As many as ten million women and men have clinical eating disorders in the United States, according to the National Eating Disorders Association. Kate Wicker used to count herself among them. The writer and mother of four found healing by taking a Catholic approach to her body-image struggles. She spoke to Zoe Romanowsky about her new book, Weightless: Making Peace with Your Body, and about what the Catholic faith offers to people who struggle with feeling that they are never thin enough, pretty enough, or good enough.
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Zoe Romanowsky: Your subtitle — “making peace with your body” — suggests that we are at war with our bodies. What do you think has contributed to this battle?
Kate Wicker: When I first started writing Weightless, I had to ask myself: Why do so many of us look in the mirror and dislike — even hate — what we see? I knew some of the reasons for my own past body hatred and ongoing struggles with food, but were there some universal factors contributing to the wave of body dissatisfaction? Although I couldn’t possibly address all of the reasons, a few jump out at me.
Part of the problem has to do with our media-saturated culture. My 90-year-old grandma read my book, but she admitted she’s spent most of her life being fairly body-unaware. Many women in her generation weren’t so in tune with every inch of their flesh. Today, media is ubiquitous: We can’t escape all the images unless we’re a cloistered nun — or Amish, perhaps. The ideal standard of beauty portrayed by the media often doesn’t represent the average woman. Most of us would have to resort to extreme measures — dieting, personal trainers and chefs, or even getting plastic surgery — to look like the beauties who dominate the entertainment, fashion, and advertising industries.
Even our youngest children are inundated with images of beautiful, youthful women, and many of the images we see are airbrushed or photoshopped to appear even more flawless. Is it any wonder so many of us are dissatisfied with our bodies? According to the National Eating Disorder Association, eating disorders are rising wherever a Western notion of beauty is becoming more prevalent. So we really have to examine not only the mass exposure to media but how it’s defining what our culture considers beautiful.
Both women and men suffer from negative body image and eating disorders, but these problems affect women in much greater numbers. Why?
I truly believe that women, in particular, suffer from poor body image as a result of a spiritual attack. It all started in the Garden of Eden, when Satan tempted Eve with the apple. The Evil One knew whom to tempt — the one who had great power to transform the world with her beauty and love. Every day, women are still being handed apples: Wear this revealing clothing if you want to get noticed. Become more like a man if you want to be powerful and successful. Get thinner if you want to have a better life.
Women are meant to portray God’s design for beauty. We are created to attract others — not just men, but society as a whole, with our nurturing, empathy, and our beauty. Yet society has perverted the way we define beauty and what it means to be a woman. Some of us feel like we have nothing to offer the world; we tell ourselves we’ll never be what society defines as beautiful, so we stop trying — we might wear unflattering clothing, overeat, stop exercising, or even masculinize ourselves, thinking this will make us stronger and more powerful (while ignoring our innate feminine strength).
Then there’s the other extreme: Women who relentlessly pursue thinness or physical beauty and make their appearance the cornerstone of their identity. Both women are at war with their true selves.
When I was in the throes of my eating disorder, I was mired in self-hate and spending way too much time looking inward rather than outward. We have to consider that another reason we’re at war with our bodies is because we’ve forgotten a fundamental truth of our Christian faith: That our bodies are gifts from God, and that we’re made in His image.
Explain the relationship between negative body image and eating disorders. Do they always go together?
While a negative body image often contributes to an eating disorder, a clinical eating disorder is a complex psychological problem. It’s important to keep in mind that eating disorders and any body image problem are more complicated than simply wanting to look a certain way. The destructive habits — whether someone is purging, starving themselves, exercising compulsively, or binge eating — are vehicles for expressing much deeper issues. My struggle with an eating disorder was rooted in vanity and pride: I had a deep longing to please others, and I was misguided in thinking that being thinner would make me more likable and pleasing to others.
I also found I struggled more with my weight when I was grasping for control. I could not make people love me, but I could make myself thinner. The scale became my go-to barometer for my self-worth. Since I already had a negative body image, I didn’t see anything wrong with abusing my body or belittling myself rather than appreciating the body God had blessed me with. What started as a desire to become thinner and to improve myself soon became a desperate attempt to be more in control. For a long time, I didn’t really want to get better, because I was terrified that healing would mean gaining weight. But what I was really afraid of was being unlovable and losing that illusion of complete control.
At their root, eating disorders and their associated behaviors are a coping mechanism for some kind of stress or pain. This is why simply telling people that they just need to eat, or that they’re beautiful, is not enough help them fully recover.
A big reason you wrote the book was to offer a faith-based approach to body image problems and eating disorders. What does the Catholic worldview offer a person struggling with these challenges?
Even after I’d put an end to my self-destructive behaviors and was considered physically “recovered” from my eating disorder, I was still spiritually sick in many ways. It wasn’t until I turned to God and embraced some of the wisdom of my Catholic faith that my true inner healing began.
As someone who made food my enemy, it was a form of eating that helped to save me. Taking in the Eucharist offered peace that the world — and the scale — could not give. I also remind myself that the Eucharist is one food where there’s no such thing as moderation. It’s there for the taking — and the healing. You are what you eat, the adage goes.
During my recovery, I also began collecting quotes from Scripture, the Catechism, and saints that related to body image and how I should see myself. I included many of these bits of wisdom in the “Soul Food” sections of my book, where I share spiritual tools to help address common struggles related to food and body image.
