Spent and sunburned, my husband and I drove our two sandy, salty toddlers home from our annual family beach trip. My mind busied itself with things that needed to be done, from ordering groceries to washing beach towels to picking up our mail from the neighbors.
“Want to stop at that new ice cream shop?” my husband asked out of the blue.
My first reaction was to say no. No, I’ve been eating dessert all week and don’t need any more. No, everyone is exhausted. No, the boys are long overdue for a bath.
But before immediately blurting out my gut reaction, I paused and remembered…
My 7th grade homeroom teacher brought in Krispy Kreme donuts for our class every Friday. I can still feel the warm glaze sticking to my fingers and smell the sugary scent in a room that otherwise reeked of Axe and dry erase markers. I delighted in this Friday morning ritual—plucking a sticky donut out of its white cardboard box with relish—until halfway through the school year.
Over winter break, I was at an orthodontist appointment paging through magazines in the waiting room. I came across an article stating donuts were “bad” for you, complete with a photo of a woman guiltily looking down at a giant donut wrapped around her waist. My young, impressionable mind took the inane words to heart. The next Friday in homeroom, I passed my donut off to a friend, citing a sudden aversion to sweets. My friend was thrilled at her good fortune, while I sat fiddling with my mechanical pencil and trying to ignore the aching rumble in my empty stomach.
Soon after, I began devouring weight loss articles the way I devoured Krispy Kreme donuts not so long ago. I was enticed by the words and their false promises of happiness, promises that filled me in a way food couldn’t.
Donuts were the gateway for me, but I quickly realized there were a whole host of foods on the “naughty” list: ice cream, burgers, birthday cake, even the golden, fluffy Bisquick pancakes my grandpa made for breakfast when we visited. As my list of acceptable foods shrank, so did I.
In college, I studied how to keep my body as small as possible. I counted calories and ran across the uneven bricks of campus when I should have been conjugating Italian verbs or figuring out what on earth stoichiometry was. Staying small felt easy, a chemical equation I had finally mastered.
More than reaching a certain number on the scale, what I truly desired was control. I turned down dinner invitations, afraid of what menacing foods might await me there. When I went to parties I toted along my own drink, a horrifying concoction of vodka and Crystal Light. The sediment sank to the bottom of my water bottle like neon sludge, a science experiment gone wrong. On some level I knew I was taking things too far, but I had no intention of living without the chain that kept me tethered to a sense of safety.
From my earliest memories, this desire for control existed within me as an insatiable vacuum, though where it originated I cannot recall. All I know is that I grabbed control by the shoulders and begged it to make me feel safe, secure, confident. What I didn’t realize was that it will always be the bully in the room, holding my freedom hostage.
I spent my four years of college worshiping at the altar of thinness, believing that manipulating my body size was my ticket to freedom and belonging. But it left me feeling hollowed out, with no idea how to fill the emptiness.
Several of my friends were involved in campus ministries, and I could tell many of them had something I didn’t. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but there was something steady within them that shimmered just below the surface. They seemed unaffected by grades or boyfriends or popularity. Whatever they had, I wanted it, too.
One Sunday morning, inspired by my college friends, I sat alone in the very back row of a church. The pastor spoke boldly, and with compassion. It was the first time I had been to church in about a decade, and the unfamiliar words rained down on the parched earth of my heart, as if bringing dead things back to life.
I remember almost nothing from the sermon that day except this:
“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”
Those words were like a lightbulb suddenly flicking on and illuminating the darkness. Everything had been exposed, laid bare. My stack of notebooks filled with lists of foods I could and could not eat, the shiny metal scale underneath the bathroom sink, the graphs with weekly plot points of my weight, the calorie counting website: all yokes of slavery. Every last one of them. The eyes of my heart had been opened, and I wanted to be free.
My mind’s incessant drumbeat of smaller, smaller, smaller slowly faded to soft static in the background of my life, instead of it being my theme song. In the years following college, I started saying yes to social events and new experiences and spontaneous ice cream dates. I was in awe of what I had been missing out on for so many years—the sweet crunch of a waffle cone in the summer, the carefree chatter over a Friday night pizza, the comforting warmth of a vanilla latte in my hand. Each day felt like a feast, a banquet table prepared just for me.
Goodness and mercy followed me as I navigated graduate school, work, engagement, and marriage. Every so often my ears picked up on that low buzz of static in the background, but the difference was that now I had the power to change the radio frequency and sing a new song instead.
One sunny afternoon I stood on the white tile floor of our bathroom, holding a positive pregnancy test in my shaking hands. I tried to reconcile this new information with the flat terrain of my stomach. I had spent years hoping and praying for new life to take up residence within me—a mystery of the body I never figured out how to control—and I suddenly wanted nothing more than to expand, to become living proof that this baby was thriving.
As my child’s first home, my body now had a purpose beyond itself. I immediately bought a pile of summer maternity clothes—flowery dresses and striped tank tops and jean shorts with that weird stretchy panel in place of buttons. I willed my stomach to fill out the loose, ruched fabric as soon as possible. Grow grow grow.
I eagerly tracked my baby’s development on The Bump app, delighting in his weekly growth and therefore mine. An avocado! A pomegranate! A pineapple! When someone at my baby shower remarked, “Wow, your belly really popped!” I took it as the highest compliment. None of my jeans fit and maybe never would again, but I was doing my part to keep my child healthy, growing, and safe.
Back in the car, our kids were starting to fuss and my husband was still waiting for my response to his question about stopping for ice cream.
“Sure,” I told him, smiling at my sudden (and uncharacteristic) spontaneity. “Let’s check it out.”
In the cool interior of the shop, the sweet smell of homemade waffle cones and ice cream permeated the air. We ordered vanilla soft serve, covered with Cap’n Crunch cereal because, why not? Our boys, still rosy-cheeked from the sun, got their first ever taste of ice cream and I watched their eyes light up, their tiny fingers reaching for more. I scooped melty vanilla ice cream onto a plastic spoon and into their waiting, baby bird mouths. A bite for them, a bite for me. The taste of freedom was sweet, indeed.
Megan lives in North Carolina with her husband and two sons, one of whom came to them through foster care. She often writes completed tasks on her to-do list just so she can check them off. She believes some of God’s greatest gifts are family, sunshine, and dark chocolate. You can find her online at her blog, A Continual Feast, or on Instagram (@megandhogg).