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Body Image, Restored: Rachael Gilbert

with Rachael Gilbert | November 3, 2023
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Tired of being at war with your body and your brain's ideas about it? Counselor, fitness instructor, and author Rachael Gilbert knows from her own experience how many of us bury our searing insecurities. But keeping up appearances is exhausting. We need restoration from the inside out. She'll help you overcome negative self-talk, muscle past comparison, and cultivate vital uplifting relationships.

  • Show Notes

  • About the Host

  • About the Guest

  • Shelby Abbott

    Shelby Abbott is an author, campus minister, and conference speaker on staff with the ministry of Cru. His passion for university students has led him to speak at college campuses all over the United States. Abbott is the author of Jacked and I Am a Tool (To Help with Your Dating Life), Pressure Points: A Guide to Navigating Student Stress and DoubtLess: Because Faith is Hard. He and his wife, Rachael, have two daughters and live in Downingtown, Pennsylvania.

Tired of the war with your body and your brain’s ideas about it? Counselor and fitness instructor Rachael Gilbert pulls you into inside-out restoration.

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Body Image, Restored: Rachael Gilbert

With Rachael Gilbert
November 03, 2023
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Rachael: A lot of times what we see in the fitness and the diet industry and beauty industry, if you will, is they're making me a promise that, “Hey, if you do my diet program and you lose all this weight, now you're going to have all this confidence.”

And then what we see is people lose all that weight and they're like, wait a second, I'm still feeling a little insecure over here. What's that? Or I fixed the thing that was bothering me and the problem is still there. That's because we call that behavior modification. And in the short term, it works a little bit, but it did not go after the root. Until you take time to go after the root, nobody likes going after roots, right? It's annoying. But if you want to see the lasting change, it's what you have to do.

Shelby: Somewhat anxious, always authentic. This is Real Life Loading...

I'm your host Shelby Abbott and in working with college students for so long, like over 20 years, I have found that year after year from the beginning of my ministry all the way up to now, people struggle with body image. So many people hate what their body looks like, and if I'm honest, I am one of those people.

Well, I'm happy to say that we have some help today with author and speaker Rachael Gilbert. Rachael is the author of a book called Image RESTored: Tear Down Shame and Insecurity to Experience a Body Image Renovation [David C Cook/Esther Press]. And the title says a lot. We're going to talk about quite a bit today, including how to reject the lies you tell yourself about your body and replace those lies with God's truth. How do you do that? Well, you're about to find out in my conversation with Rachael Gilbert.

Rachael, the subtitle of your book is pretty long, but I'm glad you included it on the cover. Can you unpack what it actually means?

Rachael: Yes, and you're right. The subtitle is long because of the teardown piece, right? That's really the theme, obviously not just in my book, but my message here when it comes to body images, there are so many layers that go into this. And for every individual, it can look a little different. We're tearing down family lineage. Things we heard moms and sisters, cousins talk about. You're tearing down things that you experienced in school.

I think I've never met a person yet who doesn't have some form of story, even males and females. They can say, “Oh yeah, I remember when I was in the third grade and this thing happened.” How about then we're also tearing down toxic relationships we were in. I was in a very toxic relationship in high school and the boyfriend at the time really contributed to some of my body image issues.

And then of course we have an enemy of our soul, right? And really he's to blame above all the people in our life. I like to keep the enemy, the enemy, and he comes to kill, steal, and destroy and to tell us lies about ourselves and especially about our body that are simply not the truth. So it is a process of tearing down, but then I love that when the Lord asks us to tear something down, He rebuilds it to better than it ever was.

Shelby: I like that. I mean, obviously your book is geared specifically toward women. But I found it personally helpful as well, mostly because I'm short, 5'6 and so I don't fit the natural body image norms for what a dude is supposed to be like. I was made fun of my whole life, everybody's got their thing of course, but I was made fun of for not being what I should have been the whole time, and so it spoke to me as well, and I thought it was really helpful.

Well, you talked a little bit about it already, but give me some of your personal journey when it comes to wrestling with body shame and insecurity. Is there a story or two that you could share with me?