The Sacrament of Reconciliation proved to be a great source of comfort to me as well. Our bodies age. They change with pregnancy and motherhood. Sickness can take its toll. Sin can do the same thing to our souls, but what a gift it is to be able to go to confession and have our souls restored and wiped free of any blemish.
Prayer was essential to the healing process. I found a lot of comfort in praying to Our Blessed Mother. She is the model of humility and knows a thing or two about relinquishing control. If she could trust God enough to carry Him in her womb, and then to stand by and watch him die a violent death, then I could trust Him, too, to help me navigate the rough patches in life. More recently, I’ve found inspiration in St. Thérèse of Lisieux. She not only recognized her imperfections, but she embraced them. She knew that Christ’s love is made perfect in our weakness. She didn’t try to change the person she was, with all her quirks and weaknesses. Instead, she focused on loving Christ.
I have encountered an undercurrent of Manichaeism among many faithful Catholics, a deeply held attitude that the body is essentially bad or unimportant — or at least to be feared. Why do you think that is?
In my own research and discussions about body image, I’ve definitely observed the temptation to dismiss anything temporal, such as our bodies and physical attractiveness. But seeing the body as bad, impure, or as unimportant is based on misguided theology. As Catholics, we can’t overlook that Christ suffered in the flesh. God became man — the Word Incarnate. Part of being human means having flesh, and we should care for the body God has given us in a loving, respectful way.
Our souls don’t work out our salvation on their own; we stumble toward heaven in our bodies. My body is the only vehicle I have for living out the life God has planned for me. I don’t know how I’d face the physical demands of being a mom of four young children if I wasn’t fueling myself with healthy foods and exercising. The human body does matter.
When I consider how to find that balance, I meditate on these words of Saint Augustine: “Take care of your body as if you were going to live forever; and take care of your soul as if you were going to die tomorrow.”
What does it mean to be made in God’s image and likeness? How do we practically use this truth to find healing?
I’ve often said we need to remember we’re made in God’s image, not Hollywood’s, but what does that mean? At its theological heart, it means we’re both spiritual and corporeal beings who were willed by God. This alone can go a long way in helping to heal our struggles with our appearance or how we’re aging on the outside, because no matter how we look physically, we possess souls that have eternal value and great dignity.
To be made in God’s likeness means that we once shared His glory and perfection. Although this “likeness” vanished after the Fall, Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit have helped to restore us to that divine likeness. Although we will not completely share God’s likeness until we’re fully united with Him, grace helps transform us. Moreover, within all of us is the desire to seek God’s will and to order our lives toward virtue, and ultimately toward Him. The more we do this, the more meaningful our lives will be.
In my own healing, I often mediate on how I’m made in God’s image and likeness. This is a beautiful reminder that helps me to ignore some of the unhealthy internal scripts in my mind that undervalue my worth as a woman and instead helps me to come closer to the person God purposed me to be.
Can someone expect to ever be completely healed of an eating disorder, or is this a cross you have to pick up each day, good or bad?
I’d like to say I’m 100 percent over my eating disorder, but I’m not sure I’ll ever be. I used to feel like if I prayed harder or was simply a stronger person, then I wouldn’t ever have to be on guard against relics from my body-hating past. Yet I’ve come to recognize that, as you say, this is a cross I must pick up each day. I have to be on guard against spiritual attacks related to food and my weight. This is where I’m the most vulnerable — and at the risk of sounding overly dramatic, the Evil One knows that.
I also think any struggle that has to do with food is very, very difficult to overcome. Imagine telling an alcoholic they can have three drinks a day, but they just can’t get drunk. Essentially, that’s what many of us have to do with food. We can’t take the all-or-nothing approach. We have to learn to approach food with temperance and a healthy spirit of self-control. That’s not easy.
I’ve come to think of my personal hang-ups — and anyone’s addiction or hang-ups — more like the dead part of a garden that lies within us. Most of the garden is lush and fruitful, but there’s a shady spot. This is where discontentment, self-doubt, body angst, and self-hatred reside. I can choose to go there, just as I can choose to bask in the sun, to notice the beauty and the growth instead of the decay and the stagnancy.
What we must remember is that it is our choice. No one can do it for us; we have to decide to walk away from the darkness into the light. It’s scary, especially when we feel more comfortable trying to be thin all the time. How can we live without dieting or purging or eating too much or too little, when this has been a part of us for so long? With courage, with hope, with God’s grace, and the willingness to try again and again when we fall off the bandwagon.
Are there practical ways women (and men) can grow more comfortable and confident with their bodies?
Learn how to eat mindfully. Savor an ice cream cone, rather than cramming it down while you’re in the car waiting for soccer practice to be over, and don’t feel guilty about it. Enjoy food and the fellowship that often comes with it, but don’t be afraid to leave some food behind on your plate or to put your fork down before you feel like you’re going to burst out of your seams.
Exercise for health and for the way it makes you feel, but don’t turn it in to punishment. Forgive yourself when you overeat or skip a day of exercise. If you ate a few too many potato chips, that doesn’t make you a bad person. Don’t self-destruct just because you feel like you fell off the bandwagon again. Start each day anew.
Be grateful for your body. Our bodies are gifts from God and temples of the Holy Spirit. Eat well. Be well. Break a sweat as a way to honor your body. Adorn it with clothing that accentuates your assets without flaunting them. Try to see your body not as an ornament but as an instrument to live a fulfilling life and follow God’s will for you.
C. S. Lewis wrote, “We are what we believe we are.” We need to believe in our goodness and beauty, and in God and His love — this is what will shine through.