CW: eating disorders
The only man I remember seeing naked as a child is Jesus Christ. On Sundays in church, Jesus’ wooden body, nailed to the crucifix at the back of the pulpit, was granted a small swath of cloth to wrap around his nether regions, but on Mondays, in Catechism classes, our religious workbooks didn’t even grant him that much, leaving him naked and emaciated, blood draining out of the center of his palms and feet while the life drained out of him. Our class was taught to worship that image of human sacrifice in its nude, unfiltered form as a symbol of everlasting life cloaked in the guise of death. Death was sad, but it wasn’t permanent.
As a little girl being raised in the Catholic church, I learned early on that the Bible wasn’t filled with females of importance. This really stood out when the youth choir I was a part of put on our annual Christmas play, and all the girls had to contend with each other to snag the role of the Virgin Mary at an age before we even knew what a virgin was. We just knew being a virgin was a good thing, a high honor, and since the other roles in the nativity scene were Joseph, the shepherds, the wisemen, and the angels, the girls who weren’t chosen to be Mary all had to be angels, huddled in the background with white dresses on and no lines to say. I never did get to play Mary.
As a child, I never saw Mary naked. In our church, she had a stone statue in an alcove off to the side of the pews, and I remember staring at her modest robe, rippling around her concealed body, revealing nothing but her serene face and delicate hands.
During mass, when the sermon and scripture became unbearably boring, and I was sick of staring at the back of old, balding men’s heads, pretending I could see through their thinning hair and shiny scalps to where the priest was standing, I’d crane my head around sideways to look past my parents and their pursed faces to admire Mary’s smooth intricacy. My eyes would rove over the dips in her garments and the planes of her face, pondering how she could be carved out of stone, her skin cold and unyielding beneath my warm, fleshy fingers when I was able to steal a touch of her hands, but still seem so dainty from afar beneath my eye’s probing.
I never could steal a touch of Jesus’ statue though because it was guarded behind the priest in his domain, and kids weren’t allowed where the priest was. Even when I was older, I knew I never would belong on the priest’s raised pulpit either because not even grown women were allowed to be priests.
I remember that the morning before my first day of third grade, I was eating oatmeal at the kitchen table while my mom watched over me, waiting for me to finish, so she could wash my bowl and spoon and drive me to school. While she waited, to fill the silence of the commercial interludes between the gospel songs on the radio when she meticulously lowered the volume to almost mute, she told me, “Now before you go off to school, a good, Catholic school through and through, don’t forget how lucky you are to get to have the right kind of education, young lady, and how lucky you are to get to have a relationship with Mary because of the good school you get to go to. Because if you were a Lutheran, heaven forbid, you wouldn’t get to have that relationship with Mary you know. They’d rather you take that relationship straight to God as if it wasn’t something sacred too.”
“Yes, Mom, I know. You already told me that before.”
“I know I did. I’m telling you again, so you don’t forget to talk to the Holy Mother of Jesus the same way you always seem to forget to clean your room.”
“I won’t forget,” I replied in a small voice, never taking my eyes off my breakfast, and despite my avoidance of eye contact, when I said this, I really meant it. I really wouldn’t come to forget Mary any time soon because it would have been pretty hard to disregard Mary when my mom had taken the liberty of giving me a foot tall, glass figurine of her for my seventh birthday, pestering me to dust it at least a few times a week, knowing I hadn’t done it the last time she told me to.
I knew it was a spiteful present, earned for sins committed in her presence because that was the year I’d asked for a new bike, making sure to be extra helpful with chores in the month leading up to my birthday to try to show how much I really wanted and deserved a bike big enough for me. My old bike was too small now and still had training wheels on it, which meant my dad couldn’t teach me to ride a real bike yet like he once said he would.