Rachael: Yes. I was in high school and I had a weird hip injury and the doctors at the time really couldn't figure out what was happening. My growth plates were growing apart rather than together and they said, “All we can figure out is if you'll just lose some weight, maybe this will fix your issue.”

Well, they didn't tell me how to lose weight or anything. I didn't even know at that point you could control your weight. I just like, Oh, I thought I was just born, you know, with a little heavier. I stopped drinking sodas. I stopped eating candy bars in about a month and at this point I was a sophomore in high school. I dropped about 30 pounds. That was the first time in my life I got a boyfriend. I started getting all this attention.

Shelby: You got rewarded for it.

Rachael: Yes, exactly. And so getting rid of those things in my diet, was that a good thing? Absolutely, nobody needs to be drinking soda every day, right? I mean, for my health, like, that's a good thing. I'm not going to argue that. And I'm not here to argue those points. But I, in that season, and really the enemy in that season, came in and said, “Oh, hey look at this attention.” This really, I equated it to love that you're getting because you now look like culture says, “Oh, this is good. This is what you should look like.”

And so that's then when all of my toxic things came into play and then when I moved off to college, whoof, the disordered eating and all that kind of stuff really got bad, because I was isolated and people didn't fully know what all was happening behind the scenes with me.

Now when I look back though, so that was a pivotal time where the first time I lost weight, the first time I started to go, “Oh, this is a good thing, a good identity thing.” Now though I can look back and I can see all the moments over the years, like being, you know, in third grade and in P.E. and getting made fun of because I weighed more than the boys when they weighed us in, you know, those kinds of things.

Shelby: That stuff pops into your brain and you’re like, “Oh I didn’t know that it was there.”

Rachael: Yes. Yes. And so you start to recognize, “Oh, wow. Really?” It's been multiple, I call them small “t” traumas are really that's what we call them in therapy is that over the years there were all these little experiences that were feeding me this lie that, “Well, you don't look the part. You can't climb the rope in P.E., you're the last one around the track. You're super slow. Something's wrong with you and we need to work on this.” We need to fix it. And then it just became this obsession and identity and all kinds of stuff. So that's what I began to unpack when I was in college.

Shelby: Yes, you just reminded me actually of, I got like emotional for a second, because being shorter as I said. My parents were divorced and so I'd go visit my father for summer visitation. When I was about ten, my father took me to a doctor while I was there over the summer. They did some sort of testing and started to realize that I was not growing the way that he wanted me to grow. I was not up to what he wanted me to be and so they started giving me some sort of medication that would basically I think it was human growth hormones or just something like that to make me grow quicker, because I was so far below average.

When my mom found out when we went back to regular life, she flipped out. She got really upset. But it was one of those things that made me, it was communication from my biological father that there was something wrong with me. That I was not up to the standard of what he wanted me to be.

Of course I didn't unpack that in my life and the small “t” trauma of that. That they weren't testing like my thyroid or something like that - something dangerous there - that he was just like, he's short. I don't want him to be short. I'm going to give him medicine to make him taller and that has an impact.

You mentioned like third grade can't climb the rope. Like all of those little comments, all of those little things, they have a huge impact on you as an adult in ways that like, “Why am I so upset about this little thing?” Like, oh, I can trace it back to third grade on the playground.

So like, in light of that, how can someone reframe the stories in their life that form their attitude toward their body? Like, how can you kind of shift the narrative?

Rachael: Yes, so it starts with first, knowing the stories. I love to do body image timelines with people.

Shelby: Ooh, what’s that?

Rachael: It's extremely simple. You don't need my book to do it. Get out a piece of paper, do your little lines, right. Just as you and I have been talking, Shelby, those memories that you have from starting as early as you can remember all the way up until now, things that have impacted you, and you know something impacts you by how quickly does it come up.

So like I said, I can tell you P.E. stories from the third grade. I can tell you what I was wearing. I can tell you the people - when you can vividly remember things. That means it left a mark on you. The first thing we have to do is even go, “Okay, what are the stories that have shaped me?” And then, of course, we only tackle one at a time.

