

That we would carry on inhabiting our same tangible forms in the afterlife is perhaps simply a comfortable mental crutch for those of us here, left behind.

But if bodies making the leap from this life to the next is all indeed a big misunderstanding on the part of us ever-fallible humans, and if we should strive to think otherwise, maybe there is a silver lining. When I let go of any preconceived life-after-death visualizations, it forces me to see Melissa as her whole existence — as her spirit and her influence, and not just as the palpable ways in which she was part of my life for such a fleeting moment.

I can’t fathom her just as she pertains to me. I can’t merely be me — in my sullied, self-begrudged, needy body — bereft of her. Instead, I remember and rejoice in Melissa for her qualities that are unbound to anything physical and are thus everywhere and indestructible: her passion, her resolve, her wisdom, her friendship.

It’s how I’d like to remember her — to “see” her — after all.


french fulfillment: my dream of studying in france helped me let go of my eating disorder

Posted on February 12, 2014. Filed under body image, eating disorders, firsthand stories | 1 Comment »

I wrote this essay when I was 21, for the student magazine at the University of Kansas. The following originally appeared in Jayplay, a supplementary publication of The University Daily Kansan, on Sept. 13, 2007.

Run 4 miles every day. Nibble the skin of an apple for dinner. Ignore the weakness, the dizziness. Just keep running. This race never has a finish line.

For two of my years at KU, my closest friend, my full-time job, my god was an eating disorder. I knew what passed my lips better than I knew how to put breath in my lungs.

Carrot. Toothpaste. Holy Communion.

I didn’t eat a morsel without passionately deliberating, then feeling a terrified guilt that each crumb would become skin.

After every meal — typically half an English muffin and five grapes — I would rush to the mirror, hands pressing desperately across my stomach, as though fingers against flesh could somehow make sense of my life, lost in hopeless chaos.

Every bone in my back showed. I awoke each night to burning muscle cramps, my body feeding on itself. My hair fell out, and what remained was brittle and broken. My fingers and toes were perpetually cold, bluish and frail. I blacked out twice in public.

I didn’t know how to explain to friends that I couldn’t go out because I was fatigued by 8 p.m. from starving myself and planned to wake up before dawn to exercise. I drove friends away because of my obsession, my complete focus on myself. Their leaving puzzled me at the time because my eating disorder was, after all, what I thought would bring me into some surreal state of grace in which everyone would be magically drawn to the New Me.

I would be able to connect with people once I was thin. Life itself would finally begin.

Once I was thin.

But in my mind, thin never came, even when my body mass was low enough for hospitalization.

And I wanted to go. To give in to the disease. Let it define me. Make myself safe within the firm walls of anorexia. I wanted to be the girl with so much self-control. The girl above all human hungers. The girl who simply didn’t need.

Untangling all of life’s layers to unearth the root of this psychosis — which made me truly believe that my value as a person would increase as my body gradually vanished — would be impossible. While my driven, obsessive and perfectionistic personality no doubt played a huge role in fostering my eating disorder, I also found myself up against a culture that shamelessly prescribes starvation. A culture that, with its fetish for fad diets and hollow-eyed, stick-thin, asexual models, screams that the absolute worst way for a woman to fail is to be overweight.

The perfectionist in me would accept no form of failure. So I threw myself headlong into a maze of mirrors, scales and enduring emptiness, physical and emotional. I was set on the slow suicide of an eating disorder.

But when a team of doctors hired by my distraught parents hit me with the realization that my eating disorder would ultimately cost me my progress in the French language and the opportunity to study in France, I began, with no great ease, to claw my way out of a quicksand that nearly had me covered.

French was the only thing that gave me purpose — the one thing I’d invested too much of my life in to trade for white walls, a paper gown and a feeding tube.

I wasn’t afraid of never being able to have children. I wasn’t afraid of the wrecked immune system, the heart murmur, the premature aging, the chance of dying. Death isn’t real to a 19-year-old. I was afraid that, if I did live, I would never be able to reach a goal I’d started working toward long before I was intent on pounding the treadmill to an early grave.

And I would have to live with that fact — that I had given up a part of me so special and promising to be just like every other super-skinny wannabe model looking oh-so-blasé-and-wasted-and-vain. Because the world doesn’t already have enough of those girls.

I underwent treatment at an outpatient eating disorders clinic. Finding different ways to deal with the storm of fears and insecurities inside me was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. I’d never had to face anything real when I thought weight was my only problem.

