Editor's Note: This is one of our Top 20 winners from the 2018 CBE Writing Contest AND an Evangelical Press Association award winning article!
In May of 2018, John Piper responded to a young woman struggling with persistent, unrelenting body hatred. In his article, he suggested that there’s a good form of body hatred because the body is the site of sin.
His response quickly went viral, and many took issue with Piper’s authority to write on the topic of body hatred and mental illness in general, and in particular, with the statement that there is a right and biblical way to hate your body.
Most women don’t need even the slightest encouragement to hate their bodies. We live in a culture that teaches us to do this. We starve, shave, pluck, pierce, and adorn our bodies to gain social acceptance, and we bond socially over our shared body dissatisfaction. I’ve noted this most frequently at church—women chat about their large thighs; their desire to lose twenty pounds; their newest diet; or how much weight someone else has lost or gained.
And it always strikes me as sad because, inevitably, there are little girls and teenage girls and young women listening, and learning how to perceive themselves.
In her book, Mothers, Daughters, and Body Image, counsellor and researcher Hillary McBride (who challenged Piper about his advice in an open letter) explores the ways that mothers’ thoughts, feelings, and perceptions of their own bodies impact how daughters feel about theirs. She cites evidence which suggests that mothers’ intentional and unintentional comments about their weight and weight loss are related to a decrease in the value daughters place on their own bodies.
The mother-daughter relationship is particularly significant in shaping how girls and women feel about their bodies, but all women (including those who aren’t mothers) are role models. Sensitive eyes and hearts look to us for social cues regarding how females should see themselves and talk about their own bodies. McBride writes, “if what we do affects other people, shaping who they feel they are and what is valuable about them, then for all of us as women, especially for the developing minds we are nurturing, we need to be careful about what we say about our bodies and each other’s bodies.”
I remember the first time I became aware that other women had opinions about my body. It was the summer after seventh grade, swimming at the lake with a good friend. My friend’s mom hadn’t seen me in a year and commented about the weight I’d gained. She told me not to worry though, that I’d grow up to be like my mom, who had been a professional ballet dancer. She implied that while my body didn’t meet an acceptable standard in that moment, at least the chances were good that it would in the future.
From that moment on, I felt painfully embarrassed about my body and wearing a bathing suit. No more swimming, running, and jumping off docks. Instead, I began hiding and closely observing the bodies of the girls and women around me–wondering which ones met an acceptable standard and which ones did not.
The way we feel about our bodies influences how freely we’re able to inhabit them and what life-giving experiences we allow ourselves to have. I loved dancing as a child but quit after overhearing my teacher make a comment to my mom about weight I’d gained. Looking back, I wish I hadn’t given up the thing that made me feel most alive.
Examining these experiences, I realize how deeply the comments of older women I respected impacted my sense of self-worth and confidence.
At other times in my life, I’ve thought I would be worth more if there was, quite literally, less of me. I lost a lot of weight in university trying to live up to an impossible (and sexist) beauty standard, convinced that if I reached it, I would be acceptable and lovable. Later, I lost more weight when I was struggling with major anxiety and panic attacks. At both of these times, when I was so unwell, I was complimented for being thin and healthy.
This is one of the most insidious (and dangerous) ways society reinforces beauty standards. It’s common for women in the beginning stages of an eating disorder to be told how good they look, which confirms the disordered behaviors they’re engaging in. Additionally, women in the midst of depression or mental health concerns may lose weight. Often, they’re told how wonderful they look when they’re at their lowest, emotionally.
It's clear that weight and external appearance are not indicators of whether a person is flourishing internally or not. And it is also clear that the words we speak about our bodies and other women’s bodies can have a deep impact on what our girls think is valuable. Through careless language, we can participate in a system of oppression and objectification that teaches women and girls that their value is based on how closely their bodies conform to the images of this world.
And this, fittingly, leads me back to the church or the body of Christ and how we talk about bodies within it. For large parts of Christian history, the church has preached a deep distrust of the body, particularly women’s bodies. The spirit is seen as good and holy, whereas the body is base and evil. Women’s bodies are a source of temptation and sinful impulses.
We’ve come a long way, and yet rumblings of these sentiments remain. Responses like Piper’s insist that the body is not a friend: “I should start hating my body in the right way because it tempts me to sin.”
Yes, we’re all broken by the effects of sin, but surely hating our bodies—masterpieces expertly-knit together in our mothers’ wombs, fearfully and wonderfully made in God’s image, lovely dwelling places, temples of the Spirit of God—isn't the right answer. Our bodies weren’t designed to be hated but to be respected—to be regarded as sacred, to be loved beyond measure, to be holy reflections of the beauty and wisdom of God.
There’s a piece of art that I admire at Regent College in Vancouver. It’s the face of Christ composed of individual squares, each one a portion of a different person’s face. The pieces are cobbled together into the most gorgeous pencil sketch, reflecting the diversity of humanity and how our very bodies collectively reflect the face of Jesus in this world.
It’s also a reminder that our God became human, put on flesh, and walked among us in a body—and not a handsome, chiselled physique but a humble, unremarkable one.
And now Jesus lives inside of us, in every part of our being. In him, we live and move.
I pray that we as women will continue do the hard work of learning to love our bodies for all the ways they allow us to exist in this world—to smell flowers, gaze at stars, swim in blue lakes, wrap our arms around loved ones, dance and jump and take up space on this beautiful and dazzling planet.
May we begin to see our bodies as reflections of God’s image and as temples where God dwells. And may our churches be places where we teach our girls the God-given sacredness and beauty of all bodies, that they’re already enough, and that they don’t need to become less in order to be seen as more.
We’re already worthy. And if we can accept that, if we can learn to love our own bodies, perhaps our girls will look to us and begin to do the same.