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Intersection of Life and Faith

The Incredible Shrinking Woman

  • Camerin Courtney Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2009 24 Mar
The Incredible Shrinking Woman

Season 5 American Idol alum Mandisa is walking lighter these days.

Since she began her weight-loss journey last August, she's dropped an impressive 75 pounds—and is still going, with hopes of losing more than 100. While she's worked long and hard on this physical transformation (including seriously cutting back on her guilty pleasures: McDonald's french fries, Wendy's Classic Double with cheese and no onions, and Dairy Queen Heath Blizzards), it's the change you can't see that prompted her to title her new album Freedom.

"I don't just have a weight problem," Mandisa explains. "I have a food addiction. So the emotional and spiritual elements have been the most difficult part of this journey by far."

Walking this journey has meant working through many childhood issues: her parents' divorce when she was two, her father's abandonment when she was ten (he's now back in her life), childhood molestation, and a rape when she was sixteen. "Somewhere along the line, I picked up the message that my body being desirable wasn't a good thing. So I started padding and shielding myself with a lot of weight."

Because there's so much tied up in her lifelong struggle with her weight, Mandisa found it especially hurtful and humiliating when American Idol judge Simon Cowell mentioned her large size during the show in 2006.

A judge and a forgiver

For anyone who missed the infamous American Idol incident, here's a recap: During her audition, Mandisa wowed the judges with her vocal prowess on the song "Fallin'." Judges Simon, Randy, and Paula quickly gave her the green light to advance to the next round in Hollywood. While Mandisa celebrated with her friends and family in the hallway immediately afterward, Simon made a snarky comment about Mandisa's size: "Do we have a bigger stage this year?" (Cowell's comments are included here.)

Mandisa didn't hear the comment until it aired a couple months later. On national television. To an audience of 30 million viewers. Including the 40 friends and family members Mandisa had gathered with her in her living room to watch.

"I was devastated. It was my worst nightmare come true," says Mandisa. "My worst fear wasn't that I wouldn't make it onto the show, it's that I would be humiliated and that Simon would make comments about my weight."

The friends and family with Mandisa quickly gathered around her and started praying—for her hurting heart, for Simon's heart, for Mandisa's ability to forgive Simon. "It was during that prayer that the Lord showed me this was about so much more than my hurt feelings. This was an opportunity for God to show himself."

So when Mandisa appeared before the three judges soon after to find out if she'd made it to the semifinals, she told Cowell, "What I want to say to you is that, yes, you hurt me and I cried and it was painful. It really was. But I want you to know that I've forgiven you and that you don't need someone to apologize in order to forgive somebody. I figure that if Jesus could die so that all of my wrongs could be forgiven, I can certainly extend that same grace to you." Cowell, visibly moved, said he was humbled, apologized, and the two hugged it out.

Mandisa went on to wow the judges and fans for weeks with her powerhouse vocals and megawatt smile. Though her eventual elemination from the competition devastated her, it certainly didn't seem to slow her down. Her debut album, True Beauty, was nominated for a Grammy and two Dove Awards in 2007. That year she also wrote a book, IdolEyes: My New Perspective on Faith, Fat, and Fame. Last year she released a critically acclaimed Christmas album, It's Christmas. And in the past year alone, she's appeared on Live with Regis & Kelly, Today, CBS Early Show, Fox & Friends, and Extra.

But while Mandisa sang and wrote about true beauty, and God was teaching her many lessons in this arena, inside she still felt bound.

A monumental change

Mandisa finally reached a turning point when she and her band were in South Dakota for a show last year. When they visited Mount Rushmore, Mandisa grew winded walking the incline to the area with the best view, and she almost couldn't make it. Looking at pictures from that trip afterward, she was shocked by what she saw. "I knew I was heavy, but there's something about a full-body picture that really let me see myself. And knowing I was so out of shape I could barely make it to see one of the most beautiful sites I've ever witnessed was a wake-up call."

