I was in fifth grade the first time I denied myself food to lose weight. It started because a boy I really liked asked me to dance at a school event one Friday night. I found out the next day that he had been paid to do so and him and his friends had an array of inside jokes involving how many fat rolls they could count on my stomach. I vowed to never eat a thing containing sugar ever again.
For over a year I packed only Jell-O and a slice of bread in my lunch. I said no to ice cream and cookies and birthday cake, sitting awkwardly—but stubbornly clinging to my food rules—at the table when my family would go out for Cold Stone. Hunger pains became an indicator of success and if I didn’t feel them I would shame myself for eating too much. I got down to a literal 65 pounds and glowed when people commented on how beautiful and skinny I looked.
I don’t know if you’ve ever felt like you found the Holy Grail of love and worthiness, but this is what being accepted for my physical appearance felt like. Like I stumbled across the map giving exact instructions for obtaining the coveted cup and I would have sacrificed anything and everything to get to it—my health, my sanity, my sense of being a normal kid having a Popsicle on a summer night. Nothing mattered more to me than chasing the high of that Holy Grail. I was finally sought after and desired and boys in my class wanted to dance with me at school events on Friday nights again.
The cliff notes version of how being a 12-year-old with an eating disorder evolved into food addiction and rapid weight gain is that my shame got the best of me and the easiest drug I could find to numb it was an abundance of sugar. The rest of my middle school and high school experience with food went something like this: I would eat a ton of food to numb, then feel incredibly guilty for all the food I ate, deny myself food for as long as I felt I needed to be punished for, then inevitably feel the shame and grief that I didn’t want to feel again and repeat the cycle. It was exhausting and chaotic and I never got to an average weight again. I felt like I lost the Holy Grail I worked so hard to find.
When I started losing weight three year ago, it was done in a healthy way, and I am proud of that. I thought that because I know Jesus now, and I know what the actual Holy Grail of love and worthiness is, I wouldn’t ever be tempted to stumble around trying to dig up some false idol version of it. And that was true of my weight loss journey for a while. And then compliments started rolling in. And then weight loss became the center of all of my conversations. And then the map to the falsest of false holy grails began dangling in front of my face—I began getting attention from men.
I’m not talking about cute, honorable men who wanted to pursue me and take me on dates, I’m talking boys at bars who wanted to dance with me and put their hands on my waist and invite me to leave with them. Please hear me say that every feminist and Jesus-loving bone in my body is shaking with rage as I type these words. Please also hear me say that I do not condone, and do not tolerate, a man putting his hands on me (or anybody) without permission. But in the same honest breath, when you go your whole adult life feeling undesirable and unseen by the opposite sex, heads beginning to turn your way can feel incredibly intoxicating. If you have ever seen the Twilight movies (bless up), I once compared it to the baby vampires who became ravenous for human blood once they got a taste. I could feel fifth grade Chelsey surfacing within me, ravenous for attention and once again seduced by the approval of others. I was back to searching for the Holy Grail.
The thing that has always felt most alluring to me about getting attention from men who you will literally never see again is that it doesn’t involve a single ounce of intimacy. You can be a face and a body without having to be known. You can be the Instagram version of yourself, or whatever version of yourself you damn well please. I remember sitting in my counselor’s office after a night of going out once and saying, “I feel like I found the back door to my desire.”
Like every other human on the face of this planet, I desire being known and loved and valued. But I am also terrified of being known and loved and valued for real. So discovering that you can manipulate that desire into feeling fulfilled by meaningless interactions with strangers at a bar sort of works for a minute. The little Inside Out guys who run the feeling center in my brain started being all: “Hold up. We can feel desired and worthy of someone’s attention and we don’t even have to tell them our story or risk becoming too invested or jump off the giant cliff that is intimacy? Yeah, sign us up for that. We don’t need anything deeper.”
And like I said, it works for a minute. But the truth is, I am not just a body and a face. And all the parts of me that are not represented by the way I look—my creativity, my deep love for adventure, all the ways I bear the image of God—started screaming out in protest. They wanted to be known and nurtured, too. They wanted airtime in my relationships and to experience the joy of coming to the light, even if I didn’t get to be the Instagram version of myself anymore and even if it meant letting someone see my scars and fears and stubbornness, too.
When I was in California two years ago, I wrote something about heart risk. Heart risk is basically code for intimacy and intimacy is basically code for me historically running far, far away. I reread this thing I wrote the other day and it reminded me that the journey into intimacy and believing that we are known and loved for just existing is a long one, but Jesus has been so sweet and patient with me in the midst of it. Letting go of the idea that what we look like or what others think about is is the single determining factor of our worth is really painful work. It is painful because it requires digging up a lot of comfortable lies and trying on some uncomfortable truths. I know how to work hard and strive to obtain worthiness, I don’t know how to let myself be loved for just being. But maybe, just maybe, we are made to be known for the depth of who we are, not to stay in the shallow end of the I-only-matter-if-I-am-[insert adjective here] pool. Maybe the purpose that is being spoken over your life is worth your attention more than making sure you’re called pretty is. Maybe it is time for us to hand over our false holy grails so we can actually hold the real thing for a change.