One of the many riches of the Catholic Church is her trove of aids to the spiritual life, including prayers and papal wisdom, exhortations and exegesis. Books that draw on these aids can likewise help us grow closer to God. During this Lenten season, there is a wealth of books available to those who choose to make a Lenten practice of spiritual reading. No matter what one’s style of spirituality may be, there is a guide to help him or her along on his or her journey to Easter. Read more here.
Every woman has, at some point in her life, felt that her body didn’t measure up – or down – to the ideal in her mind.
Perhaps it was when her grade school phys ed teacher had to boost her onto the gym equipment. Or years later, when her post-partum belly was mistaken for a pre-partum bulge. Or just last week, when, in spite of her better judgment, she perused a “10 Most Beautiful Women in the World” magazine issue while waiting at the supermarket checkout.
Do I hear heads nodding?
Occasional twinges of inadequacy in these situations are normal. But when negative thoughts and feelings about one’s appearance become habitual, they form a “poor body image,” or a chronic dissatisfaction with one’s looks.
Where does this negativity originate?
The development of body image begins in childhood, and is influenced heavily by the mass media. Unrealistic standards of beauty are relentlessly imposed by our culture through television, movies, and magazines. Children’s programs underscore our culture’s emphasis on physical beauty by featuring well-built good guys and dumpy, homely bad guys. Shows like “Toddlers and Tiaras” spotlight children themselves competing in pageants for the honor of being named a “beautiful doll” or a “fabulous face.”
Other influences on body image development come from interpersonal relationships. Excessive teasing or negative feedback about one’s appearance can do lasting damage to a fragile body image.
I experienced a hurtful incident of this kind when I was in fifth grade. Our class was putting on a play about the first Thanksgiving, and I’d been cast as a Pilgrim girl. As I made my stage entrance during one rehearsal, my classmate Mary Ellen stepped forth from a group of tackily feathered Native Americans, pointed at me, and ad-libbed, “Hey! Look at the fat Pilgrim!”
I was shocked to learn that at least one of my peers perceived me as “fat.” That realization caused me to see my chubbiness in a different way: not as a simple characteristic, like my black hair or brown eyes, but as a source of embarrassment. The “fat Pilgrim” episode changed my perception of my own body, and not for the better.
Once a poor body image is formed, it can give rise to many related problems, including low self-esteem, depression, disordered eating, and difficulties with intimacy in marriage.
In his book, “The Body Image Workbook,” Dr. Thomas F. Cash claims that “as much as one-third of your self-esteem is related to how positive or negative your body image is.” So a woman who can’t come to terms with her physical body is likely to be dissatisfied with herself as a person. And if she doesn’t like herself, she’s probably going to assume that no one else can like her, either. These feelings of inadequacy can make social interactions difficult, resulting in avoidance of certain social circles or activities.
It’s no wonder that the combination of poor body image and low self-esteem can cause depression. Unfortunately, the knot that ties these feelings together can be hard to untangle. A woman who is repelled by what she sees in the mirror may become despondent over a perceived inability to change her appearance. That sense of helplessness can lead to an even deeper dissatisfaction with her body, thus creating a cycle of despair.
Women who struggle with poor body image can go to dangerous lengths to attain a more attractive figure. Their eating behaviors may become erratic, or may involve deprivation, binging, and/or purging. Known as eating disorders, these behaviors are said to affect nearly 8 million Americans. Recurrent spells of overeating, followed by actions meant to reduce the chances of related weight gain (self-induced vomiting, excessive exercise, fasting, and the use of diuretics or laxatives), are typical of bulimia nervosa, the most common eating disorder. In binge disorder, overconsumption of foods takes place without any effort to counteract its effects, resulting in weight gain and even obesity. The eating disorder known as anorexia nervosa begins with an unwillingness to eat, and develops into an inability to eat. It proves deadly in 10 to 15 percent of cases.
Body image is so closely intertwined with eating disorders that magazines featuring size 0 models, such as Vogue and Elle, are often banned in clinics where these disorders are treated. According to the website of the University of Colorado Wellness Center, seven out of ten women, after viewing images of Vogue-type female fashion models, felt more depressed and angry than they did prior to viewing the images. It’s interesting to note that at least two of Vogue’s cover models, Audrey Hepburn and Margaux Hemingway, themselves suffered from eating disorders.
