Chapter 3 of Borrowed Glories: Envy, Inequality, and the Glory of God.
For the complete chapter outline and other excerpts, CLICK HERE.
The chapter in full:
Borrowed Dust: The Envy of the Body
When Buttercup was fifteen, Adela Terrell, of Sussex on the Thames, was easily the most beautiful creature. Adela was twenty, and so far did she outdistance the world that it seemed certain she would be the most beautiful for many, many years. But then one day, one of her suitors (she had 104 of them) exclaimed that without question Adela must be the most ideal item yet spawned. Adela, flattered, began to ponder on the truth of the statement. That night, alone in her room, she examined herself pore by pore in her mirror. (This was after mirrors.) It took her until close to dawn to finish her inspection, but by that time it was clear to her that the young man had been quite correct in his assessment: she was, through no real faults of her own, perfect.
-The Princess Bride, William Goldman
No one fights like Gaston
Douses lights like Gaston
In a wrestling match nobody bites like Gaston!
For there’s no one as burly and brawny
As you see I’ve got biceps to spare
Not a bit of him’s scraggly or scrawny
And every last inch of me’s covered with hair!
-Gaston, Beauty and the Beast
…for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.
-1 Timothy 4:8
The most beautiful girl I ever saw in real life was Evelina Nieminen. She was a foreign exchange student from Finland who showed up in my youth group one day when I was about 13.
She was willowy and small, shaped like a fully adult fairy. Her warm blonde hair looked delicate enough to have been made of feathers, always parted serenely on the side. Her face was shaped like an almond, with eyes that were unnaturally large set under a high forehead. She had eyebrows to sink a thousand ships. Her lips had sort of a Michelle Pfeiffer thing going on—it wasn’t largeness that made them so striking; it was the totally unique shape of them.
She looked like she belonged in a snowdrift, wearing a mink coat with a hood, or in a field of flowers. When one looked at her, they thought of forests and of stage lights, of the house next door and of far off lands. Her voice sounded like next door and far off lands, too. She had an accent, which none of us would have recognized, and a small, throaty, purring tone. She said cute things with it–not dumb, but endearing things. And she never spoke loudly, so that everybody had to stop talking in order to hear her. People stopped talking around her a lot.
How we all wanted to be Evelina! And she knew it. From the first time she walked through the church doors, she seemed to accept with a sort of pleased surprise that all of us were starstruck by her.
I still remember the little modest glances she would give the boys that she allowed to take her on dates. They were always cut to the side, as if she wanted to protect them from the full effect of turning her face on them. And I remember the way those boys would act, once they had been granted the honor of accompanying her somewhere. They were startled with their luck, and when they entered a room with Evelina, there was always this one second when the guy would make eye contact with his buddies and then look away. They weren’t bragging; they were just making sure it was seen. Yes, I’m on a date with this girl.
I wondered at some point whether everyone in Finland was beautiful or if she was exceptional there as well. Her quiet acceptance of being made much of told me she was probably a favorite at home, too.
I didn’t hate her, or really want to take her place, except in a very indistinct, daydreamy way. She was too far away for that. Too far out of my sphere. It would have been like hating the Duchess Kate Middleton. But if she had been closer to me—a sister my age or a classmate—I think I would have struggled mightily even to be civil.
After all, I felt awkward and a little chubby at that age, like most girls will tell you. I’d just sprouted tall, but was still carrying a leftover impression that I was built like a small truck. Strong and solid, with good square hands and a round face. My hair was naturally curly (naturally big) and my hips had long been complacently called ‘childbearing hips’ by my mother. [A note on childbearing hips: When you are 13, you can’t help but feel that childbearing hips are a liability. It’s nothing against children, or even the bearing of children, but when you have no immediate plans to bear them, the requisite hips can seem like overkill.]
I should also note that dressing oneself is a huge conundrum for someone who has the tastes of a tween and the body of a 30-year-old flat-footed woman. Plus I was homeschooled, while all the other girls in that youth group were private school girls with athletic limbs and pert ponytails. They seemed to get along very easily with one another.
Here is the really curious thing that began to happen.
I truly began to believe—beyond the shadow of doubt—that if I were thinner, I would be one of them. For some reason, things had gotten mixed up in my mind that way, and the more socially frustrated I became, the more mixed up it got.
With utter clarity of purpose, I lived with the conviction that being thin = being pretty, and being pretty = being social. This was the only thing that divided me from them. It was a formula.
It had never occurred to me that friendships and social comfort are complex and multi-faceted, and that people are generally more interested in how you feel about them than in whether your shirt lies flat over your lower-tummy bump.
Now, if this particular blindness had not burrowed into my very heart, together with all the idolatry that was bound up in it, things might have run their course after middle school. This particular way to compare yourself with others does, after all, belong to young people. It’s a young person’s brand of foolishness. Maybe it’s because a child and a teen are still sort of new in their bodies—the limbs are still deciding how long to be, the face is still trying to get a balance between dry and oily, those curves are just getting settled.
