I first started exercising when I was 18, for a boy. He offered to teach me to box. We met up with a couple of other friends in his spider-y basement and took down imaginary attackers. Until then, my life had mainly consisted of books and music; the idea of enjoying exercise was foreign to me, the idea of playing (and failing at) sports, panic-inducing. But something about boxing worked for me, and that basement became the place where I first felt the joy of pushing your body to exhaustion and beyond.
Later in college, I was studying the doctrine of the incarnation when I began following yoga videos in my room. For centuries two sides of Christianity once battled: the Gnostics—who followed the philosophers in proclaiming that matter was evil—against the orthodox position, which said that Christianity must side with Judaism in declaring all creation good. I would read a passionate third-century defense of Jesus’s bodily realness and creation’s very-goodness; then I would go to the mat and exorcise the Gnostic voices in my own head. Breathing into all the space I could take up, I learned about myself and connected with the world in ways that books could simply not provide. Stretching and strengthening muscles, I experienced my body as more than a case for my brain or a passive, sexualized object. Even placing my hands on my own body was not something I’d normally done before, and by moving into these poses I sometimes felt I was encountering myself for the first time. I began resisting the impulse to live life floating above my body, or to (literally) minimize it. This is me, and I am good.
This was the first thing: to think less of “my body” and to conceive more of “my self,” a philosophical idea that has taken a lot of practical re-training to really absorb. To remind myself that my body and I aren’t separate, I made rules: I don’t berate, pinch, pull, deny, or constantly weigh my body. I don’t envision my future body or train toward a particular physique. I stretch out in public places when I want to. I listen to my body: I rest when I’m sick and eat french fries when I crave them and drink green tea because it makes me feel good.
The other thing is to get a little mad.
I think a lot of us realize that “society” has made us unhappy with ourselves, and we feel kind of sad about that. But as much as we may have pondered and discussed this in a vague sense, how often have we really comprehended the violence that has been done to us? The profit others have gained by encouraging this inferiority complex? The absurd entitlement instilled in men, trained to stare, evaluate, use, and discard? I don’t think we often put it starkly enough. We’ve been psychologically manipulated to reorient our lives around male desire through the physical manipulation of models and stars: forcing them into an unrealistic mold and then digitally slicing off parts of them anyway.
There’s something liberating about realizing you’re trapped. When you finally confront the fact that you will never, ever measure up. You will never look like Barbie or even like Gal Gadot. You will never be comfortable in that swimsuit, because no one has ever been comfortable in that swimsuit. You will never impress a guy who gets his ideas of women’s value from magazines and porn.
If you identify just a little bit with your body, be just a little bit fond of it, and pay attention to the messages you’re getting, it isn’t hard to cultivate a healthy and holy anger. Really think about how the senders want you to feel. The cat-caller on the street? Wants you to feel vulnerable, to remind you that he gets to determine your value. The perfume ad? Wants you to feel not-sexy-enough. The weight loss people? They want you to direct your time and energy toward getting a six pack—and not toward your own dream.
We can’t keep letting these people decide how we feel.
I used to think the “Christian response” to body shame was to pray that God would show me how beautiful I am. But over time, God showed me that my body is more than beautiful—more than how others perceive me. I do work, communicate, pray, cook, dance, serve communion, bike, hug, and love with my body. My body is getting older, and if I only love it when it seems to meet the standards of beauty others have given me, I will forever struggle against it. Now I don’t seek to “feel beautiful” as much as I seek to be free and to sprinkle freedom on others like fairy dust. I actively cultivate appreciation for my squishy bits and—this is really important—cut myself off from judging others’ appearances.
You don’t have to be an Angry Feminist raging around all the time. But once you start to care for yourself, you stop letting strangers poke at all your tender spots. You just get tired of feeling helpless about all this body stuff. You realize it’s a Christian Response to be mad when you’re assaulted by lies. You harness anger and turn it into spirit, because escaping from bondage is a hard thing and the liars and thieves do fight back. You don’t have to hate anybody; but you do have to practice self-defense.
I recommend we all stop being ladylike, and learn to box.