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The Thin Cage

Constantly thinking about how much you weigh? A former chronic dieter takes on our obsession with being skinny.

Chances are, if you're not on a diet when you read this, you just were—or will be soon. According to a study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, on any given day, 64.5 million American women are on a diet and will spend billions on diet and diet-related products each year. For way too many of us, dieting is our lifestyle of choice as we constantly focus on how much we eat, how much we weigh, and how we look.

That's why Constance Rhodes,a wife and mom, founded the faith-based organization Finding Balance in January 2001. Her passion is to counter the mistaken belief that the chronic dieting done by those who don't meet clinical criteria for more extreme eating disorders is normal and healthy. She knows firsthand it isn't—she lived much of her young-adult life as a chronic dieter obsessed with staying thin. Along with the publication of Life Inside the "Thin" Cage (Shaw Books), which provides a candid look into her disordered eating and subsequent journey toward change, Constance speaks frequently on the issue, maintains a website, and provides resources and referrals to help others find the hope and healing she's found. Here's what Constance had to share with TCW.

What do you mean by "thin cage?" It's that dark prison in your mind where everything's off-limits and everything's based on performance. I spent 12 years in it by dieting constantly even though I didn't need to lose weight. I existed on water and carefully planned meals every day, and never allowed myself to enjoy a piece of cake or a slice of pizza. I was so paranoid about gaining weight that I even limited myself to ten grams of fat daily. But instead of bringing me happiness, staying thin kept me from enjoying life.

For example, one Sunday our church held a spaghetti dinner, but I was so afraid of eating something I shouldn't that my husband and I skipped it. I desperately wanted friends in our new church, but I was too worried I would overeat if we attended.

Even though I was a Christian, I didn't trust God with this area of my life. I was afraid that if I relinquished control, I would gain weight. And I really didn't want that to happen; I equated thinness with happiness and success.

Overweight women may have trouble relating to a "thin cage." Is their struggle completely different? Not really. I suspect that many overweight women also struggle with an unhealthy relationship with food. Women at both ends of the spectrum feel as though weight and value are tied together in some way. So even if you're thin and everybody thinks you look great, you don't necessarily feel better about yourself.

Then why do we equate thinness with happiness? Everything in our culture promotes it. We see thin, attractive women in almost every commercial, television program, and movie. But if you look around, you realize not everyone looks like they do in Hollywood. Yet we're bombarded by these images every day.

I hear from teens on my website that they feel they need to be really thin to fit in with their peers or to be on the sports team. I've even heard from a 70-year-old woman who had to bring a pillow to church to sit on because the pew was too hard for her bony behind! She told me she wants to let go of her fear of gaining a few pounds—but she's just not ready. She's been living in the thin cage for 50 years!

When I struggled with chronic dieting, I had a love-hate relationship with my mirror. If I was undressed, I'd turn sideways, relax my belly, and obsess over how it looked as big as a basketball. Of course it didn't—but that's how distorted my thinking was.

How did you become consumed by your weight? I was naturally thin as a teen and received lots of affirmation because of it. But when I went to college, I put on the "freshman 15," and the attention I used to receive was gone. So one semester, I ate only Malt-o-Meal three times a day for four months. I was proud to see my body shrink and relieved to have my periods stop, though these were signs I'd developed anorexia. But one day I allowed myself to eat a doughnut, and everything broke loose. I started bingeing, and soon my weight ballooned by 28 pounds. By the end of college, I finally got a handle on my bingeing. But by the time I got my weight down to where it needed to be, I was too afraid to trust my body to maintain it. That's when I crossed the line into a subclinical eating disorder.

What do you mean by "subclinical"? While I technically was no longer anorexic, I was consumed by the fear of regaining weight and put myself on an endless, unforgiving diet. If someone suggested I was overly concerned with dieting, I'd say, "I don't have an eating disorder—I just watch what I eat."

Technically, I was right. Clinical eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating have specific criteria for diagnosis. For example, with anorexia, in addition to other symptoms, you must miss three consecutive menstrual cycles and weigh less than 85 percent of your expected body weight. While I didn't meet those two criteria, because I displayed several other anorexic behaviors, I fell into the category experts call Eating Disorders Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS). This is a broad category that includes basically any type of obsession with food.

When does dieting become destructive? When it dictates how you live your life. For example, if you eat something that isn't on your diet, do you suddenly panic or fall into despair? Do you schedule your meals a certain way and when you miss your scheduled time, force yourself to skip eating altogether until you hit the next scheduled time? Are the rules taking over your life?

Dieting can become cultlike. You've got "gurus" who help you achieve thinness through whatever method they preach. You develop a ritual—such as exercising a certain number of times a week or counting your calories carefully. While in moderation those things are okay, it's problematic when you become obsessed by them and gradually define everything you do based on how it fits in with your goal of being thin. In a sense, your body becomes your god. It begins to master you.

