Body of Work

Everywhere we look, diets and fitness programs tell us a story about ourselves. But is the story true?

My younger child, Gabriel, has a neurogenetic disorder, which, among other things, means he lacks muscle tissue below the knee. He can walk, run, even jump, but it’s all due to the strength he has built up in his core and quads to compensate for his lack of calves, for the way that his feet don’t heel-toe, heel-toe as he walks.

The thing is, we go to Colorado nearly every summer. We go there because we’re long-term best friends with a family who own a home that they love to share with us. We go there because it is the place where their daughter, Gracie, could participate in activities like skiing despite her own physical limitations. We go there because we want to escape the heat. We go there because it is what Texans do.

Gabriel is nine years old and rapidly outpacing my ability to help him physically — in Colorado or Texas. Walking long distances often wears him out, and I want to be able to piggyback him for as long as I can. If I can’t do that, I at least want to be able to link arms or let him lean on me for some extra support. He got the tall gene from my sister and my husband’s two brothers, though, so trying to keep my strength on par with his growth often feels like a fleeting dream.

This was already true two years ago, when my husband, Jared, bought a Peloton, which is an indoor stationary bike with a touchscreen featuring constantly updating live and recorded exercise classes. As we waited for it to arrive, I felt sure it would be only Jared’s and never mine because I couldn’t imagine myself as one of those people. An hour after it arrived, however, I was online buying clip-in cycling shoes.

I liked, and still like, that the bike is hidden away in our hybrid laundry room/pantry/game closet. I once described my aversion to group exercise as “hating to work out in front of people,” which was met with laughter by a friend who replied, “I think of it as working out with people.”

The Peloton room, as I often say, is the best utilized square footage in our home, which lacks a garage or functioning attic. It is the place that houses the snacks my two sons churn through at a pace so rapid it recently drove me to purchase a Costco membership. It’s the place where we wash the clothes they’ve sweat through on the baseball field or while playing football in the backyard. It’s the place where I point a small fan directly at my face as I picture our favorite mountain hikes to keep me from quitting halfway through a strenuous ride. It’s the place, perhaps, that I am most in tune with what bodies might be for — the carrying out of a shared life buoyed by meals created from the pantry shelves, by clothes washed and dried and sometimes folded, by trying to get strong as the age of 40 barrels closer with disorienting speed.

I have considered my body mostly a nuisance or limitation — something that could never keep up with the athletic abilities of others. I’m uncoordinated and slow. I also perceived as a very young girl that I didn’t have the same relationship to my body that others did. As an eldest child who wanted to please others while existing mostly inside her own mind, I sought my accolades in academics and music. The few times I did give athletics a try are marked by memories I’d just as soon forget: finishing a swimming race a dozen strokes behind kids several grades younger than me, my younger sister surpassing me in levels at the dance studio where I tried to build flexibility and strength but mostly just carved a small niche in the nerdiest of all available classes (tap). There was the time that I was placed on a homeschool volleyball B-team (because they weren’t allowed to cut anyone) and then, the day before our first game, the coach quit because the team was so embarrassing.

The American relationship to exercise and food is complicated. Almost half of the American adult population tries to lose weight over the course of a year. Many — around 45 million — of them do so by going on diets and spending a collective $33 billion on weight loss products according to the Boston Medical Center. Despite these sky-high numbers, the CDC reports that only 10 percent of Americans eat enough vegetables, only 12 percent eat enough fruit, and 25 percent do not engage in any kind of physical activity in their free time. In the course of just one year, a Finder survey reported that Americans waste around $397 million on unused gym memberships.

We are, somehow, simultaneously obsessed with our bodies and yet doing little that can sustainably serve them. I’m no exception.

About six months ago, I really tried to make macros — shorthand for eating a specific balance of fat, protein, and carbohydrates each day — work. Eager to give my body the nutrients it needs — and forever recovering from a food mindset that therapists have cautiously described as “disordered eating” — I downloaded the apps. I scanned the food labels. I packed protein powder and cottage cheese into smoothies, smiling as push notifications told me that my snack was high in nutrients.

And then I tried to make dinner for four people. And I gave up.

