Eyes to See

I admit. I am not humble. I have a nice body.

Good genes, nice proportions, a healthy diet and regular exercise, lots of water all make me look pretty good. I look good. And I don’t get sick that often, I am really strong, everything works right. I love my body.

Except that strangely I also hate it. I know where every extra fat pocket is, every stretch mark (from weight not pregnancy), every piece of my body that doesn’t fit an ideal formed in my head when I was a pre-teen. When this hatred gets into my blood, I hate myself. I’m angry. And sad. And am entirely convinced that people cannot love me. I am so full of bile that it is my self, my heart, my essence that I hate. The body becomes secondary.

In college I worked at a treatment center near Provo for teenage girls. Most of them had body image issues and several had full blown eating disorders too. Disorders that caused such blurring of vision that 90 lb girls were convinced that in the mirror they saw 3X and 4X sized bodies and they dressed accordingly. Rumor had it in the Utah treatment center circuit that there were more treatment centers in Utah valley than any other state. And that there was the highest number of girls with eating disorders than any other place in the United States.

I’m not sure how true that is (though there are a LOT of treatment centers–one, Center for Change in Provo is only to treat eating disorders and they are very busy) but anecdotally, in every apartment I lived with at least one roommate that either had an eating disorder or was on the verge of it. One roommate tried to cut a non-existent fat roll off her stomach. All my other roommates throughout my BYU years , including me, had this deep distaste for the look of their bodies.

First of all, I believe that this is an American epidemic, this hate of body, and not something that is uniquely Mormon. But if treatment center rumors are true, I wonder what it is about the mix of Mormon and American that makes us girls (and some boys too I’m sure) despise our bodies enough to hurt them by starving, bingeing, cutting, puking, exercising too much, or too little. And mostly just junking our intimate relationships.

I wonder if it is unnamed, unknown perfection. There is not a moment that guarantees us exaltation, we have no real idea of what a celestial person lives like or looks like. We also assume that celestial beings lack variation. Conversion and dedication to God is too nebulous, making it seem like we might always be failing in our attempts to be like God. That feeling gets projected onto our bodies (with a nebulous but ubiquitous perfection model in American culture) and we feel like we fail in achieving that bodily perfection.

I wonder if our physical bodies are too connected with what is the natural man, an enemy to God. And we put off our bodies like we try to put off the natural man. We can never quite put them off–our bodies or our natural man–and that turns putting off and never quite putting it off into a cycle, an addiction, sometimes an obsession.

I wonder if issues of body is the Mormon addiction of choice. Addiction is usually born out of a circumstance, situation, or feeling that cannot be tolerated or controlled. We feel something we can’t handle or that we are sure will break us if we feel it all the way and so we distract ourselves with eating, not eating, exercising, or just hating body. I don’t have to feel as much loneliness if my focus is on the love handles I can never get rid of.

In the American Mormon dating world, when little differentiates us from our competition for a spouse, I wonder if we blame our bodies for our inability to arouse interest in the opposite sex. We’re mostly all the same race, the same economic backgrounds, similar levels of faith and obedience, similar education. What’s left? If we’re 19, 29 or 39, I think most girls feel pretty sure that the reason they haven’t found the one is the body.

At this particular treatment center, the theory for most addictions was that addiction comes from self-hate. That somewhere along the line of life experience and belief a person was convinced that there was something about them broken and worthy of despising. It hurts us to hate ourselves and in order to deal with the hurt and hate we start addictions. And this makes it impossible to believe anything else about ourselves. I know a lot of Mormons like this, convinced at their brokenness, unable to rationalize the good and the bad in them.

I got a blessing once that told me I would struggle with this fragmentation for the rest of my life and that the best I could do would be to re-learn how to eat. This 90 lb teenage girl that I knew, wasting away in her 3X t-shirts and 42in waisted jeans, had to learn how to look at herself and the world in a new way. She had to get new vision. I wonder if that’s what I need to re-learn how to see.


  1. Thanks Amri. I guess seeing though a glass, darkly applies to self-perception, not just to the way we see God.

  2. I think any connection between Mental illness, eating disorders and/or addictions of any sort and Mormonism is a huge canard. All the data that I have seen suggest that Mormon’s aren’t heavier than the rest of the country (though they are slightly heavier than their non-mormon neighbors). Mental illness isn’t more common. I knew plenty of girls with eating dissorders at BYU, but I did at Purdue as well…I think it is an American problem.