As months of treatment passed, an idea slowly came alive within the part of me I’d been trying so hard to kill: Maybe letting go of my eating disorder would mean I had succeeded, not that I had failed. Maybe days should be spent doing other things besides counting calories, miles, pounds. Maybe my worth wasn’t contingent on the mirror and some arbitrary point in time when I was sure — absolutely 100 percent positive — that my thighs were thinner than they are right now.

Nothing was as saddening as finally gathering the strength to walk away from it all, only to find that the void in my life I thought I could fill by losing weight had only become larger. What I thought was my route to success had really been holding me back. What was supposed to at last give me an identity ended up stripping me of any shred of personality, leaving me, at the time, just a shrunken human shell — a nonbeing — too wrapped up in her jutting bones to value or be of value to anyone else.

I continue to battle my eating disorder every day. It won’t give up without a fight. But I know this fight is worth it. My dream of studying in France and the fulfillment I find in writing help me stay in the fight.

Words are my future. Silencing myself no longer interests me, nor does backing out of life because sometimes it’s stressful and messy and confusing and dealing with it would mean taking a long, hard look at myself and for once not taking the easy way out.

I know dying is much easier.

But living — with its missed alarm clocks, muddy shoes, faded friendships and those itchy regrets that just never go away — is infinitely worth the hassle.

Illustration by Becka Cremer, from The University Daily Kansan


georgia’s youth fat-shaming smacks of the familiar

Posted on January 7, 2013. Filed under advertising, children, eating disorders, government, health, media, obesity | 1 Comment »

Georgia Childhood Obesity Campaign

When I first saw the billboard ads for Georgia’s anti-childhood-obesity initiative — which debuted to much controversy toward the latter part of 2011 and were discontinued in early 2012 — the wordplay and pun-fulness of the text accompanying the stark, sad photographs actually reminded me of some of the well-known “pro-anorexia” mantras out there.

You know, things those of us who starve ourselves whisper in the back of our minds — cling to like a life raft in a violent surf, clutch like a talisman in our back pocket just before the winning lottery numbers are unveiled — in an effort to contort our willpower past the urge to eat a Dorito. These include such gems as:

“Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.”

“A moment on the lips, forever on the hips.”

(If you didn’t know, welcome to the anguished, illogical, creepy world of an eating disorder.)

The singsong tone of these sayings so artfully disguises their viciousness, the destructive shame they conjure. Yes, they are just words strung together in wee sentences that sound positively foolish and thus seem of little consequence. They are quite powerful — insidious — however, as the eating-disordered mind (or any addicted mind) will grasp at any sort of “logic” to keep itself safe, contained, thriving. To make self-destruction seem like hands-down the best idea that could have ever possibly existed ever.

[On a side note, from the annals of I’ll-never-again-get-to-mention-that-I-know-this-useless-factoid-so-I’m-going-to-put-it-in-here pop culture: “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” was allegedly the brainchild of ’90s heroin-chic model Kate Moss, and, since its birth into our catalog of catchphrases, it has rightfully been condemned, ridiculed, stomped on, banned from T-shirts, etc.]

À la Miss Moss’ proclamation, the quips in the Georgia ads — such as “It’s hard to be a little girl if you’re not” — have a nice, tidy ring to them that masks their cruelty, their condescension, the way they compact a very vast, tangled problem into a shipshape slogan. And the slogan goes: You’re different because you’re not thin. You should be thin. You should want to be thin. You should be trying to be thin. Otherwise, you’re a punch line.

According to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, the pediatrics organization behind the billboards, the purpose of the ads (which also aired as TV spots) was to get people’s attention. To wake them up to the seriousness of childhood obesity — this buzzword of an “epidemic,” this utmost burden on our society, this crisis worthy of government intervention. If the goal is to get the youth of our nation of slovenly scale-tippers and their parents on a path toward a lifetime of healthy eating, however, motivating them via shame seems a tad plenty ill-advised.

The desire to have an honest, un-sugar-coated conversation about childhood obesity is a fine objective. But tapping into shock value and shame in lieu of presenting actual solutions clouds that goal, and, I believe, can have unintended consequences.


how to give a body-free compliment

Posted on March 20, 2012. Filed under body image, psychology | 3 Comments »

I recently ran into a friend from college whom I hadn’t seen in about a year and a half. Cooing hellos and exchanging hugs, my mind began grasping for something more to say that would convey how happy I was to see her, how awesome I think she is, how I value her being in my life still. And I wanted something that would make her feel all warm and fuzzy inside, too.

In haste, I came up with the painfully unoriginal, instantly regrettable, “You look so great!”

