Shame and self-contempt are problems people have faced since the time of Adam and Eve. During my graduate training in counseling psychology, I spent several months working with men and women who were struggling with issues relative to self-contempt and shame in the form of eating disorders. Bulimia and anorexia are conditions that result when women (and occasionally men) attempt to control their weight and physical appearance in ways that compromise their health, sometimes even to the degree that they lose their lives. As I came to know and understand the people with whom I was working, it soon became clear that most everything in their lives revolved around their thoughts and fears concerning food, weight, and physical appearance. In many cases their obsession with body image wasn’t so much that they were guilty of vanity as it was that their weight was one of the things in their life they could control—food and flesh had become both enemy and ally. They had come to define their identity by their physical appearance. In some cases their inordinate focus on self resulted from being ashamed of who they had or had not become.
Some of the women I worked with would do almost anything to lose weight but would make it appear that they were gaining weight so they could be released from the hospital. In reality many of them continued to lose weight while attempting to outwit the hospital staff into believing otherwise. If these women continued to lose weight, they would eventually die. Simply regaining weight, however, wasn’t the ultimate solution either. If they regained the weight they had lost, sometimes even a few pounds, they would be back to where they started—miserable.
It soon became apparent to me that these women were ensnared in what the Apostle Paul described as a “strait betwixt two” (Philippians 1:23), or, to use a more familiar term, they were in a dilemma. I have come to believe that dilemmas are often false choices between competing counterfeit solutions (Alma 7:18–20). For these women, gaining weight was not the real answer but neither was losing it. When they lost weight, they would feel a sense of esteem and control, but their overall health would decline. As they gained weight, this sense of control and esteem turned to despair.
The problem from the perspective of those with eating disorders was that the weight they lost was never enough. Their goal of having the perfect body, ultimate control, or sufficient praise was an illusive fantasy that was impossible to fulfill. The more weight they lost, the more weight they wanted to lose. Samuel the Lamanite used the word “slippery” (Helaman 13:31) to describe the ancient Nephites’ failed attempts to retain their riches. When the Nephites became wicked, many of them believed (as do many in our culture) that peace and happiness were to be found in riches. The women I am describing had come to believe that they could be happy if they could lose a given amount of weight and look a certain way. They believed the lie expressed in the phrase “You can’t be too thin or too rich.” Their lives became a never-ending cycle of counterfeits of high self-esteem that came from weight loss and of low-self esteem that came from weight gain.
One afternoon as I was meeting with a group of women who had gathered to discuss the various challenges they were facing, I realized that I could identify with what many of them were describing. I could see similarities between their lives and my own. During my years as an athlete, I felt as though I was only as good as my last game. And even though I was moderately successful during my playing days, I had felt that I was never good enough. In my mind I could never make as many touchdowns, score as many points, or strike out a sufficient number of batters to feel that my performance had been acceptable. Like some of the women with whom I was working in the eating disorders group, I too had nearly died in my attempts to control the perceptions of others. Starving or purging myself wasn’t my particular problem (it was for some of my friends on the wrestling team), but I was breaking bones, tearing muscles, suffering concussions, dislocating joints, and having surgeries while trying to prove to others and myself that I was of worth.
As I listened to this group of women discuss their problems of the present, I reflected on my own challenges of the past. Suddenly I realized that if I wasn’t careful, I could find myself in the very same place with my education and career. The circumstances of our lives may change, but the problems remain the same unless we find real solutions. The following words of the Savior became real for me: “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matthew 16:26). For the first time I fully realized that my obsession with athletic success had not only been something I had used to compensate for my fallen nature but had also become my god. I also realized that many of the injuries I had experienced playing competitive sports had been used by the Lord as a way of inviting me to discover Him.