    I have no doubt that if we started busting out the fullness of the priesthood like crazy, nothing would change. I can’t see how anyone can say that Mormon concepts of perfection and obedience result in any certain pathology.

    That said, your final statement, “I wonder if that’s what I need to re-learn how to see.” speaks truth to the human condition. This is what we need, I think, not as a people, but as a person.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    Kate Winslet has taken a lot of crap over the years about not being thin enough. I was just reading where she refuses to let it get to her, and she doesn’t want her own daughters to get mired in bad self-images. If Kate Winslet isn’t beautiful enough, we’ve all got problems!

    When I was in high school and college I was tall and skinny (6’5″ 180 lbs.). I’m still tall, but now as my metabolism has slowed I’ve filled out to 230 lbs (without being fat). I like my body more now than I did 30 years ago. Boys sometiems have sort of a reverse body issue; being too skinny to play varsity football is not a good thing when you’re in high school, but I hafta admit it’s kinda nice later in life.

  4. I have no doubt that if we started busting out the fullness of the priesthood like crazy, nothing would change

    Now, at last, we get a peek into the kind of thing that is always on Stapers’ mind, devouring every waking hour.

  5. J.: “I can’t see how anyone can say that Mormon concepts of perfection and obedience result in any certain pathology”

    I don’t think anyone’s saying that, J. I agree that only those antagonistic to the Church would seriously advance the notion that the Church makes people crazy. But by the same token, even you would have to admit that those concepts — in a religion as tightly wound as ours — could be a potentially aggravating factor for the mentally ill.

  6. I agree with Son O’ Doug. Mormonism doesn’t make you crazy, but if you’re crazy, there are one or two things that might aggravate you. Same if you’re a believing Catholic etc.

  7. Perhaps I am misreading. I’d agree that focus on chastity, purity, the celestial, etc. pose unique challenges that could aggravate certain pathologies.

  8. It is interesting to me that African-American women seem to dodge this particular bullet. Many of them appear to be more comfortable in their own skin than other women.

  9. The psychiatrists tend to see eating disorders as an addiction. the fMRI data suggest activation of addiction centers during intentional fasting in patients with eating disorders.

    There is also the fact that, according to the conventional medical wisdom, anorexia is a rich girl’s disease. Where food is in limited supply there is nothing unusual or charged about not eating and without the social overlay there apparently is no eating disorder. GLobalization may be changing this.

    In philosophical moments, I almost see this as the existential cry for control, one way of living out Sartre’s claim that suicide is the only meaningful control we can exert over existence.

    We should also note that excessive attention to one’s weight (as amri has noted at byu and others note elsewhere) is not generally an eating disorder. it’s sad and frustrating for everyone involved, but it’s not an eating disorder. It’s important to distinguish social injustice from actual psychiatric pathology.

    re: treatment centers, from what i know from friends in the biz there are laxer laws in Utah which make it easier and more profitable to run residential treatment programs. Most of the occupants are from out of state. Almost as if Mormons have become the spiritual wet nurses to the economic elite (someone should write an essay about that).

    ps, amri if i weren’t your brother i’d say something about you having a wonderful body. As is i’ll express affection and leave the scoping to kith.

  10. On a separate note, there are some wonderful books about a different vision of abstinence, a holy one, medieval saintly women who rejected the body so entirely that they starved to death. Their long survival without eating is sometimes the miracle that got them canonized.

    This is a different hatred of the flesh, though, I believe (and so does the major historian who says that attempts to characterize this as medieval anorexia nervosa are hemi-freudian crap). This is not a hatred of one’s self or the imprint of one’s self, but a hatred of flesh as separation from God.

    How does anorexia/body dysmorphic disorder differe from flagellation or scarification or other forms of ascetism? As I write the question, it seems that one is an attempt to come to God and the other is something else.

  11. Amri: I have the greatest respect for the Center for Change. Although she was never a patient there, my daughter had a severe eating disorder. I have dealt with such disorders up close and personal for years. My heart goes out to you and your family. I’ve lived it as a father, so I know the challenges.

    I don’t believe that there is any higher incidence of eating disorders among LDS. However, the incidence is much higher among women than men (tho the rate among young men is increasing at an alarming rate). I beleive that Victoria’s Secret, Seventeen, and such idiotic magazines must be seen as the problem — and the cultural preoccupation with body image. Mark is also correct that the incidence of eating disorders is also lower among minorities — but that too is on the rise.

