During my freshman year in college, I was on top of the world. I was enjoying campus life at the university Thomas Jefferson built, playing on the tennis team and making good grades. Life was great—until I developed an eating disorder called anorexia athletica. I had heard that many female college athletes struggle with this strange disorder, but I never thought I would be susceptible to it. And I certainly never thought anorexia would become a means for me to experience grace.
When I arrived at the University of Virginia, I quickly threw myself into working as hard as I could. I thought that in this new and competitive environment, I would have to earn love and acceptance through my performance. Rather than having an identity that flowed out of my relationship with Christ, I had learned to grab my worth from striving to be the best. It wasn’t about being better than everyone else, but about being the very best me that I could be. What began as a simple effort to be a successful student athlete led to a downward spiral of obsession with healthy eating and overexercise.
01. My World Without Grace
In my story of anorexia—my world with no room for grace—there were three primary themes: (1) having a performance-based self-worth, (2) becoming a slave to perfectionism, and (3) grasping for control over my life.
As I sank into my anorexic mindset, I no longer found my identity in Christ. Who I was had been reduced to my weight, numbers on a gym scale. I created a false self that was based on my performance. As Fr. Basil Pennington wrote in the Fall 2005 issue of Conversations, when discussing obstacles to union, “The hold that the false self has on me makes me captive to wanting to have things, to fearful possessiveness; to wanting to do things and have accomplishments to which I can hang on; to being possessed by concern about what others think of me.”Basil Pennington, “My Will be Done, My Kingdom Come.” Conversations: A Forum for Authentic Transformation, 3:2, 2005, 18.
My performance-based self-worth had me far too busy achieving to be able to slow down and become open to simple awareness of God’s love. I could not experience God’s grace because I was so focused on earning my worth. I was obsessed with doing the “right” things: spending time reading the Bible, doing Bible studies, and attending fellowship groups, almost as a way of running from God. If I could check these things off my list each day, then I didn’t have to be still and be in relationship with God, and I didn’t have to believe that God loved me without all these activities.
Perfectionism quickly became an idol to me in this competitive college environment where I was struggling to find my niche. I wasn’t focused just on my weight; I was striving to be perfect in everything. I read every page I was assigned—many twice. I declared war on any fat in my diet. With the new craze of fat-free foods, it was fairly easy for me to go an entire day and eat almost no fat whatsoever: fat-free breakfast bars, fat-free yogurt, fat-free/low-calorie bread, fat-free turkey, fat-free salad dressing . . . fat was the enemy, and I avoided it at all costs. I exercised each day until the point of exhaustion. Everything in my life had to be perfect, accomplished to the extreme.
I took the same perfectionist approach to being good enough for God and others. I spent time with God every day, checking off our appointments in a special “God notebook” and attending a college fellowship group almost every evening. I joined a sorority, began dating a great guy, called home every day, and developed some of the best friendships I have ever had. But I did not allow myself the time or spiritual openness to see grace in any of these areas of my life. I thought that if I was not performing, then others, including God, would not accept me. I guess I thought I was unlovable if I was ordinary, but that I could somehow earn love by being perfect.
Philip Yancey speaks to the influence of the performance-based self-worth and perfectionism that plagues many women when he writes, “Every institution, it seems, runs on ungrace and its insistence that we earn our way. . . . The disease anorexia is a direct product of ungrace: hold up the ideal of beautiful, skinny models, and teenage girls will starve themselves to death in an attempt to reach that ideal.”Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997) 36–37.
The more rigid I was in my diet and exercise regimen, the further I got from being able to experience God’s grace. I was operating entirely out of my self-devised system of “ungrace” and perfectionism. This mentality had increasingly developed as I continued my downward spiral of obsession with performance. I put pressure on myself in every area of my life to be the very best I could be. But this attitude was the polar opposite of the grace God extends to us, based not on our performance but on God’s love for us through Christ.
Both my performance-based mentality and my perfectionism were ultimately a matter of control. I wanted to be in control of everything. In a sense, it was as if I were saying to God, “Too bad you missed the mark when you were knitting me together. But don’t worry, God, the good news is that I can fix this. I can clean up your mess. Through extreme discipline and self-control, I can create the perfect body that you weren’t able to make. You don’t seem to be giving me the things I want out of life, so I am going to take matters into my own hands.” Grasping for control, I created a life for myself that was empty of grace. But I was eating from the “Tree of Death” (self-sufficiency) instead of the “Tree of Life” (surrender to and cooperation with the love of God).
I was clinging to something I could control when everything else in my life seemed dangerously out of control. As Gary Moon explains, “In grasping from the wrong tree, [Adam and Eve] voted that they cherished control, independence, and self-determination more than surrender, community, and abandonment to the love of God. In hiding they moved into a world of shame and isolation and out of the realm of grace and togetherness. . . . Grasping and hiding yank us away from Eden and into a world of competition, loneliness, and silent desperation, an unnatural world for the human soul.”Gary Moon, Falling for God: Saying Yes to His Extravagant Proposal (Colorado Springs: Shaw Books, 2004) 29–30. The imagery of “grasping” and “hiding” is inspired by Robert Barron. See also Robert Baron, And Now I See: A Theology of Transformation (New York: Crossroad, 1998).
That was my life. I grasped for control as I set out to prove to the world that I was a success. But as I pursued performance, perfectionism, and control, I turned my back on God’s invitation to a relationship based on love and grace.