Although negative body image and its related problems are most common among adolescent and teen girls, research indicates that at least 80% of women over 18 also experience dissatisfaction with their bodies. For many of these women, poor body image can affect intimacy with their husbands.
Dr. Richard P. Fitzgibbons of the Institute for Marital Healing writes that “one of the major conflicts in sexual self-giving is poor body image.” A woman who believes that her body is unsightly will likely be so preoccupied with her own anxieties during intimacy that she will not be able either to give love or to receive it fully. Her apprehensions will impair her ability to entrust herself to her husband, and to “surrender to and feel safe with” him.
It’s all about the need for acceptance, says Kate Wicker, author of “Weightless: Making Peace With Your Body” (Servant Books).
“Body image problems are often rooted in a fear of being rejected by our husbands,” she explains. “Our obsession with the way we look forces us to hold back. But real love is about the willingness to let go and be touched – physically, emotionally, and spiritually – by another person. If our husbands compliment us or touch us, we should graciously accept these acts, not shrink away from them.”
Even when the cellulite’s in plain view, and the stretch marks extend from here to Kansas? Yes, says Wicker, since “Intimacy is about revealing our whole selves, even the parts of us that we believe are unworthy of being referred to as beautiful or lovable.”
With so much at stake, overcoming physical self-consciousness with one’s spouse must be a process. So says Dr. Lisa Klewicki, a psychologist with Fountain of Life, a ministry which integrates the Catholic faith with psychology. She points out that, before seeking acceptance by her husband, a woman needs to accept herself. Dr. Klewicki uses visual imagery to accomplish this. A woman with poor body image is asked first to imagine herself at the moment of her creation, being made and embraced by God, then to imagine her husband standing with Christ, loving her unconditionally as Christ does. According to Dr. Klewicki, the goal of visualization is to overcome negative body image so that a woman and her husband may fulfill their vocation to “be Christ for each other.”
But the call to “be Christ” is meant, not only for the married woman, but for each and every woman according to her particular vocation. It is a difficult mission in our culture. In his encyclical letter Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI says that “The contemporary way of exalting the body is deceptive. The apparent exaltation of the body can quickly turn into a hatred of bodiliness.” One way in which this “hatred of bodiliness” manifests itself is through the skewed view that many women hold of their bodies, which God made in His own image.
For a while, I shared that view. I left the fat Pilgrim behind me and eventually slimmed down to a size 4, only to subsequently spend a combined total of over seven years being pregnant, and eighteen years nursing babies. Needless to say, my body doesn’t meet the culture’s standards of beauty. But you know what? I don’t mind, because I’ve found something better.
Kate Wicker says it best: “Every time you make love to your husband, carry an infant in your womb, nurse a baby, or hold an older child until your arms ache, you’re saying, ‘This is my body which is given for you’ (Luke 22:19). Jesus sacrificed his body to redeem ours. Let us lay down our own bodies (and our unrealistic dreams of slimmer hips and taut abs) for our families.”
In September, Mike and I will mark the anniversary of our move from New York to Pennsylvania. It was about twenty-five years ago that, as newlyweds, we came house-hunting in the Lehigh Valley. We were lucky to find, not one, but two dream houses in a matter of hours.
Unfortunately, one spouse’s dream house was the other spouse’s nightmare.
The house I wanted was an 18th century stone farmhouse with hand-hewn beams and vintage folk art on the walls of its cellar. The house Mike wanted was a 1962 brick ranch with Formica kitchen counters embellished with aqua boomerangs.
Now, it’s true that the farmhouse was something of a fixer-upper. And there was a hole in the second floor that afforded a bird’s eye view of the kitchen. But the hole was small – more like a chink, really – and anyway, the place was so indisputably charming that I supposed Mike would go about making repairs with a song in his heart and a smile on his lips.
And maybe he would have, if our super-conscientious realtor hadn’t insisted upon showing us a third home that was “perfect for a couple just starting out.”
The realtor had walked us only as far as the kitchen before Mike turned to me and beamed.
“This is it, hon,” he said.