Back when I still fit on my old bike, my dad and I went on bike rides when he wasn’t away on the business trips that so often pulled him across the country, but we hadn’t ridden the trail around our neighborhood in years now. Once kids started saying my bike was for babies, I started telling my dad I didn’t want to go on our rides even though I did. I just knew I wasn’t a baby. I was a big girl, and I wanted to feel like it.
I remember opening the present, lethargically ripping off the shiny wrapping paper since I already knew it wasn’t what I wanted; it wasn’t a bike, couldn’t be based on the size of the box. I wasn’t able to conceal my disappointment though when I got it open, and the present was even more lackluster than I thought it would be.
My mom looked satisfied at my crestfallen face, telling me, “When you look at her, you should be reminded to be less covetous. It is not becoming of a daughter of the Lord. I know you only asked for a bike because you were jealous of the new one the neighbor kid is always riding past on these days. But you’re my daughter, not the neighbor’s daughter, and you’re getting a proper upbringing whether you like it or not because even if you don’t like it now, you’ll come to appreciate it later.”
I didn’t know how to tell her she was wrong. Adults weren’t wrong. Besides, my dad wasn’t even home that week, so it just wasn’t worth the bother. He probably wouldn’t have had time for bike rides anyways. There was a reason he wasn’t involved in the present buying process.
I remembered from my Catechism classes that the jealousy, or rather envy, that my mom was accusing me of was one of the Seven Deadly Sins. We’d already memorized them by then. Envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, sloth, and wrath. These words had been beyond the class’ vocabulary at the time, but once the teacher explained what they all meant, I was worried how I’d ever rid myself of so many feelings that just seemed to pop up inside of me the same way happiness and gratefulness did.
Later on, during that first day of school, once I was back home again, I remember staring at Mary’s translucent silhouette on the window sill, illuminated by the light coming through my bedroom window and thinking about how we had also learned in religion class that we weren’t actually supposed to worship Mary though despite her being the only religious figurine ever gifted to me.
Mary wasn’t supposed to be on the same level as Jesus, explaining her less prime location as a statue in the church, tucked away instead of on full display. I wondered if that was why she was fully clothed while Jesus wasn’t.
We learned this hierarchy when a student in our class asked the religion teacher, “Why don’t we say Mary’s name when we do the Sign of the Cross?”
After thinking for a minute, probably about how to best arrange her words, the teacher replied, “We don’t include her in the Holy Trinity because she isn’t perfect or divine the way Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit are. Mary is more of a vessel for the Trinity. Don’t get me wrong; she’s a holy vessel, the same way we call the Bible the Holy Bible because it’s a holy vessel too, but that’s why we don’t worship Mary like we worship Jesus and God. So yes, we honor her, venerate her, but we only do this as a way to experience the true grace of God and help us belong more fully to her son.”
Looking back on this memory now, I can realize how disturbing it was for Mary to be reduced to a “vessel,” a word that is only a noun, a definition that clearly denotes her as an object the same way a book like the Bible is just an object.
She was only important for the one function she served, as a mother, as a vessel for the great savior, never quite being credited greatness herself. Mary had been on a pedestal in my head, and it turned out she just served as a pedestal for Jesus.
This did explain another title I’d learn for Mary later on though, the “Seat of Wisdom,” an epithet usually accompanied by an image of Jesus on his mother’s lap, him the source of the wisdom, her just another kind of object, just a place to sit. I felt myself growing farther from faith with every fallacy I found in it, and this discovery definitely qualified as another stain spilled across my spirituality.
In hindsight, I can recognize now that as I grew up and grew farther away from faith, I also grew farther away from my mother since she was still so firmly grounded in Catholicism, but I can at least recognize now as well that this hatred was a more nuanced feeling than I gave it credit for while it was still actively manifesting itself inside of me.
I had to accept that as a Catholic woman, even in this day and age, my mom was still defined by her role as a mother just like Mary was despite the centuries between my mom’s birth and the Virgin Mary’s birth before I could accept my mom for who she was, how she’d been raised, and how she’d decided to raise me.
