All is vanity--learning new beliefs

I was raised in a conservative, evangelical, Southern Baptist household. At the age of seven, I learned about Abraham and Isaac and prayed at night that my parents wouldn’t sacrifice me to a God who seemed, even to a seven year old, just the tiniest bit criminally insane.

I must have been about 10 when I began playing hymns on the piano. The lyrics to one: “There is a fountain filled with blood, drawn from Emanuel’s veins.”

I won’t belabor the point by saying too much about the incipient—although metaphorical— cannibalism present in the “Lord’s Supper,” which is the Baptist version of communion. “Eat this bread, which is my body. Drink this grape juice, which is my blood.”

To my child’s eyes, the Church was a place drenched in blood and a place where children weren’t protected. It was also a place where I felt bad, as in, “You’re a bad girl.” Of course I was. We are sinners. Though I don’t remember my family advocating this belief, I was burdened by a sense that all the bad things that happened to me were a result of my sin.

Like when I had to take two pills three times a day for what was diagnosed (incorrectly) as epilepsy. I remember to my bones what the electrodes felt like on my head when I had an EEG. I was left alone in a totally dark room, having been told not to move by the doctor. I mistakenly believed I’d be electrocuted if I moved.

The church shaped and mangled my most foundational beliefs and many of them still trouble me. I was nothing if not a willing student, a little girl who wanted to be good. Women and girls in Baptist churches are in a bind. On one hand, your job on earth, to some degree, is pleasing and obeying men. On the other, attending to your appearance is vain and sinful. A poster of the drawing below hung in my junior high Sunday school classroom. It is called “All is Vanity.”

Drawing by Charles Allan Gilbert. 1892.

Drawing by Charles Allan Gilbert. 1892.

All of the metaphorical power of these images and stories was lost on me as a child. I was just haunted by them.

Lest I demonize the Church alone, I will add that the messages were reinforced after I left the church. I breathed in the air of our culture and exhaled self-loathing and disgust.

My generation was sandwiched between Twiggy and Kate Moss. I remember reading in high school that Cheryl Tiegs had the smallest inner thighs in the business. At 5’3” I was about the same weight as America’s first supermodel, who was 5’10.”

The summer before my senior year in college, I trained for a long bike ride. I rode 20-40 miles a day in the hot New Mexico sun.

I was also smoking, eating toast for breakfast, and one or two corn dogs for lunch/dinner and not much else. I went to give blood one afternoon but was turned away because I didn’t weigh enough. It was my proudest moment.

At the same time, I discovered I had very low iron. My doctor sternly told me if I were to need emergency surgery I would be at great risk with such a low level of iron. Still, I got a pat on the back for my weight.

The work of adulthood, of my life right now, is to unlearn these core beliefs, to breathe in healthier ways of seeing the world and to exhale acceptance. And, it’s hard.

Because of stress and medications and menopause, I’ve recently gained quite a bit of weight. And, I wasn’t thin to start with. It’s hard to feel good about myself. It’s hard to feel good, period. I beat myself up in a hundred different ways. 

But I am not a child, and I don’t have to hold onto these core beliefs. I need to gather new stories and play new hymns.

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