Someone, somewhere, is shaking their head at my surrender. I get it. I’m sure there are people who have made an individualized focus on nutrition work for them while also feeding a spouse and children. I’m sure, even, that I could be one of those people — if I really went all in. But therein lies the impasse. I don’t want to go all in. Not because I think fixed attention on nutrition is unimportant, but because when I try to make feeding myself priority one, my already precarious sense of joy around food plummets. My normally mid-to-high-level desire to cook for my family flies out the window, certain that it can’t fit into a world where the ultimate demand is a perfect Venn diagram in which my individual (mid-30s female) nutrition needs overlap with those of my family members (mid-30s male, 11-year-old male, 9-year-old male).

Also, I’m unsure if what I want my children to see is me forever scanning barcodes, digging discarded packages out of the trash after dinner when I realize that I forgot to record an ingredient. I have settled, for now, on ensuring that I have more protein than I used to with every meal. It is probably nowhere near enough of an effort for my body, and it is exactly the amount of effort that keeps me feeling like I am not losing my mind.

What Is a Body For?

I have spent most of my life wishing my body would get out of the way of my brain. I have made exceptions for this, of course. When I was pregnant, I felt a strong sense that my body was, at least in part, for stewarding life. When I was breastfeeding, I felt the same. When Gabriel’s toddler legs were wrapped in hard plaster, requiring me to carry him everywhere and resulting in never-before-seen biceps, I felt it again.

There’s beauty in that — the sense that part of my body’s purpose was to carry my two sons and give them the nourishment they needed as babies. This, though, is shaky ground for a conclusive answer to the question of what a body is for. In my case, it forces questions about my genetic code resulting in my son’s disability. In a more general sense, there’s the fact that I would never look at another woman and tell her that her body exists solely or even primarily to be the vessel of another body. Ultimately, I don’t even want to view my own body that way. Rather, I see my motherhood as one of God’s many gracious invitations to me to reconsider what a body might be for. I see it as an entry point into a much more comprehensive, nuanced understanding of the answer to that question of what bodies might be for, one that accounts for the fact that I have miscarried as many children as I have delivered.

What is a body for when the body you held inside your own is no more?

I’ll tell you this — my initial response to that question is not unlike that of a small child squeezing her eyes shut and sticking her fingers in her ears. For all of my infinite wonderings and curiosities, the bodily experience of losing two babies made me want to escape all parts of myself — body, head, heart. Miscarriage is, or at least was for me, excruciating physically in a way that opened my eyes to one of the wild truths of what a body is for: protecting itself from its own pain. Even as I cramped and bled and could barely walk, I felt a sense of distance, my body sending my brain and heart to a place of shock, if not literal then close to it, where I could both feel and not feel.

Clipping cleats into bike pedals, scooping powders into protein shakes, lifting my casted son for the 12th time in a day — all of these actions drive at the same question. The thoughts of protection, of wanting to escape pain, of feeling and not feeling, all claw at it as well.

What is my body for?

In the case of the miscarriages, the answer seemed to be protection, and too often from what the body itself is doing. This, of course, cannot be what the body was intended for in the original sense. The created body, the Garden of Eden body, did not need to protect itself from itself or from anything else. And then perfect teeth pierced the flesh of the fruit and they knew: the body was vulnerable, in need of being covered, in need of being protected and learning how to protect. And if the body was vulnerable, the whole person was, too.

Humanity has spent so much time trying to escape this truth. Every major religion offers a perspective on the body — some far more positive than others. In many cases, the body is seen as a vessel in need of cleansing. While “cleanliness is next to godliness” may prompt most of us to roll our eyes or think of strict great-grandmothers, it’s a statement rooted in thousands of years of theological thought about the body’s relationship to holiness. The Hindu pursuit of purity, the Buddhist desire to detach from the body’s desires, and the Islamic and Jewish dietary restrictions are just a few of the near-endless ways that people have sought to cleanse the body — often to the point of diminishment —  in the interest of the life of the spirit.

The gnostics gave this quite an attempt, peeling apart the relationship of the body and soul as though such a thing were possible. It’s funny in the most tragic of ways. The word “gnostic” comes from the Greek word for knowledge or, more poignantly, insight. It’s this very thing, the sense that we can know in our minds in a way that is superior to the knowledge of the body, which leads us to disintegration and disruption in our physical bodies as well in our spiritual family. Christians know — and even spend a good deal of time talking about the fact — that we are the body of Christ. Do we know what we mean when we say that? Do I?

Scientist, pastor, and author Stephen Ko points to the concept of the imago Dei (image of God) in Genesis 1 for a way to answer that question.