So I'll just say, “Alright, Lord, which story would you like to start with today?” He'll have you highlight one, and go through it, and look at that story, look at one. What message did it send you? So what was the core belief? If we call them negative cognitions when I'm working through with people, what's the negative cognition that I took away from that story? It's usually a phrase like, “I am not lovable,” right? Something like that or I am not worthy of love or obviously these are very basic, but there's something that you took away from that.

Then we sit with the Lord and we go, “What would You like me to believe instead? What is the truth that not only I want to believe?” But also that's where we get to get in His Word, too, and say, wait, what's the truth? Let's reframe this to look at what happened in that moment and now we're going to rewrite it to say, “This might be what I initially took away from this moment in my life, but this is what the Lord says over me and this is His truth.”

Shelby: I love that. I love that because it's - I talked to someone else on here and they said something about if you want to address the real issues in someone's life, you don't just cut off the rotten fruit and hope that the tree will produce good fruit afterward. You have to go to the roots. You have to get in the soil. And so that's what that basically is that that's doing.

Rachael: Absolutely.

Shelby: You're like going after these moments. Identifying them, naming what you feel as a result of them, and then replacing that with the truth.

Rachael: Yes, we call that going after the root. A lot of times what we see in the fitness and the diet industry and beauty industry, if you will, is they're going after the weeds. Okay? They’re making me a promise that, “Hey, if you do my diet program and you lose all this weight, now you're going to feel confident in your skin. Now you're going to have all this confidence.” Then what we see is people lose all that weight and they're like, wait a second. I'm still feeling a little insecure over here. What's that? Or I fixed the thing that was bothering me and the problem is still there - that's because we call that behavior modification and that’s short term, it works a little bit. But it did not go after the root. Here's what I love about the Word of God, is that it reads us while we read it.

When it comes to fitness and eating, are there some Scriptures in there that we can pull and make them work for fitness? Absolutely. But the bigger picture that I see when it comes to the Bible is when we know the character in the heart of God and when we get into His Word and we submit ourselves in our heart. It really all starts with the heart. I think everything comes back to the heart. He starts to work on our heart and tell us things that are just specific to us and gives us a path there. When you just emerge, like sit in the Word of God and also sit with the Lord, He does something in your heart that no fitness program can do, no way of eating can do. He does something that just gives us that desire to walk out whatever it is He's asking us to do and how He's asking us to steward our body in that season.

Shelby: And now it's time for a Shelby Sidebar on Real Life Loading…

Western culture is saturated with messages continually telling all of us to “listen to your heart and be true to yourself,” as if all the correct solutions to your problems can be unlocked by simply searching within and finding your identity there. Even though we hear it all the time, if we just take a few seconds to think through the premise of these messages, you'll quickly discover the prompting to look inward is shallow at best and life destroying at worst.

Why? Well, not only does Jesus instruct His followers to deny themselves, you can see that in Matthew 16. But the Prophet Jeremiah tells us, “the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick. Who can understand it?” So following my heart is not the solution. It's the problem. Consequently, I shouldn't necessarily listen to my heart, but instead council it.

The beginning of Psalm 146 gives us a good example of what that can look like. It says this, “Praise the Lord, praise the Lord. Oh my soul. I will praise the Lord as long as I live. I will sing praises to my God while I have my being.”
Do you see what the writer of this Psalm is doing? He's not listening to himself. He's speaking to himself. He's counseling himself saying, “Hey, you soul, praise the Lord. Praise Him as long as you live, get proactive and sing praises to God while you're alive.”
In other words, he's energetically pleading with his soul to worship the Lord and persuading himself to step into the delight of glorifying and adoring his Creator, God. The writer of this Psalm is guiding himself toward God, not allowing his heart to guide him toward anything else.

In verse five, we ultimately see why this counseling is taking place. Here's what it says. “Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob. Who's hope is in the Lord, his God.” He knows that his help and his hope is in God and God alone. In no other place can his heart find true help and hope.

