What Anorexia Taught Me about Self-Worth
My struggle with anorexia in middle school might be closer to your own story than you’d think.
I still remember sitting at that table in art class in the sixth grade. I was sitting with my best friend, and across the table was the new boy at school whom we both liked. We had talked about him in hushed voices under our blankets at slumber parties. We had recounted interactions with him for hours with giddy and hopeful hearts. And we had wondered what it would be like to kiss him – sixth grade style, of course.
There I was, looking at him across the table and knowing how my friend and I felt. The three of us talked about a variety of topics, but somehow the conversation turned to how much we weighed. As an adult you might read this and think, “What?” But as a middle schooler, you wouldn’t be surprised. Middle school is wrought with fledging attempts at self-definition, and weight is a hot topic – whether it is verbalized or silently brewing beneath the surface as an eating disorder. Anorexia is actually the third most common chronic illness in adolescents.
My friend, who was shorter and skinnier than me, was quick to say her weight. It was a good ten pounds less than what I weighed. The boy and my friend asked me several times what I weighed. At first, I refused to answer. Then I answered with a number that was five pounds less than reality. And a new conviction was born: I needed to lose weight.
I was thin to begin with, but I developed anorexia. With every pound I lost, my sense of self-worth increased. My friend was a faster runner on our school team. After losing weight, I told myself that I would be faster too. My friend was wearing smaller clothes sizes. After losing weight, I told myself that I would wear them too and be the one the guy liked who had asked me that simple question at the art table.
Fast forward in our lives – the circumstances are different, but the pressures haven’t changed. We want others’ approval. We want to be admired and respected. We want to accomplish our goals, which often involves an appetite for competition. This is human nature, but if left unchecked, it can result in the same distorted sense of self-worth.
Culture can measure worth by the kind of job you have, car you drive, house you own, or where you send your children to school. These things in and of themselves are not necessarily bad, but they are faulty measures of self-worth. Therefore the same quiet shame is triggered – not in an art class, but at a cocktail party, office meeting, or playgroup.
We aren’t in middle school, but we are still appearance conscious. There is nothing wrong with wanting to look our best, but when we feel bodily shame because of how others esteem us, something is off. The preponderance of cosmetic surgeries is concerning. We may not be starving ourselves, but we may allow ourselves to feel unloved or undervalued based upon our appearance.
We can also fall victim to societal pressures. What about the parents of a child with special needs? What about the single parent who is just trying to make ends meet? To what extent do we allow ourselves to feel excluded when we don’t measure up to what society fosters as the norm? We need a different definition of self-worth in order to thrive and run our own races (Hebrews 12:1).
The definition we should turn to is the one provided by God in scripture. Godly self-worth is grounded in his love (Romans 8:38-39). The Holy Spirit whispers that love to our hearts. Christ demonstrated that love on the cross. And our Creator reminds us of that love by crafting us specially and knowing us intimately. Godly self-worth is therefore independent of what others think and is constant, not conditional.
Living based upon that definition of self-worth is our hope and challenge as Christians. Different definitions will always have their allure. My ability to successfully do so increases with the amount of time I listen to God and allow him to reset the terms. Reading scripture, praying, and spending time with fellow Christians is helpful.
We should never underestimate the power of faith. Interestingly, a medical student at the University of Western Sydney recently found that faith can serve as a viable trigger to overcoming anorexia. After reviewing the memoirs of over 30 former sufferers, Kenneth Cho concluded, “It is clear that religion, spirituality and higher values help recovery.” No matter where our struggle for worth exists, using faith as a lens to inform and inspire us is crucial.
Ultimately we learn, sometimes through trial and error, that the other definitions of self-worth will always disappoint. My quest to lose weight became serious before I got better. I had to quit our school team. I also had a fight with my friend, who later confessed that she had always been jealous of me. Unbelievable. Jealousy had crippled us both before I clung to a new definition. Will you cling to it too? Doing so enables us deeper fulfillment, more strength, and renewed hope on our journeys. As we sit around our respective tables today, we need to ask ourselves what could be more valuable than that?
For further reading on the particular concerns of adolescent girls, including eating disorders, I recommend Dr. Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls.
Related Post: A Love Letter to My Body
Noelle Kirchner is a Presbyterian pastor, wife, and mother of two young boys who enjoys writing when her wrangling skills aren't needed! In addition to contributing here, she has been a featured guest author at (In)courage and maintains her blog, Vocational Mothering. She believes approaching motherhood as a vocation means that you recognize the gravity of your ministry as a mom. Her passion is using her training to encourage Christian women like you! You can also find Noelle on Twitter and Facebook.