Last week I read a thoughtful, insightful on-line article by Sharon Hodde Miller entitled, ‘Why pastors should preach on body image.’ As it turns out I am not the only one commenting or blogging about this article. By and large the comments have been supportive but for some it hit a raw nerve with angry criticism towards the author and the church. The following thoughts expressed in this blog and the ones in the article tend to be slanted towards the younger generation. But there is something for us oldsters to take home as well. After all, aging creates its own image issues. We are certainly not helped by the recent People magazine cover photo of Christie Brinkley at 60 years old.
From what I can ascertain the angry comments about Miller’s article come from women who have struggled with eating disorders and feel the article is judgmental and damaging. Furthermore, they have been hurt by a church whom they believe has misunderstood the complexities and difficulties of an eating disorder. The perception that they are meant to fix themselves haunts them and adds to an already in place self-loathing.
Even though eating disorders are mentioned in the article (please read this article – very provocative) my sense is that Miller addressed primarily the preoccupation and obsession to improve ones physical appearance to the exclusion of interests worthy of our nature as God image-bearers. By the way, this is not just a female issue. As the article points out more and more young men are succumbing to the pressures of body perfection.
Our culture has done a good job of selling us a self-worth based on others acceptance of us. If you were born female that acceptance was conveyed to you by a media culture that said that appearance was your only ticket for that acceptance.
Thirty-three years ago when I was pregnant with my first child I heard a pastor describe our culture’s message in this way, “If you are a boy you will hear the message that there are three ways to have self-worth: good looks, athleticism or intelligence. If you are born female the message will be: good looks, good looks or good looks.” This was true for me growing up and I figured my child, if a girl would be fed the same message. Right after my daughter was born a friend asked me if I would like a signature bible verse carved on a wood plaque as a baby gift. I chose the following verse and still have the plaque as a reminder of an important truth. It comes from the next to last verse of Proverbs: “Beauty is vain (fleeting) and charm is deceitful but a woman who fears the Lord will be praised.” I honestly believe I had the verse written more for myself than for my baby girl.
I read that verse now and try to understand it from the most recent assault on my body. I’m missing a breast. I am not really sure I want breast reconstruction in spite of the fact that recent research shows an increase of self-esteem and positive mood for women who choose to do so. Then again I’m 63 years old. If I was 33 or 43 I might know for sure that I wanted a body that conformed with the bodies of my gender. But then I go online and see younger women modeling their one breasted selves in bathing suits called monokinis; exposing the surgical side of their mastectomies. I’m amazed at their confidence; but I am still sitting on the fence about the whole thing. Is my ambivalence reflecting something amiss in my body image? Again, I am not sure. After all if you know me, you know I am certainly not against wearing makeup, especially lipstick (read blog post: ‘The Upside (I mean it) of being Bald’).
Body perfection is a natural longing. I believe that as human beings we naturally yearn for perfection and beauty. Maybe it comes from an innate primal look-back to the perfection we had as sinless God-image bearers or perhaps it’s a subconscious looking forward to a time when all things will be made right through the promise of a new created order with God’s beauty and perfection being the mirror reflecting our perfected selves. Many of you have heard the following before but I think it’s relevant to the issue: “There is a God shaped vacuum in the heart of every man (and woman) which cannot be filled by a created thing, but only God, the Creator, made known through Jesus” (Blaise Pascal, 17th century Christian philosopher and writer). We walk around yearning for something to fulfill us; something beautiful, awesome and perfect. We are wired to be filled with Him, the only all perfect One. If we chose to go it alone then we are at risk to seek perfection and fulfillment in ways that deliver for a while (maybe) and then let us down with their lack of permanence. I agree with Miller’s main point. We are in need of pastors and anyone else who has a platform to tell us the truth about ourselves. The truth is that the relentless pursuit of perfection in ourselves is futile and speaks of something broken in us and our world. We need to be reminded often that we are loved and of immense value to the one who made us, died for us, forgives us for our many imperfections(imperfect bodies is not one of them) and promises to return and set everything anew with beauty, glory and perfection. Meanwhile I will let my far from perfect body be a reminder of a needful medical procedure that saves lives and of a self-worth that is really God’s worth being allowed to overshadow me with his message of love and acceptance.
I am so sympathetic with those who have eating disorders. I have treated people with this condition in my practice and I know their struggle and pain. Seeking help and keeping hope lend to healing and restoration. There is always hope.
For the rest of us let us be mindful of being drawn in by a culture that gives us no breaks. On one hand we are castigated for being overweight and putting a burden on our health and our health care system and at the same time castigated for being too thin and self-obsessed about our bodies (hopefully my blog posting isn’t adding fuel to that fire). And don’t forget that we are also being fed a steady diet of images meant to cause us to emulate or at least envy the beautiful so we can feed a greedy appearance industry. Be aware and forewarned that our culture gives us mixed and contradictory messages.
Watch out for comparisons when it comes to caring about physical appearances. “Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man (or woman)… It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition is gone, pride is gone.” (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity). In a different way, feelings of inferiority in comparison to others about appearance diminish us and them in our eyes thus interfering with our ability to get to really know and love them.
I’ll stop with one practical suggestion.
Try breaking the stranglehold of damaging comparisons by intentionally looking for attractive qualities in a person that are not appearance-based. Look for something about their character, their personality, how they treat someone else, how willing they are to be helpful, friendly, listening, accommodating, generous, their parenting style, cooking, whatever! Look intentionally for anything, make a mental note about it and tell that person, or tell someone else about your positive observation about that person. This is not superficial and inauthentic. The Lord knows we need help to think less of ourselves and more of others. It doesn’t come easy but let’s not give up. I suspect that if we do this regularly we really will break the stranglehold. Our positive view of others and healthier views of ourselves will become second nature, our thoughts deepened and our lives enriched.