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Dec 6, 2023

In this episode, Melissa Johnson helps us overcome body shame and choose body love.

Check out Melissa's Impossible Beauty podcast.

Get your copy of Soul-Deep Beauty: Fighting for Our True Worth in a World Demanding Flawless.

Soul-Deep Beauty: Fighting for Our True Worth in a World Demanding Flawless


Show Notes:

Dr. Saundra Dalton-Smith: Welcome, everyone. This is Dr. Saundra, and you're listening to I Choose My Best Life. Today, we're going to be talking about our bodies, our temple, and how do we stay in love with our bodies and not get into a place of comparison and shame when we look at all the social media pics and all the different magazine articles.

So I have joining me today, Melissa Johnson. She is an eating disorder survivor, Christian spiritual director, and author of the book Soul Deep. Beauty, and I'm looking forward to this conversation so that we can get back on track with some healthy self-talk and a healthy understanding of what wellbeing really means.

Melissa, thank you so much for joining me today.

Melissa Johnson: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

Dr. Saundra Dalton-Smith: Let me have you start by just sharing a little bit about your journey. I know that you recovered from an eating disorder. What was the scenario around that, that led to even beginning in that journey?

Melissa Johnson: Yeah, that's a great question. About eight or nine years ago, I was working as a licensed marriage and family therapist, and it came to my attention via my own therapist that I was seeing. She flagged some of the behaviors that I was having around food and movement and noted that she called it an eating disorder.

And to be quite honest, I was really taken aback. I think part of it probably was denial. But also, I do think we have a lot of these messages in our culture that aren't so helpful when it comes to food and bodies and what we see as beauty and uphold as beauty. And I ended up having to pause my work as a marriage and family therapist to do some intensive work around an eating disorder.

The book goes into detail about how that came about and a bit more about my journey, but By the time I got into treatment, I think I had been balancing somewhere on the spectrum between disordered eating and eating disorder for about a decade. And I think that's what I'm trying to point out in this book is that I think there are likely a lot more disordered relationships with food bodies in our end movement.

Because of the disordered nature of our cultural narratives around these things, and yeah, I was in intensive eating disorder treatment for about nine to 12 months. And through that journey, I started to see the depths to which these ideas around beauty and body image. Were not only impacting the women and men in intensive eating disorder treatment but also I started to see these same beliefs and behaviors and struggles in my peers, in a lot of our messaging around that I would see on commercials, this idea we should shrink our bodies and restrict our food.

And so the things that we'll be calling were called Disordered in treatment, we're actually being upheld in popular culture. And on the other side of this, of my treatment journey, I became very passionate about redefining beauty and what is it that we're shooting for. My working definition in the book and currently is redefining beauty as the life of God at work in us and among us.

I love

Dr. Saundra Dalton-Smith: that. And it's so true. Our culture really does. Set us at war with our bodies and the way that it oftentimes present things. There are lots of body shame issues. And as you mentioned, eating disorders can take on various forms of what that looks like. I think too often, when we say eating disorders, we're automatically thinking of bulimia or anorexia.

Can you go in a little bit more depth? I love something that you shared, which is that there are spectrums. And different ways that we have disorganized relations or dysfunctional relationships with food and well-being practices. Can you go a little bit deeper into that? Because I think that's the disconnect that, as you mentioned, even you had.

It's I don't know if I would call this an eating disorder. What does that really mean?

Melissa Johnson: Yeah. Thank you for pointing that out because I actually found that I was not alone. A number of people I've spoken with just in general but also on my podcast, impossible beauty. That's their story, too. They were, they didn't realize that it was an eating disorder because a lot of what they were doing was upheld by the popular culture.

So yeah, so a disordered relationship. with with food or, I'll even say, quote health. I think that, yeah, so I will say too, like the spectrum, I think maybe if we imagine a spectrum, one side is disordered eating, one side is an eating disorder. I think that diagnoses can be helpful, but I think the reason I don't.

I love even saying that I had an eating disorder diagnosis because I'm afraid that people listening might just tune it out and be like I don't have an eating disorder, so I don't need to listen to this conversation. But I do think that so much of our our cultural messages around these things are disordered.