The same is true for you and me. Searching internally for help and hope will only lead us further and further into the confusing maze of our own wavering thoughts and desires and emotions and sinful urges. Inward is backward, but looking outward to God is the way forward. In Christ alone is the help, hope, and satisfaction we know we need. Let's keep telling ourselves who to turn to in our ever continual neediness - turn to God not inside.

This has been a Shelby Sidebar now back to body image restoration expert Rachael Gilbert.

Can you talk about some tools that you offer for overcoming, specifically comparison, which I know is such a huge deal among so many people.

Rachael: Yes. I call this yard sticking and I'm a very visual person. We all know what a yard stick is, right? Or if, think about a paint, something you stir paint with. And I remember the Lord always, whenever I'm seeking Him on something that's happening in my heart, because He knows I'm visual, He'll give me a visual picture. There was a certain friend in my life that I felt like, “Man we're close, but there's just something I feel like we could be closer, but I don't know what it is.” I couldn't put my finger on it yet.

Shelby: Something was getting in the way, you mean?

Rachael: Yes, and He gave me this visual of a yardstick, and He said, “Rachael whenever you're comparing yourself to her in this example, it's like you're entering into that relationship and you have a measuring stick, a yardstick, between you and her, you know?”

Imagine two people are standing together and if I had a yardstick right in front of me and I'm holding it out, that's keeping her and I from entering into a deeper relationship. And then not only that, obviously we know, I don't need to sit here and preach for too long about all the things that comparison robs us of. I mean, it robs us of depth of the relationship, it robs us of how God designed us to be. It even robs us of a relationship with the Lord, because we're focusing on all the wrong things.

Shelby: For sure.

Rachael: The first thing is we have to recognize - I'll give you three “R”s to help you remember. So recognize that you're even doing it. So that was for me, like the Lord was like, “Hey, the reason why,” by the way, me and the Lord talk to each other like this, “Hey, Rachael, the reason you can't get closer in that relationship is you're comparing to her.” And honestly I didn't even realize it.

I truly believe for most people we don't fully recognize that we're comparing all the time. I know sometimes we'll recognize it when it's blatant. I think it happens more than we even realize. So the first thing is recognize, “Hey, I am doing a comparison yardstick right now.”

Then the next thing we have to do is we have to break it, and the way you break it is you repent. Again back to the heart and I just, “Lord I'm so sorry I've been comparing to my sister in Christ,” and just repented to the Lord and asked Him to forgive me. Then in some circumstances we even need to repent to a friend. So for me with that particular woman, I repented to her and I was like, “This is awkward, but the Lord showed me, I've been comparing to you and I'm so sorry.”

Then I went on to the third “R” which is rejoice. And so then I just went and spoke life over her and was like, you are so amazing. These are all the things I see in you and cheering for you. Then I prayed over her and even just blessed her. I cannot even tell you if you've never done that before it takes humility. I can't say, “Please don't hear me and go, ‘Oh, wow, look at Rachael. She just repents and tells everybody what she's been doing.’” No, that was one time I nailed it.

There's been many times in my life where I did not nail it, so hear me on that. But that one time that I did nail it, that relationship with that friend - it's so deep now. It's so sweet. We can have great conversations with each other and we can even say to each other, “Oh, wait, hold on. I'm comparing. I'm so sorry,” and just pray over each other. It's been beautiful.

I know for me, when I noticed myself doing it with somebody, even if it's somebody online that you don't know, obviously you may not reach out and tell them, “I'm so sorry. I've been comparing.” That would be a little awkward, but you can at least still do that thing to the Lord. And you can still rejoice over and pray over that person. So that's, I have to just say one other thing though, that's comparing to other people. But a really big thing that I see us do when it comes to body, especially as some of us get a little older is we compare to other versions of ourself.

Shelby: What do you mean by that?
Rachael: So, yes. One time I was telling my husband, I had had our third kid at this point and the weight was not coming off like I was hoping it would. I was doing all these things, working out crazy hours, and stuff. I just told him, I said, “I can't keep doing this. I was exhausted and I just was kind of venting to him.”

