Worshipping With My Body
By Anita Peebles
Growing up, I, like many children, had body-image and self-image issues. I was the tallest person in my whole grade until 4th grade. I reached puberty early, had bigger feet than the other girls, and I always felt like the odd one out, the one who didn’t fit in physically with the other kids. When I started tap dancing in third grade, I was the tallest girl in the class, the one who was never able to do somersaults without crying because I felt like my body just didn’t bend like that. It was discouraging.
But I kept on tap dancing, a little bit because I wanted to be Ginger Rogers and a lot bit because I wanted to prove that my body could do things that the other kids’ bodies could do. While I was academically intelligent and picked up concepts very quickly, dancing certain choreographies didn’t come easily to me and I became determined to improve until I could do the movements as effortlessly as the other dancers. I felt in my body something graceful and emotional and spiritual waiting to be let out…I knew I could be a dancer, if only I could master the basic motions.
I danced for 10 years with a studio in my hometown, progressing beyond tap dance to jazz and lyrical, sometimes offering liturgical dances in my home congregation. When I got to Oberlin College, I was determined to keep dancing. This determination led me to find Girls in Motion, an organization started by Professor of Dance Ann Cooper Albright to mentor middle-school girls on self-esteem issues through dance and movement activities. As a college mentor, I worked in the public schools’ after school programs, teaching elementary- and middle-school girls different movement activities and dance routines, heavily utilizing Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed and eventually leading up to my students choreographing all of their own dances for a community dance showcase that we put on at the College.
Mentoring young girls who were struggling with body image and self esteem made me view my own struggles with different eyes. As a mentor, part of my responsibility was to do a lot of self-work and self-reflection on my own coming-into-being so that I could lift up and empower these girls to realize their own beauty and strength. By encouraging middle-schoolers to appreciate the amazing things their bodies do every day, I learned to appreciate my own self more and more. No longer did I focus on conventional beauty standards and rules for how women should look, but I learned to view my body and my personhood with the same care and concern with which I viewed my students’. If they couldn’t be self-deprecating or fat-shaming, I couldn’t either. These girls, and this mentorship program, helped me love myself.
Since then, I’ve come to be in awe of my body, and of bodies in general. What complex organisms we are…as Walt Whitman famously quipped, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” Have you ever thought how fascinating it is to be human? To be able to laugh, cry, hold hands, feel pain, eat and drink, be cold, love and be loved? I love thinking that Jesus was able to do these things as well; Jesus became enfleshed as a human and dwelt among us, feeling the breezes on top of mountains and walking barefoot. Jesus laughed and cried and loved and felt community around him. He held hands, sang songs, prayed, and washed his followers’ feet. How utterly amazing.
Since making peace with my body (more or less–it’s always a struggle, isn’t it?) I’ve come to think of my body as an instrument of worship. The Bible says lots of things about the body as a temple (1 Corinthians 6:19-20), but these words are often twisted to defend patriarchal purity and destructive self-denial habits. I prefer to think of the body as a vessel of intentionality–whatever I do with my body, I do to God and with God. If I participate in the institutions of beauty standards fabricated by the powerholders in this world, I am self-destructive not only to myself, but to God. If I abuse the piece of the Creation that God has given me in my physical being, I am doing it to God. I must be intentional in my bodily motions, because every moment of every day I worshipping my creator by breathing, speaking, touching, walking, dancing and loving on this Earth. Every moment is a chance to worship with my body.
There are many ways to appreciate and love our bodies, each of us magnificent in our own slice of the Creation in all our diversity. There are many ways to worship. At Scarritt Bennett, we are glad to be hosting Paula Larke and Bolanile Ajanaku Habib for “The Caged Bird Sings” on February 7 from 3-5:30pm for an afternoon of presence and worship in the name of Maya Angelou, this year’s honoree for the Phenomenal Women series. Poetry, song, and traditional African dances will be offered up in community. We hope to see you for this uplifting event.
For more info on body acceptance, check out these resources: The Body is Not An Apology, Attention: People With Body Parts. Please also keep in mind that there are many ways for bodies to look when they are healthy; talk to your health workers about what healthy means for you.
Anita Peebles is a native of Michigan. As a Belle H. Bennett House Fellow, Anita works with Plant the Seed, a not-for-profit program that creates outdoor classrooms in community and school gardens to educate and empower under-resourced young people. She also works in the Education, Programs, and Connections Office with Marie developing Environmental Justice offerings at Scarritt Bennett. Anita has a B.A. in Religion and Environmental Ethics from Oberlin College and is discerning a call to ministry.