Why do we get it so wrong?

Anorexia, obesity, yoyo dieting . . .  many women seem to be constantly battling an unhealthy relationship with food. Catherine Larner talks to four women who have each struggled and now seek to help others

A recent report, commissioned by Tesco, found that eight million women in Britain have cancelled appointments because of their appearance, and employers lose an estimated £114.4m every year due to ‘negative body image’ sick notes.

“Women are under pressure to conform to a norm in society,” said Dr David Ashton, medical director of Healthier Weight Centre in a recent newspaper report. “Even if they are a few pounds overweight, they perceive themselves to be massively overweight and they can’t face people. That social isolation then leads to depression, which leads to low esteem and the vicious circle continues.”

Of course, it’s not wrong to look after our bodies; we are told that they are temples of the Holy Spirit, after all. And as we hear today of the obesity epidemic and its long-term health implications, it is clear that as a nation we do need to moderate our eating. But the problem is that our priorities are ill-conceived and misplaced, and we have become obsessed about reaching goals that are unrealistic and largely unattainable. If we are overweight (at whatever level this may be), we are told this is bad and we have only ourselves to blame. We become ridden with guilt and a sense of failure.

So how have we got into this state, and how do we get out of it?

In each generation, women have sought to transform their bodies to match the demands of the current fashion. The Elizabethans risked poisoning as they whitened their complexions. Flappers flattened their chests. Hourglass movie icons in the 50s and 60s meant women stuffed their bras and wore corsets.

Today the ideal is a size 8 and below, and we will follow the latest diet or exercise regime believing it promises that goal. The implication is that if we can look like the rich and famous, the film stars and supermodels, then we will have their lifestyle too; we will have the self-confidence, security and peace enjoyed by those who have an apparently perfect life and perfect body.

This is the wrong goal. The more we diet and don’t achieve our ideal body shape, the more we feel we fail. Even if we follow a healthy lifestyle with a well-balanced diet and a routine of regular exercise, we may still find ourselves a size 12 and not a size 8, because that’s the way we are and that’s how our particular body functions best.
Perhaps it is time to remind ourselves that we are more than our appearance.

Change your thinking

Abigail Robson is the author of Secret Scars, which describes her own battle with eating disorders and self-harming as a teenager. She now runs Adullam Ministries and seeks to help others with these issues.

The numbers on the scales, or in the dress size, don’t reflect my worth as a woman but, for some people, food is often their way of responding to deeper underlying issues. If we can’t succeed in other areas of our lives, like our career, being the best mum or wife, then this becomes the one area we think we can control.

We need to change the way we think of ourselves, the way we think of God and others. Romans 12:2 encourages us to renew our minds. We need to learn our worth in God and change the false thoughts and lies. In God, this is who I am and how he sees me; he sent Jesus for me. He offers me a love that is never going away, an acceptance that never changes.”

If you think you look really horrible today, ask yourself why. Is it because the outfit doesn’t suit you, or is it because you are not a size 8? Now when my trousers get too tight, I don’t feel bad about myself. I just get another size, or decide to be a bit more careful about what I eat, or walk more.

* Secret Scars, by Abigail Robson is published by Authentic Media £8.99
* Contact Adullam Ministries at PO Box 4101, Rugby, CV21 9BF www.adullam-ministries.org.uk

Check for allergies

After battling with ill health for many years, Erica White’s life was transformed by changing her diet. She has written a book, Doughnuts and Temples, about her experience and trained as a nutritionist to help others. She now runs nutritionhelp.com

There is a high level of ignorance about the ill effects of unhealthy food and too much guilt. We will only see ourselves as God sees us if we learn to affirm the truth in the face of every temptation to doubt it. If we look within ourselves, we shall see only weakness, failure and sin. But in Jesus we have died and been made holy and acceptable to God – no matter what our shape and size!

For some people, a nutritionist would be able to help them because food intolerances or allergies can cause overeating or excessive dieting tendencies. Many of the people who came to me experienced a tremendous relief from guilt when they realised it was not their own weak willpower which had caused their unhealthy relationship with food.

However, for many of us, self-control and learning new habits is what is needed. The Bible talks about feasting, but also fasting. We are certainly meant to enjoy good food and to celebrate on special occasions, but we should also be able to exercise self-control. The food we eat should also be pleasing to God – food as he designed it for our nourishment and our pleasure – not pumped with chemicals and robbed of nutrients, or eaten for self-gratification. We are free to choose.

* Doughnuts and Temples, by Erica White, White Publishing 2004. Available to order (£7.99) from 0845 2301263
* Contact Nutritionhelp.com at 8 Madeira Avenue, Leigh on Sea, Essex SS9 3EB or visit www.nutritionhelp.com

Learn to love your body

Founder of Fit For Life Forever and the author of How to Stop Dieting and Start Living Sue Prosser finally conquered her own problems with food when she reached 14 stone four years ago.

People can often have issues relating to food and eating because they have a poor self-image – in the Bible we see ourselves as God sees us – we don’t need to take our image from what the media tell us. People also turn to food because of inner emptiness, grief, unresolved pain or stress – all issues which need to be tackled through prayer and developing a more fulfilling relationship with God.

I believes that this is an area where the church can be seen to be relevant to its community. The Bible does have an answer to the obesity epidemic and it’s something which makes faith relevant today.

We do not need to emulate the secular authorities with their legalistic ‘eat this, don’t eat that’ approach. Whilst there is not a theology of dieting as such, the Bible does have much to say about the surrounding issues.  There does seem to be a defensiveness among some Christians, including ministers, when approaching this topic. We are traditionally opposed to other ‘sins of the flesh’ such as drunkenness, smoking, taking drugs and immorality – so maybe some of us make up for it by eating with impunity.”

We need to concentrate on all the positive things that our bodies can do:  dancing, swimming in the sea, horse riding, having children . . . It’s important to have hobbies which are fulfilling and keep us engaged, and to surround ourselves with life-affirming friends who also have positive attitudes to food and body image.
* How To Stop Dieting and Start Living, by Sue Prosser. Kingsway £7.99
* More information on the Fit For Life Forever course, call 0845 223 3079 or visit www.fitforlifeforever.org

Don’t label foods

Now based at Nicholaston House in Swansea, a Christian Retreat Centre, Helena Wilkinson has many years experience of working with people struggling with eating disorders and her two books on the subject Puppet on a String and Beyond Chaotic Eating were best sellers.

An eating disorder highlights that there are things in  your life that need to be sorted and that is a process.
Society says there is good and bad food, but this can lead to people labelling themselves as good or bad according to what they do with those foods. We try to help people eradicate that thinking. Food is not actually bad, it’s just that it’s needed in a different proportion in your body.

What’s needed is a right balance. People will wake up thinking they have to lose weight, so go on a strict diet. All they think about is food. They may be able to follow it for a season, but what happens then? They aren’t able to set boundaries around their eating and it becomes chaotic. They need re-educating. There are a lot of people who use food for emotional reasons, whether for stress or comfort eating.

We may need more teaching in the church on the subject, as there doesn’t seem to be any emphasis on the physical. But what we do to our body has an impact on us emotionally and spiritually. We should be looking at the whole person.

* Puppet on a String £9.99 and Beyond Chaotic Eating £8.99 by Helena Wilkinson are both published by Roperpenberthy Pub Ltd
* For details of Nicholaston House Retreat Centre, call 01792 371331 or visit www.helenawilkinson.co.uk