‘This is it?’ I thought, alarmed at the prospect of a lifetime spent in close proximity with aqua boomerangs. I was disappointed, I was annoyed, and frankly, I was baffled.
What, I wondered, had gotten into Mike? Was it nostalgia for his circa 1960 childhood home? Was it youthful impetuosity? Was it premature dementia?
On the drive back home to our Bronx apartment, I asked Mike how he could be so sure about his choice.
He shrugged the shoulders that were prepped to carry a major mortgage. “I don’t know hon. Gut feeling, I guess.”
Now, gut feeling is something in which I’m totally lacking, and rightly so. Instead, I’ve got feminine intuition, the wonderful little sixth sense that’s unique to women. Feminine intuition is what notifies us of Mother’s surprise visit in time to flip the sofa cushions, mop the kids’ faces, and display the fiber optic swan that Mother gave us last Christmas. It nags us to check on Junior even when there’s no reason to suspect that he’s out of his crib and stuffing cotton swabs into the floor register. It steers us away from the express checkout scanner that’s about to go Matrix and flash random digits for a quarter hour. Intuition lets us know if it’s strep or sniffles, when not to tell Daddy about the leach in the septic system, and whether we can expect to see a faint blue line appear in the little test window before the month is out.
Gut feeling is the masculine counterpart to feminine intuition. It’s the compelling force that enables men to make life-altering decisions between the kick-off and the first down. In that 60 second time span, gut feeling can tell them, positively and without hesitation, whether they should run for mayor, approve of Daughter’s boyfriend, invest the whole wad in stocks, try for another baby, or tell off the boss and go cross-country biking on a Yamaha. Gut feeling is feminine intuition with a testosterone kick.
It was Mike’s gut feeling that selected our home. Since then, gut feeling has claimed responsibility for lots of other stuff besides, like the chain-link fence that, before we had any children, was installed “to keep the kids inside the yard.” Gut feeling also prompted Mike to buy me a beautiful roll-top desk “to do my writing on” in the days when my dream of being a writer was on a par with my dream of exploring galaxies with Han Solo.
Our family car is the result of a major Gut Feeling. At the time of its purchase, we were expecting our seventh child, and were looking to buy a 9-seat vehicle. Mike went out car shopping one evening and returned a couple of hours later behind the wheel of a huge red 15-passenger van.
“Don’t tell me, it was owned by a little old lady, right?” I asked Mike. “The one that lived in a shoe, I bet,” I added, surveying the van’s cavernous interior.
“Not exactly,” he replied. “But as soon as I saw it, I knew it was the car for us.”
The Car That Could Swallow Bethlehem has proven to be a blessing for our family. Not only is it able to transport all eleven of us at once, but in addition, it can carry three friends, one laptop, two totes full of library books, and eight sacks of groceries, with plenty of crevice room left over for dropped toll coins, banana peels, stray sweat socks, and fuzzy green hunks of…whatever.
I have to admit that, when Mike has “followed his gut” in matters of importance, the outcome has usually been a good one. Even the 1962 ranch house turned out to be the right choice and, with the addition of a second floor and a happy patina of clutter throughout, it has served us well for almost twenty-five years.
However, one nagging question remains: Can anybody out there replace some kitchen countertops?
After 23 years of marriage, I still wonder why my husband ever asked me on a second date. The first time we went out for dinner and conversation, Mike discovered one of my most embarrassing faults: I was incapable of finishing a sentence. My poor communication skills had their basis in my childhood. I was one of three children in a boisterous Italian family. My brothers – one younger than I, one older – were high-strung types who had no patience with the niceties of polite conversation. So when my family sat down to our evening pasta, the conversation was pretty much a string of interrupted sentences delivered at high volume. No wonder I couldn’t complete a thought, much less express one.
My own experience reflects what recent studies have proven: siblings influence the person you are. In its cover story on “The New Science of Siblings” (July 10, 2006), Time magazine reported that siblings are for one another valuable “rehearsal tool(s) for later life.” Through their day-to-day interactions, they acquire skills that will serve them well in marriage, in the workplace, and in the neighborhood. Sibling relationships teach the art of negotiation (I’ll take over your chores today if you drive me to the movies tonight”), peacemaking (“Okay, you can have the game for now; I’ll play with it later”), and compromise (“We can each spend twenty minutes on the computer”).