And like even me, probably when I would meet diagnostic criteria for entry for an eating disorder, I, I probably, I don't know, maybe two years before I would have been closer on the disordered eating side of the spectrum. So I think more so the way I like to look at it is this: is my relationship with food or body image depleting me of life, of the fullness of life that God invites us into?

And so I think when I think about disordered relationships with food, there was a survey that was done out of, I think it was Chapel Hill. It was in that particular survey that 75 percent of the women surveyed reported disordered relationships with food. And okay, so what is disordered eating or disordered relationship with food?

And some of the things that were labeled as disordered eating would have been like restricting whole food groups and restricting amounts of food. I'm trying to think of some other examples also deeming some foods as good and some foods as bad, having this binary of foods and having the fear around certain foods.

So those are some examples. Yeah. Are there any other pieces of that that I could pick up on?

Dr. Saundra Dalton-Smith: I Want to go into some very specifics with it, as it relates to teens because one of the studies that you mentioned is from the CDC from February 2023, which says three in five us teen girls felt persistently sad or hopeless in the past year since COVID.

And that was double the rate of boys as a therapist. What role do you feel body image shame and self-esteem play? In those feelings of hopelessness that teen girls are experiencing?

Melissa Johnson: Yeah, such a good question. And I don't know that we can. Research is interesting because we can say there's a likely correlation.

I can't say causation at this point. However, I could say anecdotally and just logically, when we think about the inundation of social media currently, I have a couple of stats here. So we know that 80 percent of girls have used an app to change their appearance before the age of 13. We also know that girls ages 10 to 17 were found to spend five hours on social media every day.

And I think when we consider the fact that there is this inundation of our developing neural networks of adolescent girls, I'll even say, I don't know. I think I recently heard that girls as young as eight are maybe getting social media. And so if we're thinking about the developing minds of these young girls who are literally, I heard someone use the phrase being disciplined by social media.

And I think that's so true. If it is, five hours on social media every day, this inundation of literally fake. Images and this impossible standard because it is literally fake. And we know, through social comparison theory from psychology, that it is just our innate human instinct to compare ourselves with these images that are being presented before us.

And I don't think it's a big jump to say that if we're comparing. Comparing ourselves to flawless images of what our culture upholds is beauty or beautiful. Likely, shame is being elicited, and I want to go ahead and just give us Brene Brown's definition of shame. I think it's a great definition.

So she defined shame as an intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging the last part, the unworthy of love and belonging. Like Transcribed In these primary important developmental times where these girls are developing who they are, their identity, and this shame is likely being elicited five hours of their day.

I don't think we could make it, I don't think that's a big jump. That is going to the core of who they are and their sense of worth and belonging. And so I. I do think we're on the cusp of the social media inundated youth being raised on social media.

I don't think we've seen the effects of this to its extent, and I don't think it's a far stretch to say that it is deeply impacting them in some pretty significant ways.

Dr. Saundra Dalton-Smith: Absolutely. As an adult who has worked through their own identity things and their relationship with God, it can be very easy for the comparisons and all of those things to slip in when you're looking at them oftentimes on social media and within the general media.

Images that appear to be perfect, you don't know what has been airbrushed. You don't know what has been electronically perfected when you're looking at those things. So how do we fight back against that type of kind of toxic imagery and keep in a place of healthy self-talk?

Melissa Johnson: Yeah, such a good question.

I really do think that a lot of this comes down to what we are inundating ourselves with and what are we allowing to impact us. And I think about the study of spiritual formation and how our soul is always, in that study, trying to have our soul formed more into the likeness of Jesus.

But the truth is that our soul is being formed by whatever we're being exposed to. And so I would say, Turning down the volume on those influences is really pivotal to the formation of our soul in a way that is going to bring us wholeness and thriving. And so turning down the time and the, basically, the influence we're allowing social media to have, knowing that it is really like you said, it is so it is fake.

And so I think the time, I think also the time we do spend there, if we are going to spend some time there, being careful of who is in our feed, maybe diversifying our feed, me, more realistic diverse body shapes and sizes. And I would say diversity in general as well.

We tend to follow the same kinds of beauty and fitness influencers, but maybe trying to think of how can I use social media as a tool for good in my life and being really aware of having the sense of media literacy, meaning that we are, we become critical or analytical observers or recipients of media and social media, being aware that we are most often being sold a product.

