Body Image Series: A Secular Perspective

If you asked people to describe what they looked like, their response would be a telling representation of their body image.

Very simply, body image is the mental representation one possesses of his or her body. Psychologists explain body image in a number of ways because there is no consensus definition.

Body image is also not just a singular image of the body but how that image influences one’s thoughts, emotions, and actions. And it's important to recognize that someone’s body image may not always reflect reality.

The purpose of this post is to discuss how secular psychology deals with negative body image, which sets up my next post that considers body image from a Christian perspective. If you haven't yet, be sure to read my previous post where I discussed my own body image struggles.

A Secular Perspective on Body Image

Psychologists deal with negative body image in a variety of ways. Many advocate "cultivating a better relationship with your body" through positive self-talk and self improvement strategies accomplished through the cognitive-behavioral or sociocultural model.

The cognitive-behavioral model (CB) revolves around changing thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that perpetuate negative body image. For example, in Perfectly Imperfect, Amy Harman suggests replacing negative body thoughts with positive affirmations like:

I am worthy of love in the body I have today.

I am a good person.

The number on the scale does not determine my worth.

I don’t have to have an attractive body to earn my place in the world.

I have many talents and abilities beyond what my body looks like.

My body is my most faithful companion.

I like my [insert physical attribute].

My body contains my magic.

Wholeness is more desirable than thinness.

While some of these statements may be helpful, others go against a Christian worldview and shouldn’t be affirmed by believers. This difference makes it clear that Christians need to filter negative body image issues through Scripture and not methods the world prescribes.

The sociocultural model (SC) of body image examines the way relationships communicate cultural body standards. It also considers how someone internalizes these messages to understand the way the body “should” look. Basically, the sociocultural model tackles negative body image by examining influences in society – friends, family, cultural ideals, media, etc. Sometimes, these influences are obvious like when family or friends make fun of your physical characteristics. Other times, they can be quite subtle, like the way scrolling through social media can affect your self-esteem.

Thinking Biblically about the Secular Perspective of Body Image

Both the CB and SC methods contain helpful points believers can use. That’s because both of these models surmise strategies to combat negative body image that come from biblical principles. Let me explain.

The SC model attempts to alter negative body image by examining who we're around and the activities we participate in. This is akin to the biblical principle of wisdom. God’s word commands wise thinking and acting about the people and things we allow to influence us. Believers should also base their value and worth from Scripture not society and seek encouraging relationships with like-minded believers.

The CB method seeks to label and change destructive thoughts about the body that lead to harmful feelings and actions, which corresponds to the goal of Scripture application. As the Holy Spirit illumines truths in God’s Word, believers can recognize wrong thinking and feelings. Then, corresponding behaviors can be addressed in obedience to Scripture.

Christians are uniquely equipped and empowered to combat negative body image. By the Holy Spirit, we can recognize wrong thinking that leads to wrong affections and behaviors. Then, we can fight to believe biblical truths that rectify thoughts contrary to God’s Word. Christians have the mind of the Spirit (Romans 8:5-6), can take their thoughts captive (2 Cor 10:4-6), and think only things that are true, lovely, and excellent (Phil 4:8). Because the mind directs body image, Christians possess the ability to think, feel, and act towards the body in a way that honors God.

In my next post on body image, I will present a Christian perspective of body image that will hopefully encourage you to think about your body in a God-honoring way.