We weren’t close friends, and I can’t even remember how the topic arose, but the first time I admitted aloud that I might have a touch of an eating disorder, it was to a slightly older boy from my church youth group. He, in turn, confessed his own disordered desire, the opposite of mine: I fasted and dieted my way to anemia and amenorrhea; he overate his way to obesity. It felt good, initially, to acknowledge aloud that I might have a problem, but I soon resented his raised eyebrow and knowing look when, at a church gathering, he spied me eating only salad and drinking only Diet Coke.
If my problem was worrisome, surely, I thought, it wasn’t as bad as his. Gluttony was condemned in the Bible, I reasoned. But my self-imposed semi-starvation could be construed as discipline—something I thought the Lord looked upon rather kindly.
When we speak or hear of disorders involving eating and body image, we tend to think first of women and girls. Perhaps this reflects Western culture’s traditional dichotomy between flesh and spirit, which has typically associated men with spirit (ideas, the life of the mind, philosophy, and reason) and women with the world of flesh and matter (breast milk and blood, linked to the cycles of the moon).
This divide, of course, has more to do with the legacy of Greek philosophy than a biblical understanding of human nature. Christ himself offers body and blood as a sacrifice and continual feast to men and women alike. Orthodox Christians believe in a real incarnation and a bodily resurrection; Jesus’ resurrection body bears scars and requires food, just as ours do.
Christians have not always been eager to embrace the goodness of human bodies, seeing appetites and needs as potential snares. As some imagine it, the body is a mere shell for the soul, to be disposed of and forgotten when we get to heaven: a vision that surely owes more to Plato than to the New Testament. It’s this understanding of spirituality that particularly excludes women, the earthiness of whose bodies will not be denied.
Instinct to Conceal
Ragan Sutterfield’s new book, This Is My Body, might be called an incarnational memoir. It’s an account of embodiment that gives lie to the idea that it’s women, exclusively, who experience the weight of fleshly existence as a burden. (Interestingly, however, Sutterfield’s uncomfortable self-consciousness takes the form of a stereotypically feminine preoccupation with his “butt” and “thighs,” as opposed to, say, a “beer belly.”)
In deft and at times luminous prose, Sutterfield confesses his lifelong unease with his corporeal self, his instinct to conceal his body by wearing certain clothes or sitting in a particular way or distracting people with his intellect. He tells of struggling to reconcile his bodily existence with the theology he absorbed in his evangelical upbringing—a theology that alternately denied, disparaged, and sought to discipline the body; a theology that seemed to view the body with a near-Gnostic suspicion.
Sutterfield’s story is told in chapters that alternate between a countdown to his completion of an Ironman triathlon and a roughly chronological narrative of his body. It’s a familiar enough story, chronicling the beginnings of sexual awareness, some relatively innocuous dissipation with cigarettes, donuts, and Red Bull, and the more insidious loneliness and longing that led him into obesity and ill-health—and an unhappy, short-lived marriage.
Here, and later, when discussing the flourishing joy and fruitfulness of his second marriage, is where Sutterfield’s memoir is particularly compelling. During his first marriage, profound loneliness draws him into a physical relationship with the woman he’d later propose to after she became pregnant. When she miscarries before they marry, things begin to go sour. They marry anyway. Sutterfield describes the disintegration of their fragile union as akin to pornography. “We became objects to each other,” he writes. In his wife’s eyes, Sutterfield became “the fat guy”; in Sutterfield’s eyes, his wife had (perhaps always?) been “an object to move along” in his own story of loneliness and alienation. They had lost—or had never really found—one another’s stories, and, Sutterfield claims, “when we see people without recognizing that they have a story, we become pornographers.”
This marriage soon fails fully, leaving Sutterfield “desperate, broken” and newly hungry for “the healing food of Christ’s body.” He writes: “I wanted a body and soul that were ready to meet the challenge of love.” Recommitting himself to spiritual discipline (according to the traditions of the Episcopal church, whose embodied practices better satisfied his longings), Sutterfield began to work with a nutritionist. Eventually, he meets Emily, who loves him even with the 50 pounds of excess weight he still carries.
Emily, he tells us, lives with Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder of the connective tissue whose cruelest manifestation is in sudden aortic ruptures. Yet in spite of this, Emily inhabits her body joyfully, hiking and swimming for the pleasure of the activities, not from any need to conform her body to some externally imposed standard. It would seem that in loving Emily, and being loved by Emily, Sutterfield begins to find what wholeness there is to be found in this life.
Destined for Wholeness
This part of the book was perhaps more compelling than the chapters leading up to and narrating the Ironman race. Readers who, like me, will never complete physical feats even remotely approximating the Ironman may agree. At points the details of training, diet, and oxygen optimization feel a bit tiresome. Still, Sutterfield’s motivation—which was a longing for “radical presence, a focus and attention unlike anything else, a full integration of myself that was purely here and now but also outside the normal feeling of time”—appeals more widely, I imagine, than the ambition to complete an Ironman.
As if anticipating this gentle criticism, however, Sutterfield beautifully downplays the Ironman’s significance in the narrative. Despite the memoir’s subtitle (“From Obesity to Ironman, My Journey into the True Meaning of Flesh, Spirit, and Deeper Faith”), the race is not the culmination of his story, but a signpost along the way. The birth of his daughter and his wedding dance with Emily are, in the end, far more significant in achieving a “validation of [his] body’s goodness.”
No, Sutterfield’s book does not see the Ironman race (or the CrossFit training and Paleo diet he credits with getting him there) as ends in themselves: “Rather than insulating us from death, every good workout helps to prepare us for it. The aches and pains and difficulties of the body remind us that we are mortal. Training for sports is training for death.”
At this point, and others, I couldn’t help wanting to see the discussion opened up a bit—how, for example, are the aches and pain of a race different than the aches and pains we encounter just by being alive? What kinds of enlivening, integrated experiences might be pursued by those who lack the physical ability to run?
This may be a quibble, since This Is My Body is a memoir, not a how-to manual. Sutterfield’s book is a welcome reminder that our flesh is no mere container for our souls. We are our bodies: born to decay, it is true, but destined for resurrection, for wholeness.
Rachel Marie Stone, a Her.meneutics contributor, is the author of Eat With Joy: Redeeming God’s Gift of Food (InterVarsity Press).
Image credit: Runar Eilertsen, Flcikr
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