And what I have been just so frustrated to see and so sad to see is how often advertisers and corporations use shame, that sense that we are not good enough. to sell a product, to sell a diet, to sell a we have so many fitness influencers to sell a powder or a, a supplement of some kind.

And so I think being really savvy about what someone is trying to sell me through this. Quote, flawless image, and trying to elicit the shame or the sense of I'm not good enough unless I do X, Y, or Z or look like X, Y, or Z. So I think turning down the volume there and turning up the volume on what I would call authentic beauty and starting to.

I really have an eye for where is the life of God at work in us and among us in my life, in the world around me, and allowing that to enter in my experience through all five senses. And I think when we can actually start to allow, and also I would say, scripture and community where we feel loved and known for.

For who we are at our core cause, at the end of the day, our soul is what's going to survive. I don't know exactly. We'll probably have renewed bodies. I think I don't know, like Jesus had, but I don't think that these cultural ideals of beauty are going to mean anything in, in our heavenly reality.

What is really going to matter is how. Our souls were forged and formed by the reality of the goodness and beauty of God. And so I think it's important to allow that reality, that eternal reality, to impact us here and now because that's really the only thing that's going to last.

Dr. Saundra Dalton-Smith: Amen. Amen. And I think that's a great point because, when we think about food, we don't think about it as sometimes having a direct relationship with our spirituality or our relationship with God, especially what we're talking about.

Dysfunctional eating or eating disorders, and I, as you mentioned, also fear that sometimes when people hear that, they're like, that's not me. I'm not doing what I typically see in the movies when someone says they have an eating disorder, but I caution you with this: for someone who's listening, when we're talking about an eating disorder, it could be something as simple as you are hiding out certain foods because you feel shame eating them in front of your husband or your kids or your girlfriends.

You are eating large amounts of certain things and then purposely trying not to eat and back and forth and back and forth; you're running to food when you are stressed, when you're upset, when you're happy, when you're sad. Food can even become an idol in certain situations; it can become a comfort; it can start taking over different areas of our lives and stop simply being how we nourish our bodies.

It starts taking on its own identity. So when we're thinking about just our relationship with food, I want you to think about your relationship with food in such that it is simply a resource for fueling you because, really, that's the beauty of food. It can be delicious. It can be fun. You can have fun with it, but really at the very core of it, the purpose of food is to nourish your body.

So that it can function, and so when it starts taking on other roles, we are already starting to enter into this dysfunctional relationship. So, in your opinion, what are dysfunctional eating or eating disorders? How do you feel like they affect someone in every aspect, mentally, spiritually, and physically?

Melissa Johnson: Yeah. One, a couple of different areas, for sure. I think across the board, it impacts every aspect of who we are. For me, it's a big one, and I think that from diet culture, we get this big message. I think oftentimes, restrictions on food are basically upheld.

And so what happened in my own experience is when I tuned out to my own. Cues of hunger, as simple as that sounds, I started to mute my body's cues. And then, when I started to heal, I realized how much information my body was giving me, including my intuition, where I believe the still small voice of God speaks, feeling. Maybe my heart starts beating a little bit faster, or maybe I get butterflies in my stomach.

I think those are all physiological cues that God can use. That, that he's speaking to us in some way. And I think when we cut ourselves off from those cues, from something that may seem really, really simple and maybe not too bad to do. I realized it had spiritual implications, also cutting myself off from my body as a whole and not seeing it as really a gift that God has given me to go throughout the world.

And, I think we put qualifications on what a good body is and, usually, a good body these days; it looks like, again, like that fitness influencer, which I think is completely skewed and such a result of diet culture and this inundation with these false beauty ideals.

It definitely impacted me. Spiritually, I think relationally as well. I think oftentimes when we are, our culture teaches us to use other women as a means of comparison, which I think is Very much in opposition to the kind of fellowship and community that I think we are invited into. Also, it put me at odds with myself as the voice of the self-critic has to become really loud in order to go another mile, maybe on whatever the treadmill or something, or not give my body something that's asking for, like food.

And so, with the voice of the critic and how I am talking to myself, I think I realized how key that is. And I think it's so important to be gentle and kind to ourselves because that is actually the posture we're going to have toward other people.

Dr. Saundra Dalton-Smith: Yes, we're chatting with Melissa Johnson. She is the author of the newly released book Soul Deep Beauty, and I want to discuss just that term.

