Until I was thirty-three and conceived my child, my body was slender and straight—no curves (a relative once jokingly called me “figure eleven,” which was her way of saying that I had no curves).
For twenty-six of those thirty-three years, I lived in Nigeria, where thin meant “sickly” or “emaciated.” My mother was always frustrated with my figure, because she feared that people might think she didn't take care of me! For years, one of my naturally thin sisters tried to “fatten” herself. She would often pad her clothing so that she looked like she had a fat stomach, hips, and butt!
My people would joke that a Nigerian man could date a slender/thin girl, but he would marry a plump or “fat” one. They were more comfortable with and wanted women with curves, and lots of them! This is the country where one tribe, the Calabars, actually sends its brides to the “fattening” room before the wedding!
Then I moved to the US, which has been my home for the last seventeen years, and encountered a very different cultural ideal for women’s bodies. In the US, curvy/plump women are treated the way slender/thin women are treated in Nigeria—with denigration. Here, the perfect woman has little or no curves or any form of fat on her body. This standard is much like the kind of woman I was until I conceived and had my child. No wonder my American ex-husband was crazy about (my body) me!
It's been over twelve years since I had my daughter and my “curves” have developed and steadily increased! I have undulating curves everywhere—belly, hips, arms. As my body changed over the years, a part of me was delighted. I could now gleefully tell mom, "I'm fat!!" Then, I'd remember that I could only share that joy with Nigerians. Here in the US, my curves are not considered a success story.
American culture made me miss my former self—until I started questioning why my looks should dictate my value in either context. I began to ask what my curves (or lack of them) had to do with fulfilling God's purpose for my life.
I started paying attention to what women did with their bodies. Soon, I realized that what we do with our bodies is more relevant and impactful for God's kingdom than what our bodies look like.
In American culture, describing a woman as a person of integrity, character, or in possession of any other non-physical virtue is often another way of saying she is unattractive. (Think about the cultural subtext of phrases like: “She has a great personality”). In other words, she is probably “fat,” and not appealing to the American male eye.
Yet, it is those non-physical virtues that God delights to see in us!
Samuel the prophet also judged people according to the world's standard before God changed his perspective. When Samuel went looking for the next king of Israel among Jesse's sons, Eliab caught his eye, because he was handsome and tall. But God wasn't impressed with Eliab's appearance. He cared far more for what was in his heart:
Samuel saw Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed stands here before the Lord.”
But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” 1 Samuel 16:6-7 (NIV).
God found and chose a man who would not have been considered attractive in that culture. But, he was a man after God's own heart (Acts 13:22).
When God looks at humans, both male and female, he is more concerned with our ways than with our looks. So why do we make war on women’s bodies?
Judging people by their appearances is often a gender-prejudiced practice. Men are rarely judged by their looks, but rather by their personalities, characters, achievements, and qualifications. So much so that, in our culture, it is common to see a woman who fits the beauty ideal married to a man who would be judged unacceptable if he were female.
Yet, a woman is so much more than her curves (or lack of them)! So why don’t we affirm the same qualities in women that we validate in men?
I am a fat/curvaceous woman. I also know many curvy women who I greatly admire and respect, because of who they are and what they do with their hands, with their time, with their abilities, talents, and resources. These women faithfully raise children and partner their husbands, and somehow, they still find time to serve in church ministry.
I also know delightful, curvaceous, unmarried women who love the Lord and love others. Curves or no curves, these women love deeply, give generously, and serve faithfully.
The women who are considered unworthy because of their bodies are often the ones who volunteer to do the hardest work in the church. These are the women who, rejected by society’s standards, still cheerfully give both their money and time.
With that in mind, I asked myself, "What do I have to be ashamed of in this body?"
I honor and take care of my body as the temple of the living God. No harmful substance has ever found its way into my system. Sin is not allowed to live in my body. No, my curvy body is kept ready for the daily presence of the Holy Spirit.
My hands, although short and ungroomed, are the hands with which I've cooked and cleaned for the members of God's household for years, served as custodian for church property, managed my own property, and single-handedly raised a wonderful twelve year-old. So, my hands don't look “sexy,” but they sure have been ministering through the years.
