A few weeks ago, a friend mentioned offhand that he was headed to the gym. He jokingly added that his mantra is, “Must get bigger.” I laughed and told him that I have never once in my life had that thought. We talked for a minute about the irony that (in general) men tend to go to the gym to get bigger while women go to get smaller.
This conversation played in my head over the next few weeks, and it occurred to me that my own mantra in so many parts of my life seems to be, “Must get smaller.”
I am talking about my body, of course. A body I have long struggled to love, and in fact find myself hating more and more each year. But I am also talking about the rest of me.
I’m talking about how much time I spend trying to shrink my too big, too wild feelings down to a manageable size. How I constantly fight to curb my too loud, too opinionated, too clumsy, too anxious self. How I leave most social engagements and turn to my husband to ask, “Was I OK? Was I obnoxious? Did I talk too much? Did I embarrass you? Did I make anyone else uncomfortable?”
I worry that my decisions are too selfish. That my desires are too frivolous. That my dreams are too big. That my appetite for food, for life, for adventure, is all too much. I am constantly aware of the amount of space I take up and of how often it feels like more than I deserve. And now that I am sharing all of this, I worry that I am being too vulnerable. Or that maybe wanting to talk about it at all is yet more evidence that I am too selfish and too whiny.
Like so many evangelical women, I grew up in the shadow of the Proverbs 31 Woman, the faceless ideal of godliness. While men were encouraged to show leadership, strength, and wisdom, the virtues I was taught to seek were gentleness, submission, humility, diligence, and above all purity. These are beautiful qualities, but they are also qualities that are often achieved by fading into the background.
John the Baptist famously said of Christ, “He must increase. I must decrease,” but my quest to decrease was never about growing small so that Christ could shine through. It seemed only ever to be about taking no attention or resources away from those who were more worthy.
Of course, I want to cultivate truth in my life and to cut away the things that are not good for myself or for others. I’m not saying I should allow my worst qualities to run free. But how can I expect to grow when I spend so much time intent on shrinking myself down to fit into the limited space I am told I deserve?
I want to live a big life. A life where my love — for my family and friends, for my work, for freedom and justice, for the hurting, for beauty and diversity, and for the work of God in the world — is so expansive that it cannot be contained. I want passion and empathy and joy and grace to flow out of me and into whatever corner of the world I happen to be in.
I am tired of asking for permission to take up space. I am tired of apologizing, because I have desires and dreams that don’t always align with other people’s expectations or are outside of their realm of understanding.
I am tired of sucking in my stomach all day every day so I can pretend to have a more acceptable amount of belly fat. And I am tired of trying so hard to rein in all that seems unacceptable about me that I’ve been shrinking my soul in the process.
I want to come to peace with all of my dimensions — from the circumference of my thighs, to the depth of my sadness, to the volume of my laughter, to the expanse of the longings in my soul. I want to take up space.