So she started eating more fruits, veggies, and fiber-rich foods, indulging in her vices—desserts and fast food—only a couple times a month. She hired a personal trainer, who helps her work out five times a week. She found a good Christian counselor, who's helping her find forgiveness and healing from her childhood scars. And she became the note-card queen. "I used to travel with Beth Moore on her praise team, and she always said that on the eighth day God created note cards," Mandisa says with a laugh. "She put Scripture prayers on note cards, and now that's what I do. When I'm tempted, I pull out my note cards."

When those aren't handy, Mandisa recites Bible verses she's memorized. "First Corinthians 10:13 has become a lifeline for me. That's the verse that says no temptation exists except what is common to man. And God is faithful. He will not allow me to be tempted beyond what I can bear. But when I'm tempted, he'll provide a way out so I can stand up under it. I quote that whenever I'm tempted, practically on a daily basis."

She uses these verses to help reprogram her brain. "It's so difficult when your whole culture tells you to have it your way and that you can super-size it and that if it feels good it must be good. I have to retrain my mind to not believe that sort of thing. And that's where the Word of God comes in for me."

Mandisa is quick to add that she isn't losing weight to look like a model or to conform to societal definitions of beauty. And while she appreciates the compliments she's receiving about her weight loss and her slimmer self, she's already on guard against pride. She thinks God was intentional in leading her to focus her first album on true beauty. "I feel like God's saying, I taught you those lessons about your beauty not coming from the outside so that now when people are saying you're physically beautiful you still won't let that define you." Her new song "Definition of Me" reflects the message that we aren't defined by outward appearance but by what God says about us.

"My Deliverer," the jubilant first single from Freedom, also speaks to Mandisa's recent transformation. The lyrics talk about being rescued from things that once held captive, of feeling more alive than ever.

"If there's any one song that truly reflects what God is doing in my life, this is that song," she says. "My struggle with weight has been, and probably will continue to be, the biggest battle of my life. There are certainly physical ways in which I'm now taking control of that addiction, but more important than that, it's a spiritual warfare issue for me as well.

"I have to ask for God's help every single day, so I know that it's going to take a whole lot more than any diet plan or any exercise plan to set me free. He is truly my deliverer who is setting me free from all of this, and he's the reason I'm so excited about being able to sing this song."

Redemption's song

One other song from Freedom holds special meaning for the singer. It was inspired by a pregnant woman named Rebecca that Mandisa met at one of her shows last year. During this brief encounter, Mandisa placed her hands on Rebecca's belly and prayed for God's protection over the baby, little Andrew. The following week Andrew was stillborn.

One of Rebecca's friends e-mailed Mandisa the devastating news. Moved, Mandisa sent Rebecca a letter along with a CD of songs she compiled to encourage the grieving mom, including Natalie Grant's "Held" and Sara Groves' "Its Going to Be Alright."

"I remember thinking there was no song that was going to be from Andrew's perspective." So when Mandisa got together with Cindy Morgan the next week to write some songs together, she shared Rebecca's story. They contemplated what Andrew would say to Rebecca, and the result is "You Wouldn't Cry," a moving ballad about the wonders the boy is experiencing in heaven with God.

Mandisa got the chance to sing the song for Rebecca live, a gathering that was filled with tears and worship. "It brought her so much comfort to think that when she sees her son again he's going to be able to show her around heaven and show her all the things he's been experiencing. It's my prayer, and I know it's Rebecca's prayer, that Andrew's song would encourage others who are going through similar loss."

But Mandisa has confidence in God's ability to use our stories, even—and maybe especially—the broken parts, for his glory. She's seen God's redemptive power in her own life over and over again.

"Talking about my weight issues and childhood abuse isn't easy," she says. "But I get flooded with messages from people who tell me they've been through similar things. It means a lot to them that I talk so openly about these things. So I believe I'm walking out that 2 Corinthians 1 passage that says the comfort we receive from the Lord is there for us to pass along and comfort others with.

"Through my songs and stories, I pray God is going to set some people free even as he's setting me free."

See a video of Mandisa talking about her journey to lose 100 pounds here.

Camerin Courtney is senior editor of Today's Christian Woman magazine and editor of ChristianSinglesToday.com. Copyright © 2009 Christian Music Today. Click for reprint information.