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The Culture We Embrace

One morning I asked God for a year-long challenge. He told me to give up sweets. And I learned some important and eye-opening things!

He looked like Frankenstein's mini-me. Chad Lee was a pale, square-faced boy with inky black hair. He also had a small mouth out of which he spat the word, fat. I don't remember clearly how he said it, whether it was "you're so fat" or "isn't she fat?" but I remember the word, and I remember his saying it while looking at me. I was eight years old. We were in the same third grade class, and there wasn't a day during the school year that I didn't either hear his critique of my size or live in fear of hearing it. It was a struggle of a year.

In fifth grade I still wore Husky jeans and cried looking at my rounder self in the mirror. My mom decided to fix me by taking me to Weight Watchers. I was five feet tall and weighed 121 pounds. My leader wanted me to lose 20 pounds. I secretly wanted to lose 30 so I could eat cake. Looking at that time and the person I was then, I wish I'd learned to be a good eater. Instead, I learned to be a good dieter. I became a very good dieter.

Unfortunately, as most people know, good dieters become exceptional re-gainers, and the truly talented go on to be yo-yo dieters. So it was with me. I embraced diets as my salvation. They were my key to bodily perfection. Success wore a size 8; failure shopped for plus-sizes, and I had wardrobes for both. I tried a lot of weight loss plans over a whole lot of time and failed all of them. For 30 years I tried desperately to be a skinny cake eater … until two years ago.

Give up what?
One morning in November 2007, I asked God for a challenge. I wanted to do something for a year, and I wanted to write about my experience along the way just for fun and to see if I could do it. Brainstorming, I came up with a couple of forgettable plans when into my head popped the most ridiculously insane thought in the history of thoughts: give up desserts for a year.

I love desserts. I don't have a sweet tooth; I have a whole mouthful of them. I'm an equal-opportunity dessert-eater. I tried giving up sweets five years earlier and crashed and burned before January was through.

I don't do repeats, I told myself. But the thought stayed. Like a seed in my brain, it planted itself and immediately took root. I don't want to, I said. The thought began to sprout. No … I whined. It was too late. God had me where he wanted me.

When I began my New Year's resolution in 2008, I told myself that it was first to see if I could do it and second to be healthier—both noble goals. But really, inside, what I wanted was to lose 30 pounds (so the next year I could eat cake). Things seemed to go well at first. It wasn't as difficult physically as I expected it to be, and while the social aspects of dessert-eating were a tougher adjustment, I had the self-satisfaction of knowing that I was being transformed into the thinner person I always longed to be. By March, though, I still looked the same and my clothes weren't any looser. I was mad, and struggling with what it all meant—expectations and disappointments, success and failure, wanting and denial—they were all wrapped up in something as simple as eating. I couldn't help but wonder how it happened that nothing happened? I couldn't help but question the point of continuing on. The answer was I had a profound desire to see the resolution to the end and felt a push to move forward that came from something greater than me. So I kept going.

My 40th birthday was the halfway point of the year. I checked in with my doctor the day before, praying for news I knew I wouldn't get.

"Within two pounds," I asked the nurse, "did I gain, lose, or stay the same?"

The answer was "the same," and because the clothes I wore that day were lighter than what I wore in the early days of winter six months before, I knew I'd not lost any weight at all for an entire half of a sweets-free year.

Yes, I cried a little. But as it turned out, I didn't need a lot to keep me going, and about two weeks later, I got my second wind. My cholesterol, which has always been high despite my weight, dropped 47 points. Assured that my efforts weren't in vain and that I was making my insides happy, I was ready to claw my way to the end of December. And that little push was all I needed. I could only conclude that I was more than the size of my jeans and doing the right thing trumped looking (what I considered to be) the right way.

But just when I was ready to resign myself to being healthy but heavy, something happened.

The sweet truth of discovery
There are two truths about God that were made very clear to me in 2008: (1) He works according to his time; and (2) he has a terrific sense of humor. In September I started shrinking. It continued through October, November, and December with the same result—the loss of about one size each month. I didn't change what I ate or how I exercised. Since my new eating habits had been firmly set after nine months, all I did was what I'd been doing all along. And the weight came off. It was mystifying, and it was marvelous. I finished the year in wonder and amazement and 20 pounds lighter. It had been a long, strange trip full of twists and turns. As with many of God's plans, even though I didn't get there directly, I ended up right where I was supposed to be.

God is good. That doesn't necessarily mean that he's always nice the way we want him to be. And it doesn't mean that things will be easy. He is, however, always good. And I realized that when we follow him, even if the path gets messy, he takes us someplace new. Last spring, I got far enough down that path for him to turn me around and show me where I came from. What I saw were the Christians around me—learning his Word and living it as well as they could. I saw them reject our culture of self, wealth, and relationships in order to live as humanly possible according to the perfect model given to us by Christ—except when they ate.

We embrace the diet culture in order to look like people we otherwise choose not to emulate. Romans 12:2 tells us, "Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world" but does not add, "unless it's to look like a runway model." On the other hand, sometimes we consume bad food, often in quantities far beyond what we should. We've decided that "if it feels good, do it" is wrong, but "if it tastes good, go for seconds" is okay. Paul asked the Corinthians, "Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?" (1 Corinthians 6:19). If we decide to be vigilant to protect ourselves and our children from immorality, wouldn't that naturally include what we eat and feed our families?

Looking back down the path, I got it. For the first time in 30 years, I understood. It's not about the scale, looking good on the beach, or my right to eat as many desserts from the all-you-can-eat buffet as I can keep down. It's about the physical manifestation of my relationship with God. I realized that the desire to achieve a certain look and the lust for food are both idols that keep my focus away from God and the person he designed me to be. He picked a body for me, and I'm to honor him by caring for it.

I'd like to say that 2008 taught me to completely reject the dieting culture, to refuse to accept body image standards, and to choose great numbers on a lab report over great numbers on a scale, but I'm not there yet. I like where I am in terms of size and self-control but don't know that I've reached the point of cultural freedom as far as food and self-image are concerned. This year, I continue to exercise and be wary of sweets out of sheer terror of backsliding to my heavier self. I check my weight once a month and still get anxious approaching the scale. Even still, I don't think I've reached the point where I know exactly what I'm supposed to look like. Many years of too much abuse still hide what I'm meant to be. But now I see the traps that distracted me for so long, and by focusing on God and the path he's leading me on, I'm starting to get a glimpse of what he planned for me from the beginning.

Jennifer Petitt is a freelance author.

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

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