A few weeks ago the women of my family gathered to witness and to care in the aftermath of a life-saving and body-altering surgery. Three generations stood in the bathroom and laughed and cried over a body that has nurtured each of us and is now marked permanently by a victory over breast cancer.
It’s a strange intimacy that results from moments like these. A bittersweet knowing. We joked and cajoled and reminded that “you are more important than any body part,” but we also shared in a certain grief. The body that nursed my mother and aunt, that loved my grandfather, that snuggled three grandbabies, is permanently altered.
I come from generations of women at war with their bodies. Generations for which the mirror has held a certain anguish.
My middle school years in particular were marked by horrifyingly low self-esteem. I cried into the mirror more than I care to confess. I fought a losing war with acne. My hair was too frizzy, too curly for the cool styles. I chopped it into a pixie cut (#regret) and was told I looked like a boy. My body was shaped all wrong for the low-cut hip hugger jeans of 2003. I’m desperately uncoordinated, which just confirmed that I would never be the athletic type that the boys seemed to like. Let’s not talk about bathing suits.
I was so ashamed of my body. The enemy made sure of it.
Sophomore year of college, the Lord did some amazing healing in my life and literally smashed the standards to which I compared myself. Since then I’ve been on a journey of getting to know the beauty and strength of my body.
I don’t want to just ignore it. I don’t want to pretend that “it’s what’s on the inside that counts,” like my body is an alien host and the real me is somewhere deep inside. Theologically, we’d call this separation of body and soul Gnosticism, and it’s straight-up heresy that got people kicked out of the church. To embrace this mindset would mean to dismiss the fact that God designed every part of me- that I am the product of generations of God-ordained relationships that shaped my very DNA.
I want to love my body well. I want to be at peace in my own skin.
I feel like I mostly do okay at this these days, but this week the mall was full of back-to-school shoppers, and the lure of 50% off denim pulled me into an Old Navy dressing room. (First mistake: only 3% of the population actually looks good in Old Navy jeans. The 3% are 12 years old. Second mistake: Old Navy dressing rooms are designed to make you feel awful about yourself. I think it’s the lighting.)
Looking in that mirror, that horrible little voice somehow snuck his way back in. He said things that I haven’t heard in years, that I am “gross” and “unwanted” and “unloveable,” and you know what? It pissed me off. And I’m taking this as a very good sign. Thirteen-year-old Chelsie wouldn’t have heard those as lies targeted at vulnerability. She wouldn’t have known that the enemy plays dirty. She would have wallowed in that garbage and let the lies grow.
She didn’t know that her Father calls her lovely, as a dwelling place of the Holy Spirit, or that he named her Beloved.
And so, in her honor, I wrote a love letter to her body. My body.
I got the idea from Sarah Bessey and a Bible study we did with college aged girls a few years back. If you ever want to quiet a room full of women, ask them what they love about their bodies.
Ladies, we need to do better. For the women in that small group. For my grandma and mother. For my sister. Beth, I want you to be able to look in the mirror and tell the enemy of your soul to shove it, not because your body doesn’t matter, but because it does and it is miraculous just the way it is.
We are loved and lovely. Let’s keep reminding ourselves.
I think I’m beginning to love you a bit. I’m sorry it’s taken so long.
I love your eyes. The comfortable mama-blue of them that is the exact same color as your favorite denim. The clear blue that reflects the same ocean where you have known your most intimate moments with the Father.
It took me a minute, but I love your cleft chin. The one you share with Daddy, a reminder that you share the same determination and stubbornness.
I love your high forehead, with the lines that you always hated, because they came from our grandfather. They speak of wisdom, love of family, and a rich heritage of faith. Grow into them.
I love your face. Your cream-pale, pink skin that speaks of generations of Swedish blood. Your cheeks that redden with the slightest emotion and can’t hide a thing. I love that this makes you a terrible liar and that this keeps us honest about what we need. I love that the widows peak that made bangs so challenging has turned your face into a literal heart to greet the world around you.
I love your hair. We’ve fought a few battles over this one, huh? I’m sorry for the years of straighteners and crunchy gel products and of trying to force you to be anything other than what you are. I love that you’re a little independent, rebellious, wild and moody and that you look best when you’re left alone to do your thing. I love that your natural waves look like something the wind played with and that you’ve grown darker with years of wisdom. I love that your color looks inconspicuously average until you get up close in the sun and see the gold spun throughout, a treasure worth uncovering.
I love your shoulders. The way they carry responsibility and stand up straighter in a crisis. I love the way that these same shoulders are the first way that we know to take a break- a knotted tension that reminds us to rest and seek out the comfort of others.
I love your arms. The arms that are quick to extend hospitality. The arms that cradled sleeping Syrian toddlers until you thought you couldn’t do it anymore, and then did it anyway. The arms that held your best friend when his heart was breaking. The arms that sway and lift and dance in worship.
I love your hands. They’re starting to look like Mama’s, with her natural manicure, gentle touch, and boundless creativity. These hands have written thousands of pages and turned countless more. They have tickled toddlers’ tummies and braided your sister’s hair. They’re quick to get dirty, are creative and dexterous tinkerers, and stay steady under pressure.
I love your stomach. I know, even your stomach. I know we’ve got a little more stuffing than you would like, pretty much everywhere, but I love that you are the summary of meals shared with people that you love. I love that you have been shaped by Guatemalan beans, Greek gyros, Thai rice, Irish breakfasts, cannolis from Mike’s, and Aunt Carolyn’s cheesecake. I love that your laugh comes from your belly. I love that you give comfortable hugs and that babies fit perfectly on your hip. I love that you get butterflies in your stomach when you talk to a guy you like. I love that when the Father gives you words to speak, you feel it in your gut first, the message clamoring to escape. I love your instincts and how sometimes you ‘just know’ because you can feel it in your stomach. You’re usually right.
I love your legs. I love that they’re quick to step into new adventures and to run toward the hurting. I love that they dance in the living room and in the salsa club. I love that they have climbed mountains, jumped into rivers and lakes, stood tall in court rooms and navigated hospital corridors. I love that when you get up to preach, all of a sudden the nerves disappear and your legs feel stronger and more steady than when they are anywhere else.
I love your feet. Your feet that have walked the cement of refugee camps praying for rest and comfort. Feet that navigated the red light districts to offer the light of freedom to dancers turned friends. They have wandered Guatemalan roads, Irish coasts, Californian deserts, and Boston cobblestone and discovered beauty in unexpected places. They have marched against injustice, pounded in solidarity and danced in worship.
I love your height, or lack thereof. I love that you can look awkward preteens right in the eye and that you don’t tower over the children that seek your affection. I love that sometimes you have to ask for help to reach something, because that’s a good reminder for us not to get too independent for our own good. I love that we have to look up at others because it’s a good reminder that we are always only called lower, to the least and lonely.
And I want to say thank you. Thank you for your strength that has looked depression in the eye a few times, taken the abuse of neglect and stress, has worn grief and loneliness, and kept on going. Thank you, heart and lungs and nerves and liver, for your quiet faithfulness and diligence in holding us together and pushing forward when the rest of me felt too tired for life.
You are lovely. And strong. And I’m so excited to spend the rest of our life together. I’m determined that it only gets better from here, no matter what comes next.