Within our church, there was an immense amount of pressure on my mom to fulfill her role as a vessel for me, that the only way she could fulfill herself was by transferring that pressure on to me in an ill-conceived attempt at forcing me towards perfection, despite that being a pious, narrow sort of perfection I gradually lost interest in achieving. She too felt like she had to be a “Seat of Wisdom,” and I was the most important part of achieving that title.
I remember trying to pray to Mary after receiving my first Rosary beads from my parents as a gift for my First Communion. Per usual with isolated prayer, I didn’t really know where to start, so I figured I’d start with a prayer I already knew, the Hail Mary, a prayer we’d been tested on in religion class before we could receive the third sacrament, the body and blood of Christ, a bite full of bread and one reluctant sip of wine.
“Hail Mary full of Grace,” I said quietly while kneeling beside my bed, “the Lord is with thee. Blessed are thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus.” The words came tumbling out of my mouth, having been recited so many times that my tongue was no longer tripped up by them despite me not really understanding them.
It didn’t matter that I understood the words of the prayer though, not for the test. It just mattered that when I was taken out to the hallway to repeat them for the teacher, I got all the words right, in the right order, and said them solemnly and evenly like the priest and other adults did.
It felt like saying the pledge of allegiance or singing the National Anthem, monologues I also didn’t really understand at the time. When I said those, I was also just repeating the antiquated, complex vocabulary of the societal staples to appease the adults listening to me. “Holy Mary Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death Amen,” I finished the prayer, playing with the beads that were intertwined with my fingers in a strange kind of holy hand holding.
“Mary, I got the Eucharist for the first time today, but I’m, uh, sure you knew that since I’m still wearing my dress and all.” I looked down at the itchy, white tulle bunched up around my thighs, so I wouldn’t kneel on it and wrinkle it. I could still feel the metal, cloth-covered headband of my veil, pressing hard against my temples too. I’d taken off my shiny, white flats though, so I could curl my toes into the carpet while I was kneeling, my one semblance of comfort.
Anything was better than sitting on the hard, wooden, deceptively shiny pews during mass though and having to kneel on the barely cushioned kneelers to pray, keeping my back as straight as possible, my arms stuck straight out and slightly up in order to rest them on the top of the back of the pew in front of me, my hands still clasped in their pious position. At least when I was kneeling next to my bed to pray, I could let my spine relax, allow my arms to bend, and have my clasped hands rest below the height of my shoulders.
“I just wanted to talk to you since my mom said I should, not that I didn’t want to or anything, but, I guess, please keep my family, me, and my hamster healthy, and thank you for my friends and toys, and I think that’s all” I said, finishing with, “thank you, Amen” since I couldn’t think of anything else to say, and I figured praying was like being on the phone where long pauses got too awkward, so you were just supposed to say goodbye and hang up. I wasn’t important enough to waste her time.
I remember that one Monday night in fourth grade when I was at my Catechism class, the teacher told us to draw what we thought God looked like, so we could hang all of our different depictions on a bulletin board that would be put up in the main hallway of the church entryway.
The teacher warned us, “Do a good job too. Take your time because these pictures are going in an important spot, so lots of people will see them.” This activity bore many poorly but passionately drawn, crayon images that mostly depicted God as an old, white man, sometimes with a long white beard, sometimes with a halo, sometimes with different colored robes. These were the only typical variations and the only accepted ones it turned out.
I wasn’t looking around at the drawings the other kids were making while I was drawing mine though. I was too busy trying to do a good job, already imagining how proud I would be walking into church and pointing it out to my parents. When I finished my drawing, scribbling my name in the corner, I wished I had been looking around more, however. It would’ve saved me a lot of embarrassment.
It would’ve saved me from my teacher having to say in front of the whole class, “Hannah, God isn’t a woman. You know that. He is the Father of mankind, as in He is a man.” She picked my drawing of an old woman who I’d tried to make resemble my grandma up off the table, scrutinizing it further, sighing and saying, “I’m afraid we can’t put this drawing on the board. I’m sorry, but it just wouldn’t look right.”