My curvaceous body is the same body with which I serve God's people and my child, in sickness and in health. The physical labor I've put into serving the Lord led to a bad back that sometimes requires me to be in a brace for months at a time. I don't have a thin waist that fits the American standard, and maybe it’s too crooked from years of Christian service to meet the African ideal, but God loves my curvaceous waist.
My eyes are not hued with “sexy” shades of makeup, but they are the eyes that I’ve intentionally shielded from anything unwholesome.
Many women, including myself, have little or no personal time to spend on meeting this cultural beauty standard. We work from dawn to dusk each day, fulfilling our quota to our families, the church, and the marketplace. Our efforts hold home, workplace, church, and community together, but when people see us, they don't think about what we do or how we contribute to the world. Rather, they think about how much or how little we fit the worldly standard of attractive female.
This is not to say that life is always better for the woman who meets the beauty standard, because she is still subjected to the male gaze. And often, under the gaze of the “overly-spiritual,” she is penalized for having an attractive form. These attractive women may be subjected to the same denigration that the “unattractive” women suffer under the intense cultural pressure to be thin.
The serpent in the garden told the woman, "You're not enough until you eat (do) this." And today, the serpent’s voice has found its way into our world. The devil constantly tells women that they are “never enough.”
These voices keep the focus on women’s physical selves rather than on their personhood and humanity. Satan is determined to reroute women from their God-ordained path. Instead of thinking about God’s will, women are often distracted by the pursuit of that elusive standard by which they will finally be found “enough.”
Satan is sending women off on a wild goose chase. Make no mistake, if women allow him to do so, they will find themselves ruled by the ever-changing demands of men's desires rather than by the clear and stable directives of God.
The Apostle Peter counseled godly women to resist the emphasis on “outward” value and focus on their real value, their "inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight" (1 Pet.3:3-4).
This is not an assignment for women who are not considered “beautiful.” Rather, it is a universal assignment for all women who want to please God!
God said it to Samuel, Peter seconded it. Women are more than their bodies or outward appearances. A woman is significant in ways that mere physical appearance can never capture.
From my rising to my laying down, the desire of my heart is not to be physically stunning. Truly, I only want to please my God. And somehow, I don't think that includes how curvaceous or how thin he wants me to look on any given day. Rather, he is concerned with how kind, generous, selfless, prayerful, and Christ-centered I can be each day.
Being fat or thin has nothing to do with human worth. Had Jesus been in our culture today, people might have asked him “Which is better for a woman to be? Fat or thin?”
And I’m certain Jesus would give a response similar to Matthew 15:11 and Mark 7:15, making it clear that body fat or lack of it has nothing to do with our desirability before God.
There are many valid arguments for certain body sizes, but the negative attention focused on women’s sizes is ridiculous. Many factors contribute to the shapes and sizes of women’s bodies: ethnicity, genetics, reproduction, nutrition, hormones, age, illness, etc.
The abandonment of what is in the body—a living soul created in God’s image—for the body itself indicates that we have misplaced our priorities. We must take care of our bodies, certainly, but our bodies are not to be shrines at which we direct our praise.
My ex-husband loved my then “thin” body, but I would have preferred that he’d noticed my mind, my love for those around me, my love for God, my selflessness, commitment, and devotion.
And even outside of intimate relationships, I am certain that many women are crying out to be affirmed for who they are rather than what they look like.
Despite our fascination with the physical, we must remember that the human body is a temporal state. It is subject to limitations and decay. The unstoppable nature of aging and physical degeneration makes it unrealistic and unloving to judge women exclusively by their looks.
Therefore, we would do well to focus on what matters by remembering Apostle Paul’s words,
"Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day... So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal" (2 Cor. 4:16).
Just as women must fix their gazes on the souls of men rather than on their bodies, men must learn to fix their gazes on the souls of women. Seek to see that which is not readily visible to the naked eye, that which can only be seen when we look with our hearts rather than with our tainted, carnal vision.
We must affirm women of all sizes and shapes as we do for men, because we recognize that there’s a person, a soul, in each body. A wonderful, beautiful person who is deeply loved and valued by God.
So the next time you see a woman, remember that her value should not be decided by her body.