Inside, I cringed at the words — not because I didn’t mean them, but because my means of communicating the serendipitous delight, the rush of sweet nostalgia I felt at suddenly reuniting with my friend hinged on her physical appearance.

Complimenting someone’s appearance is the knee-jerk approach. Acknowledging what’s right before our eyes — a person’s exterior — doesn’t require leaving autopilot, nor does it require we even know a person well, which is why I (and why I suspect many of us) lean on the appearance-based compliment quite often. The effortlessness of complimenting someone’s looks opens the floodgates for us to heap compliments on anyone in eyeshot, and giving compliments feels good, and so on.

But I want to give better compliments. I don’t want to express admiration, gratitude, love on autopilot. I crave alternatives not so much for myself, but because I believe we, however unconsciously, learn to value about ourselves what others indicate we should. If I am noticed or praised most often because of some aspect of how I look, I could naturally translate that to mean that what meets the eye is the most important part of me — my strongest suit, my wisest investment, who I am. And as the ladies of Beauty Redefined so perfectly put it: “There is so much more to be than eye candy.”

So I asked myself: What am I trying to say that I’m glossing over by mentioning something physical? What if I didn’t sidestep that thought?

Uncloaked, the compliment I want to give is the simple yet powerful, “I’m so happy to see you.” It’s precisely what I intend to say via my appearance-based compliment a good 90 percent of the time, so why not just go with it? Variations on the expression are many and flexible, and, although I’m not attaching my words to anything concrete, something about this compliment feels much more rooted, real.

My hunt for body-free accolades met a remarkable ally in blogger Elizabeth Patch, who has assembled an invigorating list of 10 ways to compliment a woman without mentioning her looks.

And I plan to keep pursuing even more alternatives. Sure, sometimes someone really is just wearing an awesome pair of boots or has a gorgeous new haircut. But being more mindful of the messages I send via compliments feels empowering, because sometimes even the smallest, most seemingly insignificant moments — brief reunions, water cooler banter, passing in the hallway — count a lot toward the big picture.


airbrushed bodies (officially) not a good thing — now what?

Posted on October 23, 2011. Filed under advertising, body image, celebrities, health, magazines, media | 4 Comments »

In June, the American Medical Association (AMA) took a stand against the retouching of photos in advertisements, stating, “such alterations can contribute to unrealistic expectations of appropriate body image — especially among impressionable children and adolescents.”

Many activists and organizations that promote positive body image quickly lauded the gesture — at last, validation from the medical community what so many of us have been saying for years. As affirming and as powerful as the AMA’s declaration was, I couldn’t help wondering how we’d arrived at a point where the country’s largest physician organization felt the need to go on record saying that “correcting” bodies to align with a homogenized, unattainable, “perfect” standard of beauty probably isn’t the best idea.

Faith Hill on the cover of Redbook magazine, July 2007, before and after digital retouching

Digital nipping and tucking in print media — whether in advertisements or editorial content — has become such the status quo and such the worst kept secret ever that egregious before-and-after examples of it show up frequently on pop culture blogs. Unlike other modes of public deception, our awareness of Photoshopped images hasn’t hindered their prevalence over the years.

In other words, tampering with the facts is OK when it comes to the body.

The Photoshop wand has become so brazen that even some of those who benefit from it — mostly young, female actresses and musicians — have spoken out against it, among them Kate Winslet, Rachael Leigh Cook and Britney Spears.

“I’m constantly telling girls all the time everything is airbrushed, everything is retouched to the point it’s not even asked,” actress Rosario Dawson recently told Shape magazine. “None of us look like that.”

But will opposition from the AMA and a handful of celebrities usher in any meaningful change in the grand scheme of our conspicuously cropped, corrected world? I wouldn’t hold my breath.

The “revolution,” so to speak, cannot be brought about by external factors such as policies, campaigns, a famous person going against the grain. If these fixed anything on their own, we’d have all been “cured” long ago, now striving to have the strongest, healthiest bodies and revering images of bodies in their natural, truthful form.

We must first and foremost adopt internal policies, which can no doubt be inspired by the many terrific positive body image initiatives and dialogues going on at present. The AMA’s policy and comments from women in the spotlight are significant and have drawn worthwhile attention to the assault on the body at the hands of digital manipulation. But the difference between lasting change and an ephemeral headline on The Huffington Post will be each of us, on our own, deciding we value and would rather look at what’s real and “imperfect” than what’s fake, redundant, unattainable and subliminally hisses, “You’re not good enough.”

The time to start fighting back against unrealistic body ideals is now. Step No. 1: Change your mind.