He said, “Rachael, stop comparing yourself to other women, including your younger self. She's another woman.”

Shelby: Really, wow.

Rachael: He just reminded me - he's like, you've had three kids and even if you hadn't had three kids, you're not 15 anymore. [Laughter] Your body's a little different. You're double the age at this point and that was healing for me. I needed to hear that because it is, it's freeing to go, wait a second. I'm not the same person I was 15 years ago. Even last year, I'm not the same person.

Then we also can compare to an ideal version of ourself of like, “Oh man, if only I could get to this, if only this piece could change.” So, we're robbing even ourselves when we compare to other versions of ourself.

Shelby: So what would you say to a young person who's listening, who's struggling with how they feel about their body? Maybe, if you sat down and you had a quick three minute counseling session with someone, you knew you had to cover, like, something very quick. I come to you as a young woman and I say, “Rachael, I'm struggling with how I feel about my body.”

I know that's very generic, but, like, maybe, what would be your knee jerk response?

Rachael: I think that all of us have something that is going through our head. Mine is - am I enough? Okay, and I think it's so powerful that we all recognize what that phrase is for us, because again back to the enemy of our soul, he will poke at you with that and while I have overcome in many areas this am I enough thing? I know when I stuck my neck out there and wrote a book on body image and was starting to do these interviews the enemy came at me like, “Who do you think you are little miss thing? You need to get back in hiding and do not speak up about this.” And he came after me.

I had to recognize, whoa, whoa, whoa - I see what's happening here. Then I had to be vulnerable with people in my life and go, “Hey, I have to be honest. I'm about to go be on this interview and I'm struggling. I'm feeling like I'm not the girl to do this. I should not be the one speaking.” Like, I just had to have that space and so to the person listening, “Yes, apply these things to body image, but please just know you probably have some core messages that we just need to be aware are there and that we can consistently bring to the Lord first and foremost because His Words going to always trump what other people say about us.”

But then also trusted people that we can go. This is the thing. This is the thing that's messing with me and that the enemy loves to come at me and poke at me and try to get me to believe, because he loves to see us shrink back he loves to see us in isolation.

Shelby: He loves isolation.

Rachael: Yes, isolate, think there's something wrong with me; I'm the only one who struggles with this; and if he can get us to shrink back, we lose not only our voice, we lose all the things God would love to use us for. I believe that we be, before we're used by the Lord, but from that place of being, that's how we can go be planted where God wants us. So don't shrink back, don't isolate.

Shelby: Yes, that's really important. The Christian life's never meant to be lived in isolation. It's not a solo thing at all. But that's not just true for the Christian life. That's true for health in general. If you isolate and go off into your own little world, whether that be a world of shame or just hey I don't feel like doing the work. The enemy loves that.
He loves that you're doing that. So, think about it that way, maybe from that perspective. If you're isolating, Satan's happy - the evil one is like, “Yes, give me more of that.” So maybe that'll motivate some people to work.

You mentioned too, like it takes effort and I found that college students in particular are so willing to go to the gym, because stuff on college campuses are usually top of the line. And they're willing to go and do the hard work. Sometimes every single day to like run or lift or stretch or whatever it may be, or even just play basketball. But the additional work of going after the heart in that process, it's harder work. Maybe do the work physically, but do the work emotionally, spiritually in tandem with doing the hard work physically.

Rachael: Yes. Hey, fun side note. My husband and I actually met working at the rec center on our college campus.

Shelby: Did you really?

Rachael: Yes. Oh, that's how we met. But, you know, one of the thing I would say to what you just said, the reason for that is. Well, let me say this first. My husband's a chiropractor, and we used to give this talk, and one of the things, it's on spinal health, and one of the things they would say is that if your spine was on your face, you would take better care of it, and I like to say that with our heart.

If we were wearing our heart, we would probably take better care of it. That's part of why physically we all go, “Yes, I will get in the gym because guess what? Now I get to see the muscles, or I get to see the weight come off.”

But with our heart, we feel like we can hide it a bit more, right? Cause it's like, well, this is just me knowing about this and the Lord. And so that's what I like to encourage people to think about - hey, if somebody could see what was happening in my heart right now, would I be a little more motivated to take care of it?