The value of sibling relationships is constant, regardless of family size. But how do these factors play out in a large family like mine, where nine siblings all share one house, a pair of parents, and a grand total of two bedrooms?
The interactions that take place between nine individuals in varying stages of emotional and physical development are necessarily complex. The different personalities in my family – a wallflower and a center-stager, an optimist and a malcontent, a nurturer and a loner, a scholar and a naturalist, plus a four-year-old spitfire – comprise a motley group in which tempers and tendencies are as changeable as a summer sky. Naturally, conflicts are bound to occur. But clashing personalities learn to coexist, if not peacefully, then at least without much bloodshed.
Grace is an ungilded lily with an aversion to cosmetics and a preference for LAN to glam. Clare loves to preen, paint, and polish. Early morning encounters between the two could be as heated as a hotcake griddle, with Grace disdainfully tossing Clare’s toiletries into her section of the bedroom, and Clare griping about the loss of sleep caused by the late night glow of Grace’s laptop. The sisters’ incompatibility was no secret, and it seemed almost as though they would flaunt their differences when in each other’s company. For a while, the flare-ups were frequent and fiery. But, over time, the demands of big family living increased so much that the girls learned to set aside their differences and cooperate. They had to share a bedroom, because space was limited. They had to do kitchen chores together, because cooking for a crowd and hand-washing eleven place settings afterwards called for teamwork. Grace had to drive Clare to work because I was driving her siblings elsewhere, and Clare had to help Grace with the laundry because there was so much of it.
Yes, Grace still complains that the scent of Clare’s perfume spoils her appetite. Yes, Clare still grumbles that Grace’s “real time strategy” CD-ROMs are always strewn about the study. But, like celebrity pairs before the paparazzi, the girls have lately been caught enjoying their time together. And when Grace is demonstrating her prowess on Starcraft for Clare’s entertainment, or Clare is seen showing Grace her pencil sketch of a baroque-style bridal gown …well, it’s front page news, indeed!
But regretfully, the art of designing wedding gowns is easier than the art of negotiation. Take the case of the Two Territorial Females. While big sisters Grace and Clare were having it out over Grace’s sleep-disrupting laptop light, Rose’s slumber was being disturbed by a magazine cutout gallery (132, at last count) of photogenic felines, including bald, baggy-skinned Sphinx cats and tailless Manx looking down on her at night. Worse, the pictures put there by Helen, resident cat fancier and avant-garde decorator, were creeping into Rose’s designated space, which was already occupied by images of St. Cecilia, St. Therese, and Blessed Pier Giorgio. To accommodate the overflow of cute, and not so cute, kitty pix, Rose hung beside Helen’s bed a string of plastic links with clothespins attached. (Tip: This is a nifty solution for kids who like to arrange and re-arrange pictures. It eliminates the possibility of wall paint being peeled away by tape.) Clare then helped Rose to establish her own computer account, and showed her how to set up a rotating gallery of saints images downloaded from the internet. Bonus: the ever-changing assortment of beautiful pictures inspires other family members, too.
If the opportunities for dispute in a large family are endless, so are the chances for camaraderie and self-sacrifice. Among my boys, camaraderie displays itself in varied and interesting ways. Recently Vincent floored me with a comment that I’d never expected to hear.
“There’s no one for me to play with,” he said. (‘Say what?’) He went on to explain: “I like to wrestle with Dominic because he’s almost my size. But he always wants to read a book instead of wrestle. It’s so annoying!”
To Dominic, camaraderie meant trading limericks or knock-knock jokes. To Vincent, camaraderie consisted in giving his brother a few bruises. But over time, each stopped trying to convince the other that his pastime preference was “better,” and instead came to accept, and even value, the other’s individuality. Noted Vincent appreciatively, “If I were as calm as Dominic, I’d probably get into a lot less trouble!” Fortunately, although being as “calm as Dominic” is an unattainable goal for quick-tempered Vincent, young Gerard’s bruising capabilities are such that it won’t be long before Vincent has an in-house wrestling buddy after all. (Big Family Fact: It’s only a matter of time before you end up with a sibling who shares your interests.)