    In the end, anexoria is a desire to die by just wasting away. It is a form of suicide that arises from self-loathing. Of course there are concomitant issues like OCD and perfectionism that seems rampant among young women. Why? I’ve asked myself that a million times — and now a million + 1.

  12. Sam, it would seem to me that flagellation/scarification and such other medieval practices are exercises in self-denial, whereas modern body disorders are the opposite; they seem to be the result of self-obsession.

    Mind you, I’ve never flagellated (though I’ve done stuff that rhymes) and I’ve never had an eating disorder.

  13. Kevin Barney says:

    Mark IV #8, I meant to make the same observation, but I forgot. That is an admirable characteristic of the culture.

  14. This is a very real issue to me, Amri, since I have a daughter with an eating disorder (and has therapy at the center you were at, I suspect). As I was thinking about it yesterday (and the thoughts of it–and my helplessness in the face of it–consume me almost as much as her thoughts of body image consume her), I pictured the painting of the Savior at Bethesda, ready to heal a man who says simply, “Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst heal me.” Jesus answered, “I will. Be thou healed.”
    But that first question is the key–that recognition that we need to be healed. I have thought of my daughter’s disease (and no one who hasn’t dealt with it head on has ANY IDEA of how all-encompassing it is) as a kind of blindness that refuses to acknowledge itself, that treasures the darkness and is terrified of what might actually happen if they were to be healed. Would they then lose the comfort of that world where EVERYTHING revolves around appearance, and fat is a horrifying metastasis? Would their habitual distortions be forced to align themselves to accept what now seems repugnant? Would they lose the love of their boniness? What then? What would be left?
    I have long since realized that I cannot heal my daughter, that only a miracle as strong as one of Jesus’–the healing of the blind–would let her step into a different way of seeing. But she would first have to say those words: “Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst heal me.” She would have to WANT to say those words.

  15. I’ve never flagellated (though I’ve done stuff that rhymes).


  16. Re: #15 & 15, are you guys trying to beat fMh at their own game, or what?

  17. Prognosticated, Ronan.

  18. 15 and 17, you guys have me exasperated.

  19. Eating disorders were so common among the girls I knew in high school, I figured every girl must have food issues. I was surprised a few years ago when I mentioned eating disorders to some people and they couldn’t believe how common it’d been among my friends.

    I was able to get myself out of it, but I still have food issues today. Being diabetic has helped a lot with it, forcing me to eat a certain way.

    For me and my friends it was very much a control issue. I wasn’t as bad as some of my friends, though. One stopped menstruating for about a year when she was in the thick of it, and to this day she worries that she damaged herself enough that she won’t be able to have kids. My other friend still struggles with anorexia.

    None of us were LDS, btw.

  20. Steve Evans says:

    Sorry, guessers: the word was flatulated.

  21. the world was flatulated?

    Sounds like the title of a sweet punk rock album or something.

  22. I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about, Matt.

  23. From what I have learned, addiction can swing between the extremes of obsessive-compulsive over-indulgence to obsessive-compulsive anorexic avoidance.

    From my personal experience, intense therapy, dogmatic study and reading, and involvement in 12 step programs, I’ve found that at the heart of addiction is a persons inability to face emotionally difficult issues within themselves and to be able to share/emote/verbalize those emotions with others in a healthy way. So, they turn to addictions (food,sex,drugs,entertainment,work,perfectionism,etc) to modify their emotional state and not face within themselves the emotions that can seem so terrifying. This is often done without conciously choosing to do so, but almost as an act of survival. I speak from experience. It was shocking to me to find out and finally accept that I had been experiencing life through only a narrow emotional band, since the wider emotional possibility seemed so scary. I doubt I am alone in this. How many men do you know who seem emotionally distant or out of touch with their emotions?

    Food can be particularly challenging, since it is a necessity of life. Though, this does not detract from its ability to modify emotions (i.e. comfort food, chocolate, etc.)

    There is a really good LDS 12-step book called ‘He Did Deliver Me From Bondage’, which describes how to spiritually tackle the things holding us back. I found it to be very powerful. The author (from Orem, UT) specifically wrote it in relation to her struggle with food addiction and perfectionism.

    There is also a recovery program setup by the church for helping with addictions like food addiction/anorexia, called Heart t’ Heart . You can find their website at: http://www.heart-t-heart.org/

  24. I have inspired: flatulated, masticated, prognisticated, and exasperated. All in a post about body and self love. I’m proud of myself.

