Emily, who lives in rural Alberta, grew up in a pastor's family, where tight finances meant that food was regimented along with other purchases--she recalls her dad wearing ugly, secondhand purple shoes and buying day-old donuts for a weekly treat--and "modest was hottest"--her mom changed clothes inside the closet and the children were expected to have skin covered "feet to neck" and to keep up a good "pastor's family" impression. After recovering from an eating disorder, Emily, a freelance writer and artist living in Alberta, Canada has written two books--Chasing Silhouettes: How to Help a Loved One Battling an Eating Disorder, which releases this month and Mom in the Mirror: Body Image, Beauty and Life After Pregnancy, which will appear in March. Recently, I talked to Emily from her home in rural Alberta about life, faith, children, and food--and her newest book, which is a practical guide for those with a loved one struggling with an eating disorder.
From the book, it seems like you had a longing for beauty--a longing for the aesthetic that was unfulfilled by the day-old food, the regimented half-glasses of orange juice, the second-hand household items--that went unfulfilled. Did that shape your disorder?
I definitely believe that was a large part of it...not feeling valued. It's not my parents' fault: we were poor. But I wanted to know that I was worth some form of extravagance. I struggled with knowing whether I was worth anything.
So how can families let their children know that they're worth something?
Giving is not limited to spending...discover your child's love language and strive to speak it. It seems to really come alive around age 5. With food, I say, if you see a hurt expression on their face at a 'no' to a second helping, just give in and trust God that it will be all right to 'indulge.'
You also made a point about modesty--perhaps excessive modesty--as a contributing factor to your disordered eating and body image. Is "modest is hottest" actually hurting women and girls?
I think we do need to respect ourselves and our bodies...but it seems as Christians we often do this out of fear--but not fear of God. As a parent, I don't want any of my decisions to stem from fear; I want them to stem from love. We need to teach that bodies are temples--prized possessions of God that are OK to show off a little!
How can parents shape attitudes toward meals, food, and eating before problems arise?
Seventy-five percent of women battle disordered eating in one form or another. We need to reevaluate our relationships with food, each other, and God so that we don't impose negativity on mealtime and body image. There's no secret formula, but if you look at yourself and see that you're in a negative place, you probably need to talk to your children about that. We need to be honest with them--create an open dialogue so that if something arises, they feel comfortable talking about it.
Why do you think eating disorders disproportionately affect women? For Christian women, are there particular cultural and even religious pressures?
There is a lot of media pressure on women to be a Barbie doll. And the Bible, the Apostle Paul, they can be a little hard on women...and we get confused as to what freedoms women have. But I think Christian women have the key to freedom if they can find it--we need to seek God's truth about ourselves. Only God can show us our truth worth. Easier said than done!
Do you have a vision for helping those without supportive families who are suffering from eating disorders? What, for example, can local churches do?
I hope that churches will use this book as a resource--as will friends of people with eating disorders. Congregations could help...and I would hope that there wouldn't be a stigma or a taboo. We are supposed to have a family within the church. Some churches DO have that intimacy...and I think a large part of that is breaking down walls, being sinners together. I pray that through these words--my words--those without families will find a family in my words.
How has your artistic expression helped your recovery?
Oh, I believe art and healing go hand in hand.
Women, especially, are creative beings. We are always in the process of creating life on earth. For me, that's most tangible on canvas. I can take brokenness that I see around me and make it beautiful on canvas. I can remind myself of heaven--that this life is not the end, that there is hope.
I encourage all women to find creative expression of some sort--any sort--find something that allows you to be more than "mom" or "wife," the fullness of being a woman.
What do you most want readers to know?
An eating disorder is not the end of the road ... it can be the doorway into something else ... facing it together can move [families] together, because we all need healing. We need to join with one another in the brokenness and darkness.
Emily Wierenga is a wife, mother of four boys (two of whom are hers), artist, and author of 'Chasing Silhouettes: How to Help a Loved One Battling an Eating Disorder' (Ampelon, 2012) available here. For more info, please visit www.emilywierenga.com.
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