When it comes to self-sacrifice, the large family is the perfect training ground. Often, the practice of self-denial is exercised in mundane ways, such as by allowing your little sister to have the last Klondike bar on a sultry August afternoon. But there are myriad opportunities for noble deeds on a larger scale. Certainly, it’s a rare family that hasn’t had to occasionally “go without” in order to manage a strained budget, and naturally, the financial burdens increase along with the number of children.
A couple of four-digit auto repair bills, a series of plumbing problems, and an unexpected hospitalization all contributed to a recent financial setback for our own family. (Gentle Reader, what’s the first thing you would do? Hold a family council, of course!) Mike gathered everyone for a little talk on the importance of good stewardship and the virtue of frugality, then canvassed the group for suggestions on ways to save money. I proposed that more laundry be washed by hand, and electric dryer usage be replaced by line-drying.
Grace wanted to know if I was kidding. Ben said he was glad that he’d soon be returning to college, as Stone Age living didn’t appeal to him. The younger boys offered to save on laundry costs by changing their clothes just once a week. “And we can sleep in them, too!” volunteered Dominic gleefully.
It was Clare’s comment that took us by surprise.
“Would we save enough money to let Dominic keep taking violin lessons?” she asked thoughtfully. “Because if we would, then I’ll do all the hand washing and clothes-hanging.”
Clare’s willingness to take on a tedious, time-consuming chore for her brother’s sake was a lovely example of self-denial. Its significance wasn’t lost on Helen, who later observed, “I sort of like it when things go wrong, because everybody starts acting really nice.” (Implying, I guess, that everyone’s behavior under normal circumstances leaves something to be desired!)
The efficacy of siblings as a refining force can’t be overrated. Where Mom and Dad’s efforts at cultivating virtue have failed, the siblings in our family have succeeded. Witness this actual exchange between my optimist and my malcontent, overheard on a car trip back from Grandma’s:
O: (sigh) “I just love this.”
M: (with the hint of a sneer) “Love what?”
O: (dreamily) “Oh, you know…everything.”
M: (with a fully developed sneer) “Everything? You mean, like spinach, and headaches, and math, and bee stings, and…”
O: “No, I mean I love this. Riding in the car, and thinking about the fun visit
we had, and looking out the window at the purple sunset…”
M: “That’s not purple.” (Squinting a bit) “Well, maybe it is sort of purple. But it’s more like – what’s that color – magenta or something?”
O: “Mmm, I think so. Or I guess you could just call it pinkish-reddish-purplish.”
M: “It’s easier to call it magenta. (Pause.) Look! Serious clouds!”
O: “You mean cirrus clouds.”
M: “Well, whatever. But, yeah…it really is a nice sunset.”
Lectures on gratitude had fallen on deaf ears. Writing assignments – “In all things give thanks, for this is the will of God,” fifty times in cursive – did little more than improve his penmanship. But a few minutes spent looking through the appreciative eyes of his brother taught my son a lesson in thankfulness.
What about the mom who shows a preference for her sunset-loving boy? Or the dad who goes out of his way to spend time with his tough-guy son? How does this affect the siblings of the “favorites,” and how can parents deal with associated feelings of guilt?
“All children have different needs,” says Wendy Krisak, private practitioner and Assistant Director of Counseling at DeSales University. “Parents may need to show a little extra care to one child over another. Some research shows that many children actually understand when their parents have to treat siblings differently.” Parents who feel guilty about the disparity should reflect on the reasons for it. Says Krisak, “Parents often don’t even know how much or how little time is being given to each child because it is so interrupted by daily happenings in the household.” Since the odds of having a high needs child are greater in a large family, and the sheer number of “daily happenings” can be staggering, favoritism may be harder to avoid. Recently this became an issue for Vincent, two of whose siblings had – for reasons both good and bad – been garnering most of Mom’s attention. Vincent was feeling neglected, and the usual cheering-up tactics weren’t working. So I invented a holiday which all family members were required to observe: “Vincent Appreciation Day.” The honoree was ceremoniously led to a cushy sofa, where he was given a plump pillow, a stack of “Calvin and Hobbes” comic books, a plate of snacks, and a little bell to ring to call his “subjects” (i.e. siblings) for service. Silly? Maybe so, but all the attention really did make Vincent feel loved and appreciated. An unforeseen benefit was a genuine increase in affection for Vincent from his siblings, which lingered after the “holiday” had ended. (I think of it as the “Whistle a Happy Tune” effect.)
