On March 10-11, we are hosting Redeeming Food and Body, a two-day conference engaging our relationships with food and our bodies through an integration of theology, therapy, and nutrition. The event’s interdisciplinary teaching staff will include a mental health therapist, a dietician, and a theologian, who will lead us in a vital and timely exploration of both our personal narratives of health and the broader cultural messages about health and wholeness. Here, one of the facilitators—Matt Tiemeyer, LMHC, an eating disorders therapist at Blue Harbor Counseling—writes about how we might listen to our bodies with integrity, care, and freedom.

On my drive home recently I heard someone on the radio spend an entire segment on why those who are considered “overweight” should lose weight. I cringed at his pointed language; he seemed to infuse the topic with contempt. Approaches that didn’t involve weight loss? To him, patently ridiculous. How had he earned a platform to challenge anyone wanting to avoid starvation by trying a kind approach to the body?

Naturally, he had recently lost a bunch of weight himself. It seems that he believed he had found the key to change. And now, once the cruel beast of his own body had been vanquished, he was able to stand triumphantly with sword aloft, urging his listeners to conquer their own bodies.

I wonder if he asked his body what it thought about all this. What if it had a voice?

MattTIntegrity calls us to examine where we’ve become closed toward those who differ from us—those who are often voiceless to us. Whether our differences spring from race, creed, sexuality, socioeconomic status, or any other variable, it takes work to recognize our biases. And when we engage this painful and fruitful labor, the change we encounter is hard-won and deeply nourishing to our souls.

But to apply this to our bodies seems too much. Our culture compels us to disqualify them from being the focus of openness and engagement. Indeed, we’re far more likely to see our bodies through a purely reductionistic lens. There is a rigid standard for appearing “healthy” that has been given us by our culture, and we remain bound to conform to it. We may be open to different ways to eat, different approaches to medicine, different methods of exercise—as long as they don’t disturb our hopes of meeting others’ expectations for our appearance. No matter how tenaciously we may strive for a more diverse world, we fight our own bodies just as hard—or harder—to limit their diversity.

Why would the body be such a stronghold of determinism? Giving the body a voice—treating it as a genuine subjective other—means a willingness to listen as much as we speak. But I think that we find listening to our bodies far too frightening.

Our bodies are the keepers of our darkest mysteries, our most burning longings, our deepest emotional rivers. The dialogue we’re meant to have with these intricate vessels has so often been subverted with mockery and accusation. And the abuse (particularly sexual abuse) we have known suggests that our bodies are dangerous, untrustworthy vehicles for harm. So when our bodies speak to us, we’re wary at best. When they speak to us of pleasure, we become even more vigilant.

Should a message bubble into our consciousness suggesting that we’re hungry, it’s easy either to ignore it or to numb it with a kind or amount of food we don’t even want. Paying attention would be to take desire seriously and consciously. It doesn’t matter to us whether our bodies feel comfortably satisfied; we don’t trust what they tell us anyway. Far easier to turn decisions about food over to those who promise to help us earn cultural acceptance through our appearance.

Is this the way to genuine health? No. Engaging food with all our senses—having the real conversation—isn’t a path to debauchery, but to sacredness, kindness, and freedom. Our bodies regulate themselves startlingly well when they’re seen as partners rather than adversaries. There is deep joy here for the taking.

I wonder what would happen if the angst-ridden radio host arose from subduing his own body and found not an army of comrades to join him in violence, but rather a sea of humans standing arm-in-arm with their bodies as friends. These survivors will have struggled too, certainly, but they will have vanquished the dark voices of contempt instead of their beautifully created physicality. And with their battles over, they’ll need another use for the space. Our radio friend might even find them having a picnic.

In case you missed them, check out our recent posts from Diane Summers and Kate Sweet, the other facilitators at Redeeming Food and Body. This is a crucial conversation, and one that we rarely have the opportunity to engage in a way that invites our entire presence as spiritual, psychological, and physical beings. We hope you’ll join us March 10-11.