At the time, I was embarrassed to have messed up in front of my peers who took it upon themselves to snicker openly at my ignorance. Their imposed superiority made me feel so ashamed at my failure that I offered in a shaky voice to the teacher, “I could draw another one if you want. A better one.”
“I’m afraid we really must move on to the next activity. Maybe you could draw your picture at home and bring it in next week. Have your parents look it over first though, just in case, and then you can give it to me.”
I wished I had known then that The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that, “God is neither man nor woman: he is God.” Those words could’ve been my rebuff at having been excluded from the class art collection, even though the statement still adopts a masculine pronoun to get its point across. I didn’t know that statement yet though or that there were any options apart from being a boy and growing up to be a man or being a girl and growing up to be a woman. Catholicism emphasized that sex and gender were strictly binary systems that couldn’t be separated or forgotten, and it was important to be able to readily tell who was a male and who was a female from first glance like it was apparently important for God.
All I really knew was that when I thought of the undying, unconditional love the teacher told us God had for us, I thought about my grandma, visiting her in Iowa, catching fireflies in her backyard, rocking on her porch swing, learning to play piano with her on the bench next to me, guiding my hands with gentle, coaxing words.
If that wasn’t God, at nine years old, I didn’t know what else God could be because the “real” God never actually responded to my mandatory prayer outreach while my grandma always picked up the phone when I called because I was her “little Pookie.” I wished we got to visit her more, but she was my dad’s mom, rooted where my dad had been raised while my family lived in Wisconsin.
After elementary school, it took more effort to believe in God. I switched to a public school for middle school because I couldn’t get a scholarship for any of the private, Christian schools like I had before, leaving me in a religion-free environment for seven hours a day, five days a week for the first time in my life.
When my mom was dropping me off for my first day of sixth grade, before I could leave the car, she told me, “Now I know this is going to be a hard transition. This isn’t what you’re used to, but you need to hold onto your faith, so it can lead you towards new, like-minded friends. That’s what’s best for you, and you know I want what’s best for you. Do you understand?”
I watched the kids streaming into the school’s front doors, knowing there were hundreds more inside, more students than I’d ever seen all in one place and not one of them had anything close to a uniform on. They were wearing bright colored hoodies, ripped jeans, and worn out, brand name tennis shoes, all meshing together in their stylized pretense of pretending to stand out.
I felt uncomfortable as I looked down at the khakis I was wearing, self-consciously clutching the fabric of my white, knit sweater the same way I would until the school day was finally over, and I could take it off. My mom interrupted my nerve-wracking people watching, clearing her throat in light of my silence and saying, “I said, do you understand?”
“Yeah, mom. I’ll be fine.” And I actually thought I would be fine for some unknown reason despite my apprehension, but I’d never had to make new friends before, and it turned out, I was too awkward and inexperienced to do it very well. It wasn’t anything like how the kids in the movies my mom approved of me watching made friends. They made it look so effortless, practically inevitable really.
Most of the kids already knew each other from elementary school, and my mom didn’t like the idea of me joining any of the sports teams that seemed to come with built-in friend groups. She was especially appalled when I mentioned the idea of joining the volleyball team since she thought the spandex shorts those players wore as part of their uniform were “inappropriate at best.”
I still knew better than to try to find friends by talking about religion though because it wasn’t a topic that came up anywhere, not in the halls or the lunchroom or by the lockers, and for the first time, it didn’t even come up in class.
I ended up just still hanging out with my old friends from my old school on the weekends even though they talked all the time about things only students at their still shared school would know. Their company was better than nothing, and I laughed half-heartedly along with their inside jokes, but having them around just served as a reminder of the familiarity I was missing. I existed in isolation on the weekdays.