“The concept of the imago Dei reconciles the preservation of our individual bodies as holy and blameless with the call to sacrifice our earthen vessels for the sake of others,” explains Ko. He notes that the early Christians were known for the way they tended to the sick when others fled in fear. They looked to the person of Jesus — the one who touched the woman with the issue of blood, who drew near to the lepers cast out of society — and saw what it meant to bear God’s image by living an embodied life that blessed the embodied lives of others.

In his new book, Faith Embodied, Ko expands on this further, writing: “The interrelatedness of body and spirit is at the core of God’s design for us — the concept of incarnation, a word we typically associate with Jesus’ inhabiting human form. We don’t worship a disembodied savior or a set of spiritual principles for right living or bettering our relationship with God. We worship Jesus, the eternal Son, who became human in every way we are. Jesus ‘took on flesh,’ we’re told in the Bible (John 1:14). He inhabited every cell of human being, saw through human corneas, touched with fingers covered in human epidermal tissue, walked on feet with the same 26 bones, 33 joints, and about 120 tendons, ligaments, and muscles that yours and mine have.”

Ko’s words bring to mind the words of 1 John 4:8, “We love because he first loved us.” What does it mean, then, for us to be bodies — to be a body — as he was a body?

The Body in Sum

There’s a headline going around about United States young adults being unfit for the American military. The gist is this: According to a 2020 Pentagon report, 77 percent of 17 to 24-year-old United States citizens are ineligible for service due to physical, academic, or mental health limitations as of 2023. This is a six percentage point increase since 2017.

When it comes to assessing physical preparedness, the Department of Defense uses Body Mass Index (BMI) as one of the primary measures for determining fitness to serve. BMI, which is often used by doctors and the public as well (online calculators abound), is a quick formula for assessing if a person is the proper weight for his or her height

BMI cannot account for body composition, which is a main reason that many feel it’s an unhelpful way to assess health, whether for military service or not. Many doctors, including family medicine physician Robert Bales of the Cleveland Clinic, point out that BMI is just one metric for assessing healthy body weight, yes, but “for the vast majority of Americans, it’s a good rough estimate.” The problem, it seems, arises in the way it so often does — with the flattening of health conversations into one factor. BMI as a rough estimate can likely be a wise, helpful entry point into a healthy weight conversation. On its own, BMI’s use is information, not application. Treating it as the latter raises questions of how quick we are as a society to judge a body without considering its individual makeup and where our standards of health find their foundation.

When it comes to the military, though, I wonder if asking whether the BMI is the right standard is the most important question. It is, at least, not the one I find myself most interested in exploring. Instead, I find myself initially jarred by the idea that nearly four-fifths of age-eligible Americans are not equipped for military service. But then I start to wonder if I am drawing the right conclusions — namely, why are we basing our assessment of health on a body’s capacity for violence?

I struggle here. I’m soft. I struggle to watch war movies in a way that I can only describe by saying “I hate all the hatred.” It’s not the blood. It’s the animosity. It’s everyone holding opposite views while believing that they are each, with no exception, right to think what they think and not just to think it but to embody it. To kill for it.

I asked David Taylor about this. Taylor, whose cadre of books includes Body of Praise: Understanding the Role of Our Physical Bodies in Worship, started our interview by asking a question of me, one that he says he regularly asks the students he teaches: Was I after something specific? Was I, and this is my paraphrase, still at the point of research so broad that my question was merely “So, bodies huh?” or did I have something gnawing at me, a reason I wanted to write about this topic, a way into it?

Yeah, I told him, I do. I wanted to understand the body as not merely individual but communal. The military, for example. There’s a way to look at the BMI requirement and see it as an attempt to keep communities protected, to use the body for a collective good. There is also, of course, a way to see it as destructive both to the individual and the community, a standard that divides rather than unifies. Or, consider disability. Where is the language about the body of Christ when the legs that should have muscle tissue and smooth skin have just bone and scars instead?

The Body Defiled

There’s a note saved on my phone from five years ago when I was reading the book I Have Heard the Vultures Sing by the late poet Lucia Perillo. Before her career as a poet began, Perillo worked for the Fish and Wildlife Service researching animal damage control, then at the San Francisco Bay Wildlife Refuge. Her poetry wrestles with the wilds of nature only slightly less than it does her prominent theme: Her body’s progressive loss of function due to multiple sclerosis, which Perillo learned she had at the age of 30.

