When I was a kid, my family’s “love language” was food. As Italian-Americans, food was a focal point for our gatherings. Italian food—pizzas, pastas, breads, etc.—tend to have a lot of calories and carbohydrates. And Italian foods were our favorites! Needless to say, everyone in my family has a lifelong weight problem. My father’s family is from Italy and my mother’s family is from England. People from those two regions of the world tend to have large statures, so I’m genetically predisposed to be bigger. Many relatives on both sides of my family struggle with their weight. When I was in high school, I played football. I found that my stature was an asset! I also found that my appetite grew because I was exerting so much physical activity. When I finished playing football, I stopped burning so many calories. At the same time, my heartier appetite stayed the same. As a result, I quickly put on more weight as a young adult. For as long as I can remember, I have been “on a diet” of some kind. And although my “diets” have sometimes given me success, every one of them has eventually failed. Now in my 40s, after countless failed diets and other efforts to lose weight, I have learned a much better approach is to focus not on weight, but on overall health. My activity level is quite high. My bloodwork is terrific. I’m in good physical shape and I exercise more than most American men my age. I likely will never be a slim person. At this stage in my life, I am learning that I need to love and accept myself for who I am.

               While I sometimes might feel alone in my weight struggle, I know I am not. The diet industry in this country brings in over $76 billion each year. That tells us a couple of things: 1) A whole lot of people are spending money on diets and 2) diets don’t work. Think about it. It’s an industry that is built on a model of hoping we fail. When we inevitably fail, we are shamed by these same industries. They send us emails and call us, trying to get us to try again and to pay them more money. “If you stick with the program, you’ll be fit for life!” we’re told. “Our plan works!” Except, they don’t work. And when they fail, it’s not our fault. The deck is stacked against us. Our genes work hard to ensure our jeans stay tight. But why is this? Studies show that once a person has struggled with a weight problem, that person’s body wants to achieve homeostasis. Our bodies want to reach that weight set point and stay there. When we lose weight, our bodies believe we are starving to death. Our bodies don’t realize that we’re not our ancestors, being chased by lions and tigers. And that unlike our ancestors, we actually do have access to food sources whenever we need it now. As we go into a calorie deficiency, the cells in our bodies go into crisis mode. They become stressed out. Our system slows down our metabolism and holds on to calories we otherwise would burn. When we take a “cheat” day, our bodies hold on to the excess calories as a reserve. And anyone who has ever had a weight problem knows, eventually, we gain back all the weight we lost. Often, we gain back even more! It’s a vicious cycle and there doesn’t seem to be a way to win. Except that there is. As a society, and as Christians, we need to become better about loving ourselves the way we are.

               Not everyone has a weight problem. But most people struggle with body image. Studies show that upward of 90 percent of women report a desire to change something about their bodies (I’m sure an equally high number of men feel the same, but men are, sadly, far less likely to admit their struggles). Media is peppered with images of “the ideal body.” Magazine articles talk about how to lose weight quickly and how to get into that “summer bod.” We are made to feel like it’s our fault that we don’t meet these unrealistic beauty standards. Even on social media, we filter who we are. For example, I don’t post pictures when my hair is unkempt or when my belly is bulging over my waistband. I don’t post an announcement when I’ve gained ten pounds. But I’m quick to post when I’ve lost ten pounds! I’m quick to post pictures that I feel are “flattering.” I don’t think I’m the only one who does this. And while these kinds of actions are quite normal, they are potentially harmful. If someone sees my life on social media, they could mistakenly get the impression that nothing bad ever happens in my life! They might see that I’m happy all the time and I never struggle with anything. And they would be wrong. They might wonder, “If Fr. Tim only has good things happen in his life, but sometimes bad things happen in my life, what must be wrong with me?” The answer is nothing. I just didn’t show the bad times. It doesn’t mean I didn’t have any bad times. But whether something in my life is good or bad, I’m learning to be more kind to myself. I’m learning to extend myself a little grace. I’m learning to love myself for who I am. I’m learning to appreciate that I am made in God’s image, and that makes me beloved.

               In Mark’s gospel, Jesus tells us that the greatest commandment is to love God. The second, a similar commandment, is to love your neighbor as yourself. And on the simplest levels, I’ve never really struggled with those two commandments. I love God. A lot! And I love people. But when I dig theologically deeper, I realize that I indeed have struggled with those commandments. That second great commandment? Loving your neighbor as yourself? Well, that’s a two-way street. It doesn’t say to love your neighbor more than yourself. It says to love your neighbor as yourself. For so many years, I got it wrong. And what about the first commandment? Loving God is easy. But what about that imago Dei? That inherent goodness in each of us because we are made in God’s image? We have to love that about ourselves, too. This tells us that we have a Christian responsibility to work on self-love and self-respect.

               Maybe, like me, you’ve struggled with your weight. Maybe, like me, you’ve become sad when you looked in the mirror and noticed more wrinkles or more gray hair. Maybe you don’t like the way your nose looks or the shape of your eyes or the size of your hands or feet. Maybe, like me, you have “wings” under your arms that flap when you waive. Maybe there’s something else about yourself that you wish you could change. Statistically, there’s a good chance that this is the case. And if this is the case, I’m going to invite you to join me on this journey of rediscovering self-love. I’ve started looking in the mirror every morning after I take a shower. And I’ve started complimenting the parts of my body that have been “problem areas” for me. I’ve started standing tall and sitting tall. I realized I’ve slouched all my life and I realized I have been trying to make myself smaller. I did not feel worthy to take up the amount of space that I took up. But I’ve discovered I can stand tall and I can sit tall. In honoring my size, I’m honoring the person God made me to be.

               These days, people frequently do something called “concern trolling”. This is when someone comments on our bodies because they claim to be concerned for our wellness. It sounds like this: “You should work to lose weight because it will be better for your health!” Well guess what? That person knows nothing about my health. My health is top notch! But if it was not top notch, then you know what else? It’s not that person’s business. It’s that simple. This makes me think of a song by my childhood hero, Mr. Fred Rogers. On his program, Mr. Rogers sang a song called Everybody’s Fancy. The lyrics are:

Some are fancy on the outside.
Some are fancy on the inside.
Everybody’s fancy.
Everybody’s fine.
Your body’s fancy and so is mine.

Your body is fancy. And so is mine. And our bodies (and our entire selves) were made in the image of the God who loves us. Won’t you join me in making friends with our “lumps and bumps”? Won’t you join me on this journey of trying to fall in love with ourselves all over again? Self-love is good. It enhances our mental health and our spiritual health and it can aid in our physical health. None of us is perfect. But each of us is loved. And each of us is loveable. And I share Mr. Rogers’ sentiment when I say, I love you for just your being you. Keep being you.

Don’t Go Changing to Try and Please Me