If you’re anything like me, you’ve gotten at least halfway through today before realizing it’s Ash Wednesday, and now you’re trying to figure out something to give up (or take on) for the next 40 days that isn’t peanut butter or coffee, because you’ve already had those.
If you are looking for Lent ideas, I have a recommendation I’d really like you to consider.
What is Lent, exactly?
Ash Wednesday (the reason you might be seeing people with dark marks on their foreheads today) marks the beginning of Lent, a Catholic faith tradition when followers either sacrifice something they really enjoy, or add in something challenging to their life, for 40 days.
It is a practice meant to promote spiritual growth and closeness to God by sharing in the suffering that Jesus endured when he fasted in the desert for 40 days and 40 nights, all the while being visited by Satan, who tempted him relentlessly. Jesus resisted each temptation, and after these 40 days, began his ministry.
In past Lenten seasons, I have given up peanut butter, chocolate, and diet soda. I have added daily meditation, running, and drinking 8 glasses of water. I often use Lent as an opportunity to improve my health in some way, and this is incredibly common. I’d bet that the most common thing to “give up” during Lent is carbs. (Ironic, considering Jesus is the Bread of Life, but I digress.)
There’s nothing wrong with using Lent as a time to create healthier habits for yourself. Giving up sugar, alcohol, etc. can certainly meet the requirement of suffering (depending on how addicted you were beforehand) and force you to overcome serious temptations.
In my own experience, I haven’t found these new health habits to be effective at connecting me more deeply with God and the presence of the Divine within myself. Mostly they just connect me with my own fitness goals.
So I’m taking things in a different direction this year.
So what’s the habit I’m giving up this year instead? What habit will force me to confront temptations, become stronger spiritually, and foster a deeper, stronger connection with the presence of Divine Love around and within me?
Breaking the habit of body-criticism-bonding
For the next 40 days, I am giving up the habit of expressing any form of body self-criticism — out loud, or in writing.
As a former stand-up comedian, let me tell you, airing your insecurities in front of a crowd with self-deprecating humor can be incredibly therapeutic (assuming the crowd laughs…) .
And exchanging frustrations, judgments, and insecurities about your body with friends can also feel liberating, because feeling less alone in your struggles is always a huge relief. It can even create a sense of bonding.
But bonding over shared disappointment in our bodies creates only the illusion of actual connection.
To support this point, I’m going to adapt an excerpt from Braving the Wilderness by replacing “other people” with language about our own bodies (my changes are marked inside brackets):
“The connection that we forge by judging and mocking [our bodies] is not real connection… we’ve simply started hanging out with people who hate the same [physical flaws] we do. That’s not connection…that’s common enemy intimacy.
Common enemy intimacy is counterfeit connection and the opposite of true belonging. If the bond we share with others is simply that we hate the same [parts of our bodies], the intimacy we experience is often intense, immediately gratifying, and an easy way to discharge outrage and pain. It’s fuel that runs hot, burns fast, and leaves a trail of polluted emotion. And if we live with any level of self-awareness, it’s also the kind of intimacy that can leave us with the intense regrets of an integrity hangover. Did I really participate in that? Is that moving us forward?
Language adapted from Brene Brown, Braving the Wilderness
Look, being able to go to a trusted friend and say “I’m having a bad body image day and I’m just feeling really sad about [insert recurring source of body shame here]” is an amazing and healthy way to feel less alone.
But the integrity hangover Brown mentions manifests when that friend “shows support” by saying, “Please, I would kill for your body. My [whatever] is way worse.” All you’ve done is vocalize things you disapprove about your own bodies, and presumably ANY body that shares that feature or quality.
It may feel good in the moment, but ultimately it just reinforces that there are parts of your bodies worthy of ridicule. AND, just as dangerous, it enforces a belief that your relationship is made closer by having these insecurities because it provides a reason to reach out and connect.
That’s common enemy intimacy, and I’m not interested in it anymore.
So, for the next 40 days, I’m giving up the habit of expressing any judgment, criticism, or disappointment that I think feel about my own body.
And this commitment aligns with the two intentions of Lent beautifully.
It strengthens my connection and commitment to Divine Love (God)
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness”… So God created man in [their*] own image.
(*Using pronoun Their for God because I’m fairly confident God is gender-neutral and because the verse had already used the plural pronoun when God was self-referring: “in our image,” “after our likeness”)
Firstly, if we’re going to take the notion seriously that we’ve been made in the image of God, then we have got to stop verbally trashing that image.
