My Soul Body
Can you remember the first time you became aware of your own body? Perhaps you fell off your bike and scraped both knees, perhaps you fell off the monkeybars at school, perhaps you were in some kind of accident. No doubt, I would imagine you became aware of your own body and its limits when you were a child and through an event that hurt you in some way.
For me, I remember in the fourth grade I was told by a friend that I was fat. Although this was not a physically hurtful experience, the emotional hurt I experienced was tangible and long-lasting. In a single moment I became hyper-aware that I inhabited a physical body, and my body no longer felt like my own. My body was something other people were now aware of. That same year would be the year my faith began to blossom and exponentially grow. I was aware that I had a soul as well. However, my understanding of the two, my body and soul, were not reconciled together for quite some time, not until my adult life. I learned how to view the two in a healthier and more Spirit-led way through my dear friend, Emily, and her journey with an eating disorder.
For Emily and I both, the way we viewed our bodies was greatly influenced by the culture we grew up in. In the 90s, the fashionable body-type to have was one that was boyish-ly thin, flattened in the front and the back. In the early to mid 2000s, sporty and athletic body types were in. Slim bodies with some but not too much muscle were flaunted. The early 2000s also saw a rise in diet fads, the main way to control one’s weight. Weight Watchers, Atkins, Paleo, Mediterranean, etc. diets were advertised in popular media and the infamous 1200 calorie diet rose to popularity. This diet is exactly what it sounds like: only eat 1200 calories per day and you will lose weight quickly. I’d like to pause and point out that the recommended calories for an inactive toddler is between 1,000-1,200 calories per day.
In a single moment I became hyper-aware that I inhabited a physical body, and my body no longer felt like my own. My body was something other people were now aware of."
It’s also easy to be reminded that food is something we should control, especially as women. Magazines litter the grocery store check-out aisles reminding us that you too can lose 15 pounds in two weeks if you eat (or don’t eat) this diet, and the editing of photos shared on social media are an ever-present reminder of what we want to look like, but don’t. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, 30 million of Americans (nearly 10% of the overall population) live with an eating disorder.
Furthermore, a more recent eating disorder diagnosis called orthorexia, or the obsession with eating “healthy” foods and eating with restricted behaviors, has been on the rise. According to a 2020 article by TIME Magazine, which calls out that orthorexia is an eating disorder doctors struggle to diagnose, the “ prevalence has been estimated at between 1% and 7% of the population, though some estimates are much higher—and most evidence is anecdotal.” The ability to live, let alone the desire to live, as an embodied woman is becoming harder and harder.
No doubt, the idea of “embodiment” is foreign to our current Western-society. From a Scriptural-perspective, the word “embodied” may be most readily linked to Jesus being the embodied Word of God (see Jn. 1:1-18.) Even simpler said, God made flesh. There is a direct connection between God, or the spiritual realm, and the world, the physical realm. As we are made in the image of God, this plays out similarly for us too: our souls (spiritual realm) and bodies (physical realm) can’t be separated. Having been influenced greatly by Greek philosophers, we tend to think of our souls or spirits as separate from ourselves, something that floats away into heaven once we die. Our bodies are left behind and our disembodied selves are all that remain. In fact, the Greek word used in the Septuagint and New Testament is ψυχή (psuché) which is where we derive our English word “psyche” from. The soul, based on the Greek translation, is synonymous with one’s personality or one’s self. Individuality, specifically one’s mind and how one views themself, is the root of one’s soul. Arguably, psuché doesn’t capture the idea of soul quite well, especially as we understand it today. The soul has nothing to do with our bodies, but rather who we are deep inside.