How does this impact other relationships? There's a woman I know who felt her thighs were really fat—even though she actually was slim. If her husband touched her thighs, she recoiled and was sure he was thinking about how fat she was. Another man told me when he's feeling romantic and tells his wife, who's a bit overweight, that she's beautiful, she says, "How can you think that?" Immediately he's out of the mood.

My husband told me I was always miserable. And because I had such high standards for my body, if I saw him gaining weight, I'd nag him. He began to feel as though I didn't love him unconditionally; he felt manipulated too, because I'd act like I was joking, but we both knew I wasn't.

When our weight is very important to us, we tend to judge others based on their weight. I didn't have many girlfriends because women assumed I wouldn't want to be around them if they weighed more, or because they felt intimidated by me. And if someone was thinner than I, I was jealous.

Did this affect your spiritual health? Sure. I got irritated with people who said, "God loves you just the way you are"—as if that would solve everything. I already knew God loved me. But at the end of the day, I didn't care what he thought as much as I cared what my peers thought or what the scale said.

But I finally realized I had expended so much energy thinking about calories, skipping church if I felt fat, and avoiding relationships with friends and fellow Christians that God simply couldn't speak to me through others. And when you spend that much time thinking about what you should or shouldn't eat, there's not a whole lot left to dive into any kind of spiritually rewarding experience. For instance, when I'd try to have a quiet time during this period, inevitably I'd end up thinking about my weight. A typical conversation would go: Hello, Jesus. Oh, my pants feel tight right now. Oh, no, what if I've gained a few pounds … ?

Christians often tell me they think God's disappointed in them because they struggle with disordered eating. The truth is, we're all prone to an area of weakness in our life. It's important for people to know that you can love God and still be consumed with what you eat, because you're allowing thinness to define who you are. But God wants to set you free from that so you can experience the abundant life he promises.

How did you find that abundant life? It all came down to God renewing my mind. He did that through his Word. Two Scriptures especially spoke to me: "I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full", and "'I know the plans I have for you,' says the LORD, 'plans to prosper you … to give you hope and a future.'" I saw a Christian counselor and prayed God would readjust my perception of thin. The more I relaxed my stubborn hold on this area, the more God spoke to me. He began showing me how other women, even if they weren't thin, had a happy life. I started to see the difference between my expectations and what was real and healthy. As God set me free, I reached a healthier weight.

Do you feel you have a normal relationship with food now? I do. But it hasn't happened overnight. The truth is, it's a process. I still need to be aware of what triggers fears about gaining weight. For me it's fashion magazines and certain television shows. For others, it can be as simple as going swimsuit shopping or seeing someone thinner than you.

Certain friends or family members also may be triggers. Perhaps you have a really thin friend you always feel fat next to. You've got to learn how to interact with these people in a healthy way. Identify who or what your triggers are, then give yourself a good talk before you encounter one of them.

What else can a woman do to break the cycle of chronic dieting? An obsession of any kind takes time away from doing something that would bring you true happiness. So list all the ways your life would be different if you didn't think about eating, weight, and food all the time. Look at that list and think about the way you've been living. God's promised you an abundant life. Do you feel as though you're living it? Is there a chance you'd experience more of it if you just let go of your fear?

If you're afraid of gaining weight and you eat a piece of pizza, your fear will tell you, Oh no, you ate that pizza. You'd better do something about it or you'll gain weight. But if you're not afraid of gaining weight and you eat a piece of pizza, you'll think, That was really good. I might not want to eat this all the time, but I enjoyed it. If the fear's not there, you're not inclined either to starve yourself the next day or, for some women, to throw it up. Likewise, if you want to lose weight, if you don't use food to comfort your fears, you're more likely to eat the right amount of food to get to a healthier weight.

There's freedom in not being defined by what you weigh. The truth is, yes, it's good to eat healthy and to exercise, because God wants us to take care of our bodies and to feel good in them. But we shouldn't operate out of fear. If we can somehow remove that fear, then it becomes easier to find a balance in what we eat and how we feel.

Is counseling important? Sometimes just talking with your spouse or a friend can help. But if you're constantly battling thoughts of weight and you feel your value's tied to what you weigh, talk to a professional counselor.

Any advice for a mom of a daughter who's struggling with her weight? Say, "I've noticed you might have some concerns about food. Are you afraid of gaining weight?" Do it in a conversational, relational way. Don't act too afraid if you think she's doing something unhealthy. If she knows she can be honest with you, she's more likely to let you know what's going on. If she's bulimic or anorexic, get her to talk to a professional quickly. But if she's just struggling with her self-worth, share any similar struggles you may have, as well as anything you've learned to combat them.

How has your relationship with God changed over the last few years? Now that I'm not obsessed with my weight, my love for God and my relationship with him are growing deeper. I'm seeing God change me. And that wasn't happening when all my time was consumed with staying thin. It's exciting—and now I yearn to help other women who struggle daily to accept their bodies as they are.

for more information on Constance Rhodes's ministry, check out her website at www.findingbalance.com.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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