    My food obsession doesn’t qualify as an eating disorder but it works in cycles. Sometimes it consumes me and I think of nothing else, I gain/lose a lot of weight, and I hate myself. Then sometimes I’m okay and I think of it a little less.

    Note that I did say it was an American problem and not just Mormons. I think though that there are parts of our religion that we react to that might cause it to occur. Of course I have non-Mormon friends with body issues but some of their reasons are different than mine.

    I really love the treatment center where I worked and also think that Center for Change does great work. I saw many girls and families change.

    Susan M. I also think it has a lot to do with control, especially when a person feels like they can’t control anything else. Maybe Mormon women have body/eating issues because they have so little control in this Priesthood ruled Church. (Heh heh, that was for you Stapley)

    smb I do have a good body, another reason it’s so ridiculous that I hate it sometimes.

  25. Amri:
    odd question, are you married? I think body issues fade somewhat post marriage, so I am curious what you think.

  26. There is a really good LDS 12-step book called ‘He Did Deliver Me From Bondage’, which describes how to spiritually tackle the things holding us back. I found it to be very powerful. The author (from Orem, UT) specifically wrote it in relation to her struggle with food addiction and perfectionism.

    I really like this book- it is powerful.

    I worry often, because I have two young daughters. Will they struggle with these issues when they get to be teens? I hope not. Is there any way to predict it? Are there family or demographic factors that make eating disorders more or less likely?

    Although both my wife and I are reasonably fit and trim, we do not focus to a fault on being “fat” or not “fat”. We do focus on instilling healthy, nutritious eating habits, but don’t carry it to extremes. Is that good enough?

  27. Jordan: “Is that good enough?”

    Post up some scantily clad picks of you and your wife, and let us be the judge, Jordan.

  28. Matt W. – I would strongly disagree that body issues go away or even shrink post marriage. For me, having to be be naked infront of someone made the problem 5000 times worse. I think my body image crashed after I got married, and it didn’t help that I really did gain weight (as is so commen post marriage). Thats the thing with women and negative body-image – it has nothing to do with what other people think. It has to do with their own self esteem. At least in my experience. I know my sister, who as struggled with bulrexia and deppression, got much worse when she became sexually active. Its almost like, having someone like your body just makes it worse (once again, in my experience and observation).

  29. I’m not married Matt but I agree with Veritas that it entirely depends on the person and their experiences as to whether or not marriage/intimacy can ease self-loathing and body issues.

    David S. as I’ve explored my addictions and seen this process in action when I worked at this treatment center I am also convinced that we come to addictions to avoid feeling things too potent. Some situations have forced me to feel without my addiction and it always surprises me that I survive, that in fact they are often not as bad as I imagined. That’s why I believe we have to re-learn how to see the world and ourselves in it.

    In the Bible Dictionary, McConkie defines repentance as a fresh view of the world, that we turn away from an old view and through Jesus we get new sight. I think this insight is beautiful. Rather than berating myself for being evil and forcing new behavior, repenting has been about changing what I believe and see.

  30. From what I’ve heard, eating disorders seem to disproportionately affect young women from relatively affluent backgrounds, who are academic acheivers and fairly “accomplished” in a variety of subjects.

    Seems to describe the female population at BYU fairly well. But it also could easily be said of many American colleges.

    Odd thing is, although I had this fantasy image of an ideal woman in my mind (who easily could have come from the cover of some magazine), I never managed to warm up to those girls. I ended up dating girls who didn’t really meet that ideal. Mind, I still thought they looked great, but they weren’t ideal by any means.

  31. I only dated girls that could have been on magazine covers ;-) and ended up marrying one. Ten years later my wife weighs the same as the day we wed. Strangely, she often gets accused, mostly by her own family and church members, of being too centered on health and nutrition. She’s even been accused of having an eating disorder, though she is a robust eater, especially after a hard workout. She often has to remind her anti-fitness/health family (and others) that she is a dietitian and it’s her job to lead by example. It’s kinda like they actually want her to have a problem, weird.

  32. Amri and Veritas, I can see your point. Someone who is purging to be thin will only feel encouragement in the negative behaviour if someone comments on how good the look.

    I have gained 40 pounds since I was married (10 a year!) but do not have the national standard to compare myself of Angelina Jolie to compare myself with. No one expects me to look like Arnold Swarzenaegger did at his prime, nor do I expect myself to. I wouldn’t mind trimming back some and toning up some, but I don’t feel the same sort of pressure.

