Even youths will faint and be weary,
    and the young will fall exhausted;
 but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
    they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
    they shall walk and not faint.
” – Isaiah 40:30-31

A few months ago, our church staff devotions were centered on this Scripture. It’s a familiar passage—one you’re likely to find cross-stitched in your grandmother’s house or shouting at you from a poster featuring a resplendent bald eagle in flight. It’s an encouraging couple of lines, something uplifting and hopeful.

But on the day we talked about it as a staff, I was focused on the first, less optimistic, part: Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted.” It made me think of how central physical activity is to my life, how that is in many ways the core of my social life, recreation, mental health, and overall wellbeing. And I thought about how all of that can—and, in one way or another, by aging or illness or injury, will—be taken away.

Yesterday, I posted a picture to social media from the gym, where I was lifting weights for the first time in a long time. This was the caption that went with it:

Too often I catch myself thinking that if I could change my body then I would love my body.

But I got really sick several years ago and lost over 20 pounds very quickly. I liked being skinny, but I didn’t love my body—even then, I still wanted it to be smaller. Turns out changing my body doesn’t make me love it—it just makes me hate it in a new way.

I’m learning that when I start by loving my body—this thing that moves me through the world, that lets me interact with other bodies, that allows me to take in and create beauty of all kinds, that I’m told bears the divine image—that’s when I actually change it, because loving my body doesn’t mean being complacent.

But when acceptance is my starting point, change doesn’t necessarily look like lost pounds or a lower BMI or a smaller pants size (though I’m not gonna lie, I’d love it if I fit more comfortably in my black jeans!)—it looks like a healthier relationship with food made possible by listening to what my body needs and not just what my feelings or our processed-food-addicted-yet-simultaneously-health-obsessed culture wants me to have; it looks like lifting weights for the first time in a long time because it soothes my anxiety, gives me confidence, and lets me live into my womanhood on my own terms; it looks like doing whatever I need to do to get out of my head and into my body, out of the cloud of worry and over-analysis and back onto the solid ground of the present moment.

This is what loving my body looks like for me. What does it look like for you?

I got a number of comments and private messages, from people “Amen”-ing the idea that body acceptance doesn’t mean not exercising, to a fellow clergy person sharing about how a workout ministry at their church makes space for greater vulnerability and trust among members, to another friend talking about how amazing belly dancing has been for her in terms of both exercise and self-acceptance.

And then I got a comment from a viewpoint I was worried would get lost in the conversation. It said this:

Yes! I learned to appreciate and love my body when part of it quit working [due to Type 1 diabetes]. And now for me, loving my body doesn’t mean loving the way it looks, but having major respect for all it does every moment of every day. I try and take better care of my body but I’ve also learned to give it grace. It works really hard.

I was grateful for that perspective, because it’s one I often forget about but which was brought to my attention the other night. My fiancé and I often go on what his cousin calls “activist dates” (also “genocide vacations,” cousin Andrew’s moniker for our trips to Haiti and Palestine, among other locales), and last Friday, that meant attending a book reading with Sunaura Taylor, author of Beasts of Burden: Animal and Disability Liberation.

In the book, she draws connections between the disability community and the animal rights community—groups that are sometimes at odds—by showing that both people with disabilities and animals are oppressed by different forms of ableism. There’s a lot more nuance to her argument and experience, so I’ll save that for another time, but I do want to lift up something she said about ableism that reminded me of Isaiah 40 and my own struggle for body acceptance.

Taylor pointed out that the vegan community tends to be focused not just on animal rights but also on health, wellness, and fitness (all of which are connected but, to my mind, slightly different). A vegan and a disabled person herself, Taylor sees how too often veganism slips into its own form of ableism. Vegans laud the claims that plant-based diets prevent and even heal disease—but what about those whose disease or disability is not curable by diet or any other means?

Her perspective on ableism got me thinking about my own focus on fitness. Part of what I was trying to say in that social media post was that although I love being active, taking care of my body, and challenging myself to see what my body can do, I don’t ever want my values and categories to narrow such that physical fitness becomes an inherent good—because it’s never guaranteed. As I realized when reading Isaiah 40, my ability to engage in physical activity could change at any moment, and if and when that happens, I need to be able to love my body anyway.

I don’t say that to say I will one day need to love my body in spite of any disability or limitation it might acquire. Sunaura Taylor doesn’t love her body despite her arthrogryposis (which, by the way, is the same disability the reporter Trump mocked in 2015 has). She loves her body for all it does and, like that commenter, how hard it works. Taylor signed the copy of her book we bought, not with her hands, but with her mouth. I could not have done that.

Some of what Taylor lifted up was deeply challenging—like the question Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation, asked her: if disability is something we should accept, should we then allow pregnant women to take thalidomide, and end any number of other safety measures to prevent genetic disorders in babies? She lamented, not that she didn’t have an answer for him, but because her definition of a good enough answer was not the same as his.

I suspect she would say it’s a both/and situation. We should accept and even love disabled bodies and minds, yet we should also work for liberation, justice, and even prevention. It’s similar when it comes to physical fitness: we should accept and love fat bodies, skinny bodies, muscular bodies, flexible bodies, and bodies that have never engaged in sports or exercise a day in their existence; yet we should also pay attention to healthcare policy, to health and wellness, and to problems of access to these and other privileges.

I am still on the long journey to loving my body, but in the moments I think I’ve gotten there, I do love it for the fact that it can lift heavy weights, carry me several miles at a run, and learn and use the techniques of Muay Thai. I can love my body through physical fitness while at the same time remembering that there will come a day when I will need to find other ways and reasons to love my body. No body, including my own, is less lovable for its level of physical fitness (or lack thereof), disease, disability, size, or any other distinguishing factor. My pursuit of physical fitness does not have to exclude bodies that resist definition by those terms.

So when I say, “This is what loving my body looks like for me,” what I mean is: “This—lifting weights, running, kickboxing, hiking, walking, biking, resting, dancing (in the kitchen), gardening, cleaning, stretching, meditating, eating (mostly) healthy foods, drinking (water, and other things)—is what loving my body looks like for me today, Tuesday, August 8, 2017. What it will look like tomorrow, I don’t know, but I can’t wait to find out.”

Isaiah 40 promises that there is always strength to be had, but strength in something other than youth or ability. Loving my body looks like embracing strength of all kinds, whether it’s the strength of my body bench pressing weight, or the strength of it fighting off infection or, one day, the strength of it carrying on in the face of the effects of aging—because there is a deeper, greater, truer strength that undergirds and encompasses all of that and more.

So what does it look like for you to love your body—today?

Published by Sarah Howell-Miller

"I believe in kindness, also in mischief. Also in singing, especially when it is not necessarily prescribed." {Mary Oliver}

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