Health is the new religion. It’s almost cult-like, but instead of “Drink the Kool-aid” it’s “Get on this diet with us” or “Do this cleanse with me.” The act of getting healthy has become an act of worship to our bodies, but rather than shaping a golden calf from various and a sundry gold, our bodies are molded to the shape of food rules, diet plans, cleanses, and “green and clean” food.
I was part of the health religion for over 13 years, following the laws of health and the religious rituals of eating and exercising. Every food and exercise decision had to adhere to the rules of my religion, which could be summed up in its own set of commandments:
1) Thou shalt honor thy body first and foremost
2) Thou shalt never be fat
3) Thou shalt remain thin and tone
4) Thou shalt never eat sugar
5) Thou shalt count all carbs
6) Thou shalt track all calories
7) Thou shalt ignore all cravings
8) Thou shalt only eat good fats and clean food
9) Thou shalt exercise to reconcile calories in and calories out
10) Thou shalt never rest
If any of these commandments are broken, thou shall suffer the internal shame and anguish of laziness, disobedience, over-indulgence, selfishness, ugliness, sickness, disloyalty to thy body, and furthermore shall be deemed “unhealthy” and suffer the societal offenses associated with unhealthiness and judgements associated with fatness and the mental angst associated with unworthiness.
Think of what an abusive, controlling relationship looks like. When you don’t follow the expectations of an abusive partner, they get upset and will find ways to devalue you as a person, whether they physically hurt you, manipulate your emotions with guilt and shame, or verbally chastise how unworthy you are with their language toward you. Over time, your life revolves around controlling yourself and/or your environment, regardless of your actual needs and feelings, to keep your partner from getting upset and hurting you. But you never know for sure what is going to set them off or if you’ve done enough to earn their love. There is constant worry and anxiety of whether you’ve followed the rules well enough to keep from getting hurt and if you’ve earn your value as your partner’s partner.
In the religiosity of health, Health became my abusive partner. I was constantly under pressure to earn my value as healthy. I engaged in behaviors, rituals, and beliefs that would force and control my body to look and be certain way so I could be deemed as “healthy” and thus worthy of belonging and validity in the religion. My body had become my idol and working out and “eating right” were religious acts to worship my body.
Whatever was happening with my body would dictate how I felt about myself and life. When my weight went down, I felt righteous in my health decisions; I felt good about myself; I wore my clothes proudly; I walked a little taller. Only for a moment, though, because something in media or life—an article, a picture, a comment—would cause me doubt that I had done enough to perfect my body—to please my idol. When my weight went up, even by a pound or two, then I would feel ashamed, frustrated, and even angry at my inability to stay disciplined enough in my religious acts to stay healthy.
Because of the consequences I both believed and feared if I didn’t adhere to the commandments of health, my whole life revolved around my body and my food. Every decision of the day was related to how it was going to affect my body… from how I scheduled my day to get my exercise in, to what I did or didn’t eat, to when I did or didn’t eat, to how hard I pushed myself in a workout.
Every meal became a number: how many calories, how much sugar, size-of-portion, how many ounces, what time did I last eat?
Every workout became a number: how many minutes did I go, how many miles did I go, how many did I do, how many calories did I burn?
My body became a number: how much did I weigh, what size was I wearing?
Numbers became the way for me to measure whether or not I was following the rules to avoid the consequences of unhealthiness. But I was never completely certain that I was following the rules well enough and if my body was good enough to be deemed healthy. With Health as both my religious leader and my abusive partner, there was never validation… only more rules and more threats about what would happen if I was not healthy. Whatever honor/value I thought I’d earned for my body–meaning the external praise I received for my body and health from other people–I was terrified of losing. So I was constantly trying to “maintain” my body and thus the honor of “being healthy.” The obsession with my health caused deep anxiety and deep dissatisfaction with my body and myself as a whole. I was tired, stressed, worried, and deeply sick both physically and mentally.
In my relationship with Jesus, my life was about honoring my body rather than honoring God. I was in relationship with God, but devoted my body to the religion of health.
In my relationship with God there are no rules, and I do nothing to earn His love. I am worthy in this life simply because He created me. But for over a decade (and probably most of my life) the depth of that belief only went so far. I entered into this distorted side-religion and abusive relationship that required so much of me and made me feel anxious and at constant risk of unworthiness. I had to let go of health as a separate religion and give my body back to God. Through recovery and disconnection from health rules (also known as the diet mentality), I re-entered into relationship with my body, which is a physical extension of my relationship with God. There are no rules in relationships. There is respect, trust, compassion, and love in relationships but not rules.
I no longer follow the rules of what’s “healthy” or “not healthy,” but rather I follow the intuition and physical body cues God has given me to nourish myself. I respond to my body and its needs without judgement and with respect, trust, compassion, and love. Like any relationship, I am not blissfully happy inside my body every day, and I am not goo-goo over God every minute of the day. I’m still human and experience human feelings of discouragement, frustration, and anger. But as a whole I live in peace inside my body and away from the religiosity of health.
How about you… Do you ever feel pressure in your quest for health? When is the last time you felt worthy or valuable inside the body you have right now? Does health feel like an abusive religion to you? Have you ever thought about trusting God with your body?