Shelby: That's really, really good. It's very good. And I didn't want to interrupt you, but I actually met my wife in the university rec center as well.

Rachael: Oh, cool.

Shelby: Yes. Everybody go to the gym, go to the gym.

Rachael: Yes, exactly.

Shelby: You can find love.

Rachael: Gym and church, right?

Shelby: Gym and church. That's right, both.

So you say, I wanted to end with this because I thought this was really poignant. You said, “If we aren't planted on a firm spiritual foundation, no amount of weight loss, surgical intervention, or beauty treatments can change how we see our bodies.” I thought that was really beautifully put. What does that spiritual foundation look like? So the approach to healing isn't what you call an outside-in approach.

Rachael: Yes, it reminds me of what Jesus said in Matthew when He's just saying that when I like to emphasize the word, when the storms of life come, if you're not standing on solid foundation, which in His terms was the house built on rock versus sand, you're going to sink. I feel like that is all the things we do, like, yes, take care of your body, move your body. Our bodies were designed for movement. If you could see my fingers right now, you'd see, oh, wow, they move, right? We have all kinds of joints in our body. They're clearly designed for movement. And so those are good things.

But, if my foundation is sand of, “Oh, well, if I can't work out, who am I? If I don't have six pack abs, who am I?” That's sinking sand versus who I am in Christ - that's building on the Rock. And that's where getting in His Word, meditating on it, and constantly evaluating, “Oh, I'm standing on sand right now.”

Just like you and I have talked about as I get a little older, I recognize, “Oof, I have an area. I'm standing on sand because I'm sinking.” I'm clamoring and I'm freaking out, because these things are happening in my body that I don't feel like I can control. And so we have to constantly go back to, “Okay, what am I standing on?” And that's another question I actually like to ask, “What am I standing on?” And really just looking at, is it on core beliefs or some kind of thing that needs to be challenged by the Word of God?

Shelby: So good, Rachael.
I wanted to give you an opportunity. Is there anything else that you love to talk about, maybe from your book, or just some things that you do in your practice that we didn't get a chance to talk about today that you would want to say? You don't have to address anything, but I wanted to give you the freedom to respond and say, “You know what, I want to make sure that the 19 year old listening right now hears this.”

Rachael: Yes. You know, something that just kind of resonated in my spirit, and I know I've been alluding to this the whole time, but I just want to encourage somebody who feels hesitant to release this area of your life to the Lord. He is more than worthy of our trust in this area.

I know for me, I was scared of what that was going to look like. I thought, does that mean I'm going to gain a hundred pounds if I give this to him? Or does that mean I'm going to spiral out of control in this area? I'm not going to get to do the things I love. I just want to encourage you, we serve a not only great big God, but a Father who loves you.

If you are listening and you go, “I never experienced an earthly father who loved me.” I'm so sorry. But that God is not a man and He loves you unconditionally. He loves you no matter what you weigh, no matter how tall you are, no matter how old you are, no matter like whatever season you're in, no matter what you've done or has been done to you. He loves you unconditionally. You can trust Him with this area. I promise you if you're listening and you're like, “I'm not so sure about this.” That's okay. The Lord knows where you're at and just take one step at a time with Him.

Shelby: God is worthy of your trust. He is good. He is loving. He cares about you more than you can even fathom. No matter what you look like, please remember that and take one step toward Him even when you feel shaky and unable to do so. He'll be right there alongside you, adoring you the whole way. Thanks to Rachael Gilbert for that incredible reminder.

If you like this episode of Real Life Loading… or thought it was helpful, I'd love for you to share today's podcast with a friend. And wherever you get your podcasts, it could really advance what we're doing with Real Life Loading if you'd rate and review us. And it's truly easy to find us on our social channels. Just search for Real Life Loading, or look for our link tree in the show notes.

I want to thank everyone on the Real Life Loading team. You guys make it happen. I'm Shelby Abbott, and I'll see you back next time on Real Life Loading.

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