In contrast, the Hebrew word for “soul” is nephesh. “Soul” isn’t an exact translation of this word either, but the meaning encompasses so much more. Nephesh is used for: a living being/creatures (Gen. 1:20,) a desire (Exod. 15:9,) life (Lev. 17:11,) death/dead things (Num. 9:6,) heart (Deut. 24:15,) person/persons (Josh. 10:20,) and soul (1 Kgs. 8:48.) The same word can also be used to express appetite, passion, and emotion. The meaning of nephesh is broad, and encompasses the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual being of a person. Nephesh means there are no categories, we are whole people. This is not to say that those who wrote or translated into Greek had an incomplete understanding of “soul” (especially considering the Septuigint was translated by Hebrew-speakers, and many New Testament writers were first Hebrew speakers and then Greek speakers,) but it does show that language can influence our understanding of a concept. Paul had great reverence for our bodies as he calls out in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 that our bodies are precious, bought with a price, and deserve the utmost respect.
Living today with the general understanding that our bodies and souls (or minds from a Greek perspective) are separate severely reduces the respect we have for either, especially our bodies. Our bodies are seen as vehicles that bring us to and from places and require calories in order to function. It’s easy to view food as a necessary evil, a way that our bodies slow us down, asking us to pause. However, in a go-go-go culture, we forget to recognize the limits and needs of our bodies.
To think that I grew up from a very young age with the word fat clouding my mental space alongside said popular and social media, it’s no wonder I have felt ashamed and not-at-home in my own body. And then I met Emily during my freshman year of college. I didn’t know at first that we would become lifelong friends that stood the test of time and moving cross-country from each other, nor did I know how she would influence my embodiment of faith.
Emily grew up without any issue with food. She never thought of food as this connection between anything other than making her stomach full. “Prior to my parents’ divorce, family dinners were a common occurrence,” Emily says, “but after, life became too chaotic to prioritize this time together.”
Emily recalls that it wasn’t until her family got cable TV where she began to see images of people restricting their diet or talking about not eating something because it could make them fat. “I began to question the role food was playing in my life and how I looked compared to my friends.” Soon after, she decided to go on her first diet.
"A key part of living in an embodied way is that the stomach and heart are both fed, the physical and the spiritual. More than just the physical eating, the spiritual connection can make eating food an act of worship."
Very quickly, this diet became something controllable in an uncontrollable environment. Emily was diagnosed with anorexia and was admitted to a hospital to recover. It was there that she encountered God and no longer struggled with the emotional despair of her eating disorder, but the physical habits would linger for years to come.
It was only a few years ago when Emily would say that something “clicked.” She began to experience food differently than before. “I no longer was feeling sick after eating or scared to consume three meals a day.” She attributes this greatly to growing in her faith and living in a more embodied way.
Despite her struggles with food over the years, Emily would consider food as one of the primary ways that we experience our world and one of the ways we can be embodied. She says, “Our world has seen a rapid increase in people losing the essence of food as something to share with other people and only a means to stay healthy or fuel our body. I feel like that reduces what God’s plan was for food for us. I think of a family sitting around a kitchen table on a Sunday evening, eating mom's home-cooked-you-name-it and laughing, and that to me feels very embodied.” A key part of living in an embodied way is that the stomach and heart are both fed, the physical and the spiritual. More than just the physical eating, the spiritual connection can make eating food an act of worship.
I asked Emily what ways she tries to remember that she is embodied today. She points me to the upper room and crucifixion story. “For me, taking communion is essential as it is the very embodiment of God’s imprint on this world. The rhythms of taking communion and reflecting on Christ’s life are important reminders for the church, especially as we consider that Christ had a body post-resurrection. This body of his was one that the disciples touched, ate with, and communed with.” Emily also guided me to 1 Corinthians 15 where Paul discusses the differences between Earthly and Heavenly bodies; the passage doesn’t talk about “ethereal whisps” (or psuchés), Paul addresses us having real, physical bodies. For Emily, she takes care of her body now to remind herself of and look forward to the future of her resurrected body.
Through our friendship, Emily has taught me greatly about living in my body and treating it well. I would be remiss to say that I am completely free from how I view my body, but I have healed immensely from the harsh words of a fourth-grader. Our bodies are not things we are captive to, but a liberating freedom to interact with God’s good creation in our world today and in the future to come.