I want to start a series on body image because it's a struggle common to most people, not just teenage girls. Body image is also a topic that is not often discussed in the church. But as a Christian, if God cares about the body, (and he does Psalm 139:13-16) then the way you think about your body matters to him. Not to mention, if we are to glorify God in our body (1Cor 6:20), it is important to treat AND think about it well.
Harmful thinking about the body - a negative body image - does not honor the Lord who created the body, indwells, and will resurrect it.
Plus, when we have this recognition, it also protects against a forsaken body because negative thoughts can produce adverse feelings that manifest in damaging physical actions.
In this post, I’ll share my body image issues and how they have shifted over the years. The next post will look at how secular psychology talks about body image. The final post will propose how Christians can fight for a God-honoring body image.
Body image is a topic I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about. My dissertation formulates a theology of the body to address body image. Because the church has neglected the body, the topic of body image is neglected all the more. In doing research for my dissertation, I found very few resources on a biblical understanding of body image. This is striking to me, because if the bible prescribes beliefs about our physical existence, then those beliefs should fuel right thinking. The formation of those thoughts and how they impact our daily life is the experience of body image.
Everyone holds a mental picture of and resulting thoughts about the body. For some this may be negative; others hold a positive body image, and some may not really care. It is also important to recognize that the experience of body image is not just limited to females. Men possess thoughts about their bodies too.
My Experience with Negative Body Image
My previous body image issues were exacerbated by an eating disorder. To be clear, my negative body image did not cause the eating disorder, as happens much of the time. That was brought about by a stressful event in my early twenties.
The first time I remember having an issue with my body was in elementary school. I was tall and stocky, or “big-boned” according to my Nanny. To top that off, my Papaw’s favorite nickname for me was “hoss.” But I was his size by the time I was 12, so I guess hoss was appropriate :) On picture day, I was always on the back row, standing with all the guys. I didn’t like that. Then, in 5th grade, a guy who I liked told my friend he didn’t like me because I was “too big to be a girl.” Obviously, it’s all silly to think about now. But those words stuck. I was very self-conscious about my size.
I was also embarrassed because of my teeth. I had a massive gap between my top front teeth. Like big enough to fit a straw through it. For real. Couple those teeth with my hoss-like stature and a massive poof of bangs on my forehead that mom sculpted each day before school...and well...I’m thankful Facebook wasn’t around.
Then came high school. I was an athlete and still stocky. Thankfully, braces had fixed that gap, and those bangs were long gone. But I still didn’t like my body. My stomach wasn’t flat, my hips were big, and I felt like my arms were too hairy. People started shaving their arms at school, and I nearly did too. Thankfully, my mom threatened my life if I did, so I let that go. I’d also had a bike wreck that left noticeable scars on my knee. Sometimes, people told me I had dirt on my knee. Nope, scars.
Remembering those minuscule ‘flaws’ sounds ridiculous now, but back then, I obsessed over them. They made me uncomfortable and ashamed of my body.
In my twenties, particularly when I struggled with eating, nothing was ever enough though I did temporarily lose weight. I still had grievances with my stomach and hips. Each workout was driven by the underlying desire to achieve the body I wanted. I ignored my body and harmed myself in many ways just to reach an idealized mental image.
More recently, as I’ve worked on my dissertation, the Lord has grown me through previous body image struggles. I’ve accepted that my body may never look like I want, which is no longer my driving force behind how I eat or exercise. Now I focus on questions like:
Am I healthy?
Am I pushing my body through injury to achieve some societal ideal?
Does scrolling through social media make me jealous of another person's body?
Am I allowing social media to cause obsession over my physical appearance?
Is God honored by the way I think and feel about my body?
Your body image will likely shift through different life stages as mine did. But for believers, we are to glorify God in our body (and in our thinking about the body) no matter the season. So in adolescence, pregnancy, the 40s dad bod, menopause, or old age, the question should be, is God pleased by how I think about my body?
In the next post, I will discuss how secular psychology addresses negative body image. While some approaches are helpful, it will be clear that Christians are uniquely equipped with the ability to hold not just a positive body image but a God-honoring one.