But as every parent knows, affection between siblings waxes and wanes. And when it’s on the wane, the domestic church can become a domestic combat zone. Imagine a fracas in the family room, a quarrel in the kitchen, and a brawl in the bedroom…all running concurrently. If, as clinical psychologist Dr. Ray Guarendi says, “chronic sibling quibbling” is normal, then “normalcy” in a large family can drive a parent to the brink. I used to be one of those parents. Striving to be a conscientious mother, I’d always try to get to the bottom of whatever squabble was taking place in the room in which I stood. I had to figure out “who started it,” or “who had it first,” or “who was settling the score.” Unfortunately, the final score was always the same: Squabblers, 1; Mom, 0; Tylenol, 2 Extra-Strength.
“Parents shouldn’t play detective by sorting out arguments,” says Dr. Guarendi, father of ten and author of “Discipline That Lasts a Lifetime.” “But that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t get involved.” According to Dr. Guarendi, “Parents have been misled into thinking that siblings should be left to work out conflicts on their own.” This is a recipe for trouble, he says, and can amount to parental permission for kids to mistreat each other. Instead, “parents should set boundaries”. And it isn’t enough to draw the line at, say, kicking or punching. With limits like that, “what’s to keep them from name-calling, or worse? It is important that family members show respect toward one another. That means that the smallest snotty remark should not be permitted.”
It has been noted that large amounts of time spent exclusively in the company of one’s peers can be detrimental to a child’s social development. This tends to be less of a problem in large families, where siblings must interact on a daily basis with multiple personalities at various levels of maturity. The regular exposure to human vagaries in the formative years develops interpersonal skills that might otherwise remain dormant.
Seventeen-year-old Leo’s rather fluid personality has, I believe, been molded mainly by interaction with his siblings. When Leo is hanging with laid-back Ben, for example, he’s a carefree kid; when with erudite Grace, Leo transmogrifies into an earnest youth with Serious Ideas. In debates with Vincent, Leo can be maddeningly contrary, but he is as meek as a geek when Gerard demands to have his own way. Leo’s chameleon-like shifts in behavior – besides being lots of fun at parties – allow him to adapt easily to social situations outside the home, and help him to avoid the awkwardness that’s typical of teenagers.
One of the more interesting passages of the “Time” article describes the phenomenon of de-identification, the process by which siblings differentiate themselves from one another. Take, for example, a teenage boy and his adolescent brother. Are all of the older boy’s energies directed toward “making it” as a grunge rocker? Don’t be surprised if the younger brother sets his sights on medical school. If the oldest girl in the family is a peacemaker, her 11-year-old sister may distinguish herself as a rebel.
These self-made personas can, I’ve learned, serve siblings well after they leave the nest. During my own childhood, I decided to be the calming force in my family. Admittedly, it was something of a struggle, since I too carried the genes that made my brothers so impetuous. But I still managed to acquire a measure of that blessed serenity that, three decades later, has helped me through more than a few family crises.
What really tests my “mellow mom” persona are the daily “trials and tribs of mothering sibs.” Self-doubt is one bugaboo that can make me feel like Auntie Mame, wondering whether she did a good job in raising her nephew: “Did he need a stronger hand/ Did he need a lighter touch/ Was I soft or was I tough/ Did I give enough/ Did I give too much?” In moments when my confidence falls flatter than Kansas, the Mellow Mom persona presents a cool and self-assured image to my family. I’d never have guessed that the thorny sibling relationships of my childhood would one day make me a more effectual parent!
“I don’t deserve to be the mother of such great kids.”
“A woman from my parish asked if I would speak at a meeting of the Moms’ Club. She must have thought I was somebody else.”
“It bothers me when other moms say that they admire me. They don’t know what I’m really like.”
Have thoughts like these ever crossed your mind? If so, you aren’t alone; many mothers experience similar feelings of insecurity. But when those feelings of self-doubt are chronic and crippling, they comprise what I call the “Mompostor™ mindset”: the belief that one is merely “faking it” as a mother.
Read more here.