I believe that part of being made in God’s likeness means sharing in the creative power of turning my words into reality.
According to the Biblical creation story, God created the universe and everything in it by declaring “Let there be light and darkness,” “Let there be earth and water,” etc. God may have had a bunch of other ideas come to mind, but only the ones They chose to speak actually became reality.
So when I choose to let self-judgmental thoughts come and go without speaking them, I am exercising the power of the divine within me to create my reality.
I was recently at a dinner party hosted by my fiance’s friends whom I had just me. I forget the conversational context, but as she was cooking, one of the hostesses actually apologized for her butt. “Sorry I have such a flat ass.”
I immediately felt an impulse to chime in and “bond” with this new person by contributing my own body-related insecurity (which I’m not going to name here, in the spirit of my Lenten commitment). But I decided not to. I decided to experiment with what life would feel like if I never expressed discontent with my body in front of anyone else.
It turns out that life feels pretty great that way.
It creates a temptation that must be resisted
We gain the strength of the the temptation we resist.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
The impulse to express our self-criticism has become second nature for many of us. This is where the “temptation” piece comes in.
On a tough body image day, it’s really tempting to blurt out “ugh” when you pass your reflection in the mirror, or to jump on the body-self-deprecating bandwagon when someone else gets it going.
But you can choose not to. You really do have a choice in this. And like Ralph Waldo Emerson said, you will gain the strength of the temptation you resist.
Does this mean I can’t comment on my body AT ALL?
No. I can still say “these pants aren’t fitting me well today” or “my eyes are looking puffy” provided I am stating these things as simply facts, just information that I’m gathering that could help guide my self-awareness and my decision-making: “I should probably wear some pants that are more comfortable today. Maybe I didn’t get enough sleep last night; I’ll try to get in bed by 10 tonight.”
But if the underlying emotion behind those comments is actually, “Crap, I need to lose weight or I’m going to look gross in my vacation photos,” or “Damnit, I look like shit” then I’m just going to let those thoughts pass without giving voice to them.
(And of course, I am free to say things like “Wow, I am radiant,” or “good morning, gorgeous!” to my vulva…. as an example.)
You have the power to create beauty-abundance-affirming voices in your head by simply not speaking self-criticism out loud, and giving voice to the thought patterns that you DO want more of. Inner voices don’t have to be negative ones.
But the self-critical thoughts don’t just stop happening. Our thoughts are largely the product of our conditioning, and we can’t just will them out of our minds.
So what do we do with these thoughts, if we aren’t expressing them? Could bottling them up make the problem even WORSE after 40 days??
LENT: Let Everything Negative Transform
If you decide to give up the habit of vocalizing your body-criticism, you might become hyper-aware of the thoughts that you aren’t allowing yourself to express. Much like depriving yourself of a favorite food, forbidding yourself to indulge in body negativity could make it a more frequent topic in your thoughts.
But you can actually use this phenomenon to your advantage, as an opportunity to practice letting everything negative transform. In other words, practicing L.E.N.T.
This can work in a couple different ways.
You can let the negative thought transform by actively thinking a more loving thought (e.g. “I hate how dry and blotchy my face is” can be followed by “I love the color of my eyes”)…
…or you can allow the negative thought to transform something else in your life.
For example, if you can break the habit of believing your self-critical thoughts, you can transform your entire relationship to thoughts in general.
As another example, you can practice giving yourself love and compassion when you have those thoughts. They are, after all, an expected response to the pressures you’ve felt for so long, and you aren’t a bad person (or a bad feminist) for having a part of you that wants to look younger, thinner, fitter, curvier, taller, shorter, etc. But if you are able to bring compassion to yourself over and over — maybe even touching whatever body part you’ve judged in the past and saying “I love you anyway” — eventually you can relieve yourself from the ruthless “feeling bad about feeling bad” emotional spiral.
I hope it goes without saying…
Giving up body-criticism-bonding (and vocalizing body criticism in general) is not something I recommend only for those who practice Lent, or only for 40-day periods at a time.
You can start with a 40-day commitment, during Lent or any time of the year, and see how you feel. I think you’ll be surprised at what a difference it can make in your own self-perception, and that it can become its own habit, simply part of the way you carry yourself through your beautiful, sacred life.