Perillo’s poetry is marked by the challenges of keeping the mind, body, and soul connected. Her free verse urges the reader to keep from squinting, to refrain from recoiling at the mention of sweat, blood, death, sex.

“If the body has to be defiled,” she wrote, “one might as well spread the discomfort around a little.”

Nearly 30 years after her diagnosis, Perillo explained, “I’m trying to teach myself not to be squeamish when it comes to looking, looking being one thing I can still do. This is how my life is shaped these days, by process of elimination: I do what I can still do. Somehow, it’s always interesting, at least so far.”

I saved these quotes when I was studying theology of disability as an academic pursuit, although it could not have been more personal.

Gabriel was four years old. Gracie, whose parents own the house where we stay in Colorado, had died unexpectedly just months before, at the age of 26. I had been unable to travel to her bedside in her final hours because I was on month four of a migraine, which doctors had attempted to understand the day prior via spinal tap, which led to a leak of fluid that sent my pain to unmanageable levels.

So, I was looking, looking being one thing I could still do. I was trying to understand, I see now, what the body is for, why it houses so much pain when it also holds the capacity for such tremendous pleasure. I screamed in a way I’m not sure I could replicate when I got the phone call that my precious friend, more like a sister, was leaving this life. But that is not the sound that comes to mind when I think of her — instead, I think of her lifting her voice during a hymn at my wedding. I think of the way that she could not speak words and yet sang in a way that was undoubtedly worshipful.

If the body has to be defiled, one might as well spread the discomfort around a little.

If the body has to be remembered, one might as well spread the delight around, too.

Anytime someone asks Gabriel what his favorite part of Colorado is, he’ll respond, “Adaptive.” He’s referring to the Adaptive Sports Center in Crested Butte where, this past summer, we spent two afternoons with guides who taught him how to use a recumbent tricycle that allowed him to leverage his upper leg and core muscles. He tore up and down hills and changed gears with gloved hands and confidence and I rode behind him, thinking about how Gracie loved Adaptive, too, how she smiled wide like Gabriel did that day.

The Body Communal

Sometimes, the Peloton instructors ask who we’re cycling for. They ask why we want to be stronger, why we’d choose to spend our time this way instead of doing just about anything else. I picture myself hoisting Gabriel onto my back for a few paces, though even that is becoming a fantasy soon to be unattainable, perhaps it already is, as he’s less than a foot shorter than I am now. Maybe an arm supporting him, though, as we reach a summit. Maybe it’s mostly about building up my mental and emotional strength so that I can encourage him when the going gets tough, and that goes for whether or not mountains are part of the challenge.

The Peloton’s screen features a leaderboard for each class. I am always, without fail, in the bottom 20 percent. I have never expected to be any better than that — really the thought that I could surpass anyone at anything athletic has been a completely laughable idea to me from the moment I was 6 years old and simply could not understand how all the other girls were cartwheeling across the lawn. I tried to figure it all out in my mind — step, bend, hand, other hand, legs over, foot down, other foot down — but I couldn’t get out of my head enough to let my body try.

The bike’s leaderboard serves only one purpose for me: testing my commitment, asking me if returning to the pedals again and again — trying all the while to trust that it matters — is enough.

For a moment I feel like I understand that my body is both for me and for everyone around me and that it can be an act of worship to see it as such. I feel like I am getting a glimpse of the good life — the one where working out on Sunday mornings gives me the focus and energy I need to serve our burgeoning church plant that does the whole setup, shared meal, and takedown routine each Sunday evening.

The tablecloths for the church dinner are often in the dryer as I ride; I can see them swirling through the front-loading door. I watch the minutes left reduce for the ride, for the dryer cycle. I do the mental math for calories burned alongside the internal equation of when each person in my family needs to be in the shower in order for us to all be ready and on time to the service. I plan my sons’ outfits in my mind, preparing for their audible groans at the sight of anything other than athletic wear. I drink water and reach behind me for a granola bar. I feel myself becoming myself, someone who is not, as Taylor warns against, “hermetically sealed” from the bodies around me — someone who is, rather, interdependent upon them.

This idea of becoming myself, Taylor helped me crystallize that. Bodies, he explained, don’t exist at the level of ideas. They exist in community — not the type that eliminates the importance or essence of the individual, but the type that welcomes everyone into participation. Vulnerabilities in those bodies, he says, are not simply an opportunity for showing hospitality or care. They are invitations into reconceptualizing what the body of Christ is, and is for.

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