I felt guilty about my growing separation from God in this new environment, and being alone so much gave me too much time to feel guilty, but I wasn’t just guilty, I was also angry. On Sundays at mass, I still prayed for strength and resolve and all manner of abstract blessings that my mom told me to ask for, but it all amounted to nothing tangible.
God had left me alone, and I didn’t understand why. Why was this part of His plan for me, the plan that he’d supposedly crafted specifically for me? He had laid out this misery even before I was born according to the clergy. It was too many feelings to deal with, to keep down, and I used it as an excuse to purge whenever the conflicting feelings got to be too much. I threw up after lunch at school, after Catechism class, after Sunday mass, trying to rid myself of His mounting betrayal. It was like putting out a forest fire with cups of water. It felt like I’d been cast out from his flock, and what did that say about me? What was wrong enough with me that my Creator would abandon me? How had my soul gotten so dirty?
Soon, I couldn’t stop. I was too addicted to my new ritual, the way it appeared in my psyche as if it was the most natural path to follow, more natural than the religion I hadn’t had a choice in choosing. It provided a solution I could actually see and pain relief I could actually feel even if it was always brief and getting briefer. It was my dirty, little secret that no amount of prayer could rid me of. My dentist did a better job in that department than God did I suppose.
My dirty secret and I went in for a dentist appointment a year and a half into our toxic relationship when my secret wasn’t so little anymore and getting harder and harder to hide. I remember a dental hygienist led me back to one of the checkup rooms, but after getting through the customary questions of how school was going and how old I was now, she checked my teeth in a stunted kind of silence that didn’t feel fully broken even when she told me she was going to call the dentist in.
She made sure to have a hushed conversation with the dentist outside the doorway before the dentist entered with a fake looking smile on his face. It didn’t take long for his fake smile to fade, though, the way the hygienist’s small talk had, providing proof in both cases of their falsehood.
Once he was done with the examination, he told me, “Alright, kiddo, we’re all done here, but how about you stay in here for a little longer while I go and talk to your mom. Does that sound good?”
I just nodded because it was never a good sign when someone wanted to talk to your mother alone, but I couldn’t ask the dentist not to when I had no way of knowing for sure what their conversation would be about. Plus, he was still the adult in the room, and I was just a seventh grader.
Despite my wariness, his conversation with my mom was the kind of conversation that ended up dragging my unwilling, disordered eating out into the light, forcing it to be examined atop my mother’s operating room table where she attempted a full and unskilled excision of the issue in the manner of a not exactly understanding surgeon. She took what the doctor said into consideration and decided to take me out to Dairy Queen for ice cream after school about a week later as her first maneuver.
I wasn’t concerned about this outing when she mentioned it to me because I’d already learned that ice cream was one of the easiest foods to throw up. If I knew I was going to purge, and I was alone, I used to eat ice cream first as a base for my bile.
I remember when we were there after I finished my hot fudge sundae, I told my mom, “I’m going to the bathroom real quick before we leave.”
“No, how about you stay here with me,” she replied.
“Please, I’ve really got to go. It’ll only take a second.”
“I said no. We need to leave and get home, so I can start making dinner. Your dad’s waiting for us, and we’re only like ten minutes away” she said, grabbing me by the arm and pulling me towards the car as inconspicuously as my squirming body would allow her to. I couldn’t stand the thought of letting those calories sit in my stomach, but no amount of begging would convince my mom to let me go.
As far as my mom was concerned, her first maneuver had been a success. She explained that the ice cream had been a test to see if the “disturbing” things the dentist had told her were true, and I’d fallen fully for her ploy. This led to her deciding on her next moves, making me see the school counselor on top of talking with “religious guides” such as my religion teacher, a thoroughly shameful experience that involved her accusing me of committing treason against God since my body “belonged” to Him. It was the kind of shaming that had driven me towards this eating disorder in the first place.