    It is interesting to think that the eating disorder problem is almost all female in America. I wonder where this got it’s start?

  33. Well, Im personally one who believes its the fault of our media…mostly advertising. This sums up how I feel about it.

  34. Matt I have several gay friends (male) and there is a huge problem with them too and body image issues and eating disorders. I don’t know why exactly.

    I can vouch for Carlton’s wife, she’s a hottie.

    One of the things I wonder about contributing to our obsession with perfection is a doctrine I love. I believe that conversion is a process. I’m glad it’s unknown, that we have to keep seeking after God and learning him and having him learn us. I have a dear Baptist friend who recently told me about accepting Jesus into your heart and then being covered by everything, including murder (her example). I thought that’s crazy. Jesus doesn’t think it’s okay to murder even if you’ve accepted him into your heart. But our humanness and desire to have things known mixed with this doctrine of unknown perfection can get perverted in our eyes. That’s why we need to learn to re-see.

  35. Matt,

    I’ve been married for 10 years. I’m now at 100lbs overweight (granted, I started at 30 lbs overweight). My knees/feet/ankles hurt when I walk for too long (over 5-10 minutes). You are correct in not needing to meet the washboard abs, tall blond volleyball player physique, but I’d figure out a way to stop your trend and reverse it slightly. Otherwise, you’ll be extremely overweight.

    To the overall thread of how did Americans get to the obsession with weight. Look at the models around us in magazines, on billboards, on commercials. There’s an interesting video clip/commercial from Dove on how expectations are impossible to meet. Go to youtube and search on dove, it was the first clip when I did the search just now. It is interesting to see.

  36. Adam Laughton says:

    My wife just shared something with me after reading this post that I thought I should pass along. She hypothesized that Mormon girls have such negative body image because they lack the outlet that so many other non-Mormon colleagues have—promiscuous sex. As is well known in our society, so many girls replace genuine self-esteem with lust in the eyes of others. Without that release valve, Mormon girls are left to stew in their own discontent.

    I’m obviously not advocating any kind of change in the Church’s moral standards, but its an attempt to identify the source of the neurosis.

  37. I suspect that many participants in this forum know non-member sexually promiscuous women that have serious body image problems.

    I can think of at least one that was very nearly anorexic, but was able to get a bit of a grip on it through therapy.

    I’m of the opinion that the standard of an attractive woman presented by society at large is to blame.

  38. I don’t know exactly who’s to blame for all the eating disorder/body image problems, but I know who can help. MOTHERS. I always believed my mother to be the most beautiful woman in the world. She was exactly 5 feet tall, and quite round and didn’t wear much makeup or fuss about her hair. She would never be on a magazine cover of the type you were referring to, or even on the cover of the Ensign or New Era. But she understood that when you love someone they are beautiful to you, so I told her she was beautiful and she never denied it, and when she told me I was beautiful I believed it. I still do. We talked about how the “I’m so fat” game that girls play in the dressing rooms or swimming pools was ridiculous, and that my young women’s leader lamenting that she wasn’t back into her size 2 jeans after having a baby was silly. But she couldn’t have done that if she’d bought into the media’s lies. I saw an Oprah episode that confirmed this a while back. It was about PRESCHOOLERS that had to wear make-up because they thought they were ugly. And where did they learn that from? Their moms. I imagine they’d asked their mothers what they were doing as they got ready for the day, and then asked why. But instead of saying that they just wanted to, or that the liked it, they told their sweet children that without their makeup they were ugly. Then they thought, “Well, if mommy’s ugly, I must be ugly too.” That’s when their vision changed. I know this is long, but please be careful what you say to your little ones, and just let yourself feel beautiful. It’s not pride, it’s glorying in the creation of a loving God.

  39. molly mormon says:

    Thank you so much for this. I know nothing can be prooved, but i KNOW that my eating disorder comes directly from the society i grew up in. I love the gospel. I am more than an active member of the church. the avg person would never understand why i struggle with my eating, but when you grow up in this society, when all of your friends have the same standards, play the same sports, have the same IQ, and are exact copies of everyone else, what will make you stand out? im in college now, and there are pretty girls everywhere, and its like a competition to find your eternal companion. i know i am not too good with words, but i can promise you that this society has affected my eating disorder directly, and i know its a problem all over the world, im just telling you how I came about my problem.