For whatever reason, young men and women are more likely to look at the body as their most defining form of glory. They’re more likely to look at other people and see nothing but a pair of shoes, or a haircut. Children are more likely to be obsessed with which kid is the tallest on the playground; for pre-pubescent girls, the question on everyone’s mind is who’s ‘developing.’ A gaggle of teen girls, you can bet, are probably aware of exactly what the others are wearing and exactly how it looks on them, and they have probably formed an opinion within a few seconds of how they themselves compare.
Boys will also draw lifelong conclusions about themselves based on how often they got picked for recess games in middle school. Are you strong or are you not? Can your body do what you ask it to do or can’t it? It’s a question that an adult may care about, but is less likely to use as a scale on which to weigh human value as a whole.
But depending on your circle, and the idolatries of your heart, this madness may continue into adulthood.
For example, I know a grown woman who greets everyone, everywhere, with this compliment: “Hey girl—you look like you’ve lost weight!” Later in the conversation, someone else may come up, and are similarly praised or dismissed. “Maria, she really looks good; I can tell she’s working out—which is strange, because Mark has just completely let himself go.” Ask this person about the spiritual health or mental state of the people in her life, and she’ll say “Oh, I think she’s doing really good! Her eyes, you can tell—she’s obviously getting good sleep.”
She also, like me, keeps a running list in her head of the most beautiful or the ugliest people she’s ever seen. (I won’t try to explain or defend this list that I have, which Evelina Tapeninen is apparently at the top of; you can make the case that I’m shallow, but I like to say I’m just a connoisseur of beauty.)
This woman seems particularly terrified of aging. She dresses like she is in her 20s, though she is also in the process of plucking/coloring grays as they come in. Her commentary on a recent high school class reunion ran like that of a tween girl’s: “She’s so old! I couldn’t believe it! I never knew someone could get wrinkles on their forearms!”
You understand why I think this should be called the idolatry of the young and foolish. Something about this mindset seems be totally oblivious to the sober realities of time and human frailty. Young people are often said to think of themselves as invincible.
In order to think you’re invincible, you have to be profoundly ignorant of time and danger. In order to think that the body is the last and final word on a person’s value, you have to be profoundly ignorant of human nature. And in order to think that you would be happy if only you could walk around in a body like the body of your friend, you have to be profoundly ignorant of gifted glory.
I certainly was.
Gluttony + Vanity = prison
I said before that things could have run their course, if my heart hadn’t fallen so in love with these lies about the body. But I did fall in love. I believed them wholeheartedly, and I bought them wholesale. Beauty, I believed, was going to be my key to happiness. Other beautiful people were happy; I could be happy too, if only I were beautiful.
And it did make me happy, whenever someone called me pretty. There were a few years, after a growth spurt and before the eating got so out of control, when I looked in the mirror and approved. When people made little comments to my parents about my looks, I was more gratified still. I was really on my way, I thought.
But I’ve often found it true that the idolatries of a person’s heart don’t become apparent until they don’t get what they want. When I began to feel the beauty pulling away from my grasp, my response was telling. The outward, visible action that I resorted to showed the inward, invisible idolatries that I already worshipped.
I was a habitual overeater even as a child, but as an emotional teen, it got worse. I gained weight. I dieted. If you have ever dieted, you know that nothing encourages overeating like dieting does. Dieting as a young girl may be the worst way there is to not become an overeater. Soon, I was bargaining with myself over food. I had already formed ideas that there were ‘good’ foods and ‘bad’ foods (as if carbs are a moral issue). There were experiments, I remember—just little games—with how little I could eat.
You must know where this is going. This is a story I’ve read myself now, dozens of times, on blogs and in self-help books and in magazines.‘Bulimia’ was a word I only learned through one of those magazines. I also learned how to do it, ironically, through one of those magazines–a feature story on how to help the bulimic.
It was sophomore year. When I finally tried this, it was after months and months of depressed, out of control bingeing. My family life had taken some hits, and my spiritual life was nothing much to speak of; I was one ‘tossed to and fro on the winds of doctrine’. I was ‘unstable in all my ways’, in fact. I worshipped food with my body even as I worshipped the body with my mind. My desires were at odds—food or thinness? Social interaction or lonely hiding? I wanted it all, and this is the recipe for what they call low self-esteem, and what the Bible calls walking in the lusts of the flesh.
I still remember the misery of catching glimpses of myself in a mirror, the lengths I would go to avoid having my picture taken. I could not stand the evidence before me. My face, my waist, my arms, my legs—every part of me had taken on soft, moving, undefined lumps of human flesh. I detested it.