When you say that, soul-deep beauty, what do you mean? What are you implying with that statement?

Melissa Johnson: Yeah. Yes. I think I'm trying to contrast it with societal beauty because societal beauty, I believe, is beauty in a box. I think it's actually false beauty, and it's a beauty that doesn't give us what we crave.

Whereas soul deep beauty again, which I would define as the life of God at work in us and among us. That is the kind of beauty that actually touches the deepest parts of us that societal beauty promised to fulfill, but it never could. And so I think that is the. Ultimate beauty, the beauty of God, essentially that I, and honestly, when I even say that I find myself like this, is like an adventure to me trying to see this all-encompassing mind-blowing beauty that I can't fully contain in words or my brain can't even fully conceive of it.

Like I, I find myself in this posture of, okay, God, can you keep showing me what soul-deep beauty? I know it's way bigger than I can imagine. And it blows cultural beauty or societal beauty out of the water. But it is so deep beauty, I would say, is true or authentic beauty that our souls are purposed for.

And when we find it and seek after it, that is what it ultimately gives us fulfillment.

Dr. Saundra Dalton-Smith: I think that's so beautiful. And I think that's part of the transition that most of us have to make to be able to get to a place where we are speaking positively about our bodies, where we are having a healthier relationship with food and with wellness-type activities.

And I want you to take a moment, if you would, to share with us what this is; what is your vision for the American beauty standard? What would you like? Young teens, women, or women, in general, to know going into, when they're looking at all of these different things, what is it that needs to be in there at the forefront of their mind regarding their beauty? Hmm.

Melissa Johnson: Yeah, I think that it's not one aesthetic that is that is beautiful. And I think that beauty reduced to being skin deep, I don't think is the full story at all. I also think when we're scrolling through our Instagram reel or feeds or whatever, I think what it does is actually it's, I think it's quite unhelpful for a number of reasons as we touched on, but I think what it also does is it causes us to objectify ourselves and see ourselves as from a third person perspective.

And what we know about body image is that it is actually. Not helpful. Instead, we move toward a space of embodiment where we think about our bodies, like living in our bodies versus looking at our bodies. Maybe you're going out for a bike ride, and you're thinking about how strong your legs are and how energizing it feels when the wind is blowing by you.

And when you're really experiencing living in the moment or enjoying being on that hike or how amazing it feels, it feels exhilarating. It is to water ski in your body. That, I think, is more like this holistic package of identity development and the gift of living in a body, I would invite those girls to a more holistic view of it.

Identity of beauty and really turning down the volume on some of those more objectifying activities like scrolling on social media.

Dr. Saundra Dalton-Smith: Yes. As a woman who's been everything from a size six to a size 16 and everything in between, I have long ago had to come to the realization of.

All the way back to Genesis, where God created mankind and looked at it and said, it is good. I found that has been a way that I have been able to accept myself at whatever position my physical body happens to be in at the moment because this is the body you get to do life in. And so if you have to be able to look at it and see it the way God sees it as something good.

It's the house you've been given for Holy Spirit to abide. It's the vehicle you've been given to live out your gifts, callings, and talents. And whether you are any of those sizes, bigger or smaller, or if you are long hair or short hair, or if you wear makeup or don't wear makeup, that what's inside of you is so much deeper than that.

And I love this. This. Thought of soul-deep beauty. That's really what the world needs to see the soul-deep beauty of Christ that emanates from us. Melissa, thank you so much for joining me. I want to make sure that people know how to get in touch with you and how to get a copy of your book and learn more about your

Melissa Johnson: work.

Yeah. Thank you so much. So, my website is My podcast is housed there as well on major platforms like Apple podcasts. And then on Instagram, I'm mostly active on Instagram. I'm @melissa.louise.johnson and I'm also on Facebook.

You can find me there at and Then, my book is at most major retailers. I think it heads up at Baker book house right now. I think it's 30 percent off, so that might be a good place to get it. But otherwise, Amazon, all the places. And, of course, if you always want to request it at your local bookstore, that's always a gift.

So thank you.

Dr. Saundra Dalton-Smith: Excellent. I'll be sure to link to where you can get a copy of Melissa's books sold deep in the show notes, as well as a link to her website so that you can learn more about her and the work that she's doing until next time. Everyone live fully left boldly and rest intentionally.

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