She told me, “You are a child of God. He made you in his image and gave you life and took the time to give your whole life a plan. All this means that you belong to Him, so you should know that you’re disrespecting Him by violating your body like this. You need to have more respect for Him and more respect for yourself. You need to stop this.” She made changing sound so simple. I suppose stopping really was that easy if I was as simple as the vessel for God she was trying to reduce me to, but I wasn’t a vessel. I wasn’t Mary.
I don’t think Mary would’ve wanted to have been so simplified and objectified either, but unlike her, I wasn’t already dead and gone with a legacy left to the living. I wasn’t a figurine that could be gifted to a little girl. I was the girl who had matured and discovered the agency to take that figurine and stash it in the back of her closet. I was the girl that wanted to picture Mary with her own agency, the kind that let her shed her perfection and her robe if she so chose since her body was hers and hers alone.
I had the chance to explore all the nuanced, contradictory, interesting, and wondrously feminine threads of my neural pathways when Mary couldn’t, and taking that chance felt like the best way to venerate her. I had been trying desperately to weave all the threads of my feelings and thoughts and actions into one holy, perfect thread that was strong enough to withstand my femininity and my reckless humanity, but that wasn’t possible. But that impossibility was the best part. It was the kind of beginning I could work with.
I remember coming home from one of my sessions at the clinic and seeing my mom seething at a news report on the TV. From the script rolling across the screen beneath the newscaster’s face, I could see the story was about an art piece called “Our Lady.” It was a digital art piece that depicted La Virgen De Guadalupe, the Mexican depiction of the Virgin Mary, with an open cloak over her shoulders that revealed a two-piece garment made of flowers underneath.
Usually, my mom ignored me when I came home from these sessions since she thought I went to them too often and went to church too little, so I was surprised when she turned to me when she heard me come in the door, saying, “Do you see this? This piece of crap is up in a public museum for heaven’s sake, for anyone to see. This is so offensive. How would you like to see me, your mom, in a flower bikini, let alone the mother of Jesus? I’m glad there are people protesting this. And the woman who painted this, this Alma Lopez, she claims that she’s a Catholic. How ridiculous is that? She’s disrespecting her own religion then if that’s how she’s trying to wriggle out of this controversy. She’s not fooling me. She just wants attention for turning the Holy Virgin into a tart.”
I responded with a noncommittal “mhmm” since I was used to my mom’s religious rants by now and because I was too busy looking at the art piece. The news program panned the length of it, zooming up close to the woman’s flower-covered pelvic region and breasts. I was trying to see the same problems my mother saw, but I just couldn’t. It looked like a beautiful and empowering art piece to me.
There wasn’t anything sexual about La Virgen’s pose. She was just standing there, her hands boldly on her hips. There was a smaller woman depicted beneath her with monarch wings and arms spread wide, her uneven breasts out in the open, her body cut off under her breasts, but there was nothing inherently sexual about her pose either, nothing except her presenting as female.
I couldn’t help but think that Mary was defined by the one function her womanly body gave her, the ability to bear a child, but we still weren’t able to celebrate her body for what it had done. She was supposed to remain “pure,” remain an object as long as she wasn’t the object that was her body because a woman’s body is somehow still inherently impure. Seeing the picture took me back to when I had drawn my own womanly version of God and that too was labeled as wrong.
I couldn’t help but think this wasn’t the kind of spirituality I wanted to be a part of, not now and not again. I was only half a year away from leaving for college in a bigger, more secular city, and I was going to make sure I took advantage of this chance at a fresh start to become myself in a way I never was before.
Hannah-Marie Nelson is a recent graduate of the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities where she received a degree in English and a minor in creative writing. She’s been fortunate enough to have had poetry published in the Belleville Park Pages, the Blue Heron Review, the Indiana Review, and The Merrimack Review and fiction published in The 2017 Scythe Prize: Stories and Essays from College Writers anthology. Currently, she resides in Minneapolis where she has the pleasure of running her blog, Sarcasm Killed the Cat.