And I envied. I looked at the bodies of the other girls walking around campus and I ached with desire and shame. They were happy; that much I knew. The idea that any of them might spend days without thinking about food or clothing was almost impossible for me to conceive. But I wanted it.
One day, after an afternoon of ‘food-hopping’—going from one free food event to another, so that no one group of people would know how full I already was—I sought physical and mental relief from the fullness. I walked into the dorm bathroom, looking around miserably to see that no one was nearby, and grabbed my toothbrush.
It was very unpleasant. I didn’t try it again for nearly a year.
Three years later, I was doing it every day. If I had to estimate, I’d say that I threw up between 500 and 800 times between the ages of 19 and 23.
This struggle was rooted in covetousness from the beginning. I wanted to be beautiful—so that I could be the most beautiful in rooms that I entered. I wanted to be thin—because I’d seen it on other people. At this stage, the envy was still a general feeling, without specific or prolonged targets. If I felt too uncomfortably bitter about the body of any one girl, I could easily distance myself from her. I compared myself to people in passing. If asked, I would have called it ‘insecurity’, not envy.
One day, though, the envy took a very personal turn.
The birth of dust-envy
I was living with my parents again, having just graduated college. I was in a bad place all around: still didn’t know the Lord, and wasn’t getting what I wanted in any area of life. A failure in work, in love, and… still worst of all in my mind… in body.
I moved into a room with three of my sisters. The girls that I’ve already mentioned, the band girls, were in this room with me, and we’d been out of touch for many years. It’s a strange thing to turn around and notice that someone has come up from behind and changed on you. If I hadn’t been such an idolatrous, envious person, I would’ve been able to turn around to my younger siblings who had matured and rejoice. I could have given them a high five and gotten to know them.
But I was, so I didn’t.
One day, I was sitting on the bed reading, and one of the girls exited the bathroom in a towel. I had done it myself a hundred times, rushing past mirrors and into clothing so that even the air wouldn’t come into contact with my unwanted flesh. She dropped the towel unconsciously on her way to the dresser, and I found myself clutching the quilt on the bed in fury. My heart felt like it was breaking.
She was just perfect, that was all. Everything I had wanted, even when I was younger and still pretty thin and people were telling me casually (the way women do) that I should model or something. Even then, I’d known that there was something a little off about my shape—too much like one of those Greek statues, not shaped the way people are supposed to be shaped in today’s world. Breasts not big enough, stomach not flat enough, arms not shaped right.
My sister was exactly what I’d been trying to be, aching to be, fighting to be since I was twelve. And it was easy for her. She’d never questioned it. She made it clear, in her free and easy manner, her thoughtless way of grabbing something and putting it on—that she’d never wasted a single second agonizing over what to wear, over what might take a few pounds off.
I’d wasted years.
And it was time that I mourned and boiled over, while I sat there. Time, and ease, and happiness. I had chased it for ten years; she had never thought about it twice—and it was hers anyway. The body I wanted.
I’ve said several embarrassing things already, but this is the one I’m most ashamed of:
After that day, I began to find myself wishing I could wreck her somehow. I wanted her to suffer, just a little. I wanted her to have just a few moments, or weeks, or months, of not being so certain. I wanted to make her uncomfortable about something.
Now it’s part of the science of envy that the person’s personality does play into the whole thing. A person who is too sweet, too kind to you, or too uncertain of themselves is much harder to really envy. But a person who refuses to let a single crack show is—for me—hard not to wanna take down.
It showed up in subtle ways. It showed up more in silence than anything else; when others praised I was conspicuously silent. She didn’t praise me either, I reasoned—why should I put myself out? Over time, it was hard to control the urge to subtly condemn, to fault find. As Benjamin Franklin said, “To find out a girl’s faults, praise her to her girlfriends.”
Knowing that her body was noticed by men, I found some relief in noting to anyone who would listen that she was careless about modesty and naïve about the effect of short skirts. Hearing her talent praised, I asked polite questions and never went on about the quality of the music. It would have to be enough to praise a song once and move on.
But this envy never stayed quite as secret as I wanted it to. It interfered greatly with what was already becoming stilted relationship. As the years passed, I began to sense that there was a felt enmity between us. I became sure that I wasn’t the only one who knew about it, but still my envy made me feel that I was the vulnerable one. How could I make an overture of friendship? I was the one with the “felt disadvantage,” to quote the longer definition of envy used in the last chapter. She must know that, I thought.
It was literally years later that our feelings softened towards each other to the point that we could sit down and have an honest conversation about what had happened to our relationship. A white flag was run up, and we tentatively, slowly, came out from behind the barricades.
So what was happening in my heart during all that time? Hatred. I call this hate, because I can’t think of another honest thing to call it. If you wish ill on another person, and do not, at an essential level, root for them… you are hating them. Let’s call it like it is, like Scripture calls it…
Click HERE to read the companion chapter Justin wrote on 9 Things We Know About the Body From Scripture