A couple of years ago I was invited to participate as a speaker at a Christian college’s body-awareness week. The weeklong program had been designed to address the rampant eating disorders and entrenched negative views of the body found particularly among the female students. The counseling office was overwhelmed by the need for a healthy and redeeming view of the body it saw desperately lacking among its students. Women, in unprecedented numbers, were starving themselves, engaging in bulimia, and confessing deep shame about their bodies. Some of the male students responded with the attitude that these women needed to get over their “personal sin” by repenting and straightening up. Other young men claimed that they also suffered from the “lookism” in our culture, which measures people’s worth by their appearance. How does this happen at a Christian college and among young people who have attended church all their lives? How does this happen at places that promote themselves as nurturing a Christian worldview and a certain degree of protection from the culture?
It doesn’t take much for us to see the distorted view of the body that our contemporary culture promotes. Christians are not immune. Daily we are surrounded by the message that to be a worthy human being (and an acceptable woman) we must be young, thin, flawless, and project White affluence: a message that is now globalized by mass media. Advertising is rampant with the message that to be a woman is to be a consumable object: always available “eye candy.” A look at a Victoria’s Secret window display or a Calvin Klein ad quickly proves this point.
The current obsession with the body can lead us to believe that American culture values the body above all else when, in actuality, it’s the historically low view of the body that is still prevalent today. As I explored in my book Eve’s Revenge: Women and a Spirituality of the Body (Brazos Press, 2003), today the body is seen as a pliable carrying case for the true self—the inner self. This inner self is frustrated by the limitations of the body, and these limitations quickly become impediments to self-actualization. Only by molding the body through a variety of means including extreme dieting, exercise, and surgical intervention can we be free to become who we wish to be. For women, this includes striving for an unattainable and narrow definition of beauty—a beauty standard that can only be reached by fashion models through vigilant control and computer enhancement. With the popularity of shows like The Swan and Extreme Makeover, we are led to believe that with enough money and determination we too can join the ranks of the young and beautiful. Young people grow up surrounded by these messages.
Within the Church and throughout much of its history, the body, particularly a woman’s body and its spiritual meaning, has been a source of tension. Are women’s bodies “the devil’s gateway,” as early Church father Tertullian claimed, or does the incarnation through Mary’s womb affirm woman’s participation in the redemptive plan? As God-bearer, Mary refutes the assumed “curse” on women and instead takes on a prophetic role (Luke 1:47-49).
Historically, the body, beauty, and virtue were tied up in a gnarly knot, which is still evident today. Even as we insist that inner beauty is what matters, a woman’s virtue is often judged by her physical beauty. It’s an idea immortalized in cultural stories; the fairy tale of the beautiful Cinderella and her wicked and ugly stepsisters, as an example, is still a powerful cultural image. Like Cinderella, women who are thin, pretty, and pulled together are judged to display more virtue. Faith-based diet books such as Help Lord, The Devil Wants Me Fat and the popular Weigh Down diet connect “overweight” too closely with “ugly sloth.” In these programs, dieting is no longer merely a health endeavor but a display of spiritual discipline and a way to control unruly flesh.
In the Christian marriage market, culturally-defined beauty can quickly come to equal purity of character and a submissive disposition. As a young teen I heard the book of Esther interpreted this way. Esther, who is biblically described as beautiful and yielded to God, replaces the insubordinate Queen Vashti. In the instruction I received, Esther’s beauty and obedience overshadowed her courage and prophetic work. More recently, in the best-selling book Captivating, John and Stasi Eldredge provide a standard for Christian womanhood. Wrapped in superficial beauty, women are encouraged to meet the essential desire of a man to rescue a beautiful woman. For many women, being loved and a narrow definition of beauty become too closely linked.
At the same time, however, young Christian women are taught that too much physical charm makes a woman dangerous and a prey for male lust. The instruction to be pretty but not too sexy can be difficult for young women, whose bodies are blooming, to navigate. When does pretty become sexy? They find it difficult to fit the mold of the “perfect Christian woman” who is both beautiful and virtuous. They may be further perplexed by sexual harassment and abuse from men in positions of authority. Growing up in the Church and in culture, it’s easy for young women to see their bodies as shameful and in need of being brought under control.
Several years ago I attended a large cosmopolitan church, which had a program for its eighth grade boys and girls designed to help them deal with their emerging sexuality. Before I was going to allow my children to participate in this program I wanted to know what would be taught, so I attended the girls’ session. I was appalled to hear the pastor’s wife tell the girls that it was their responsibility to advert male lust by instituting a narrow dress code, which included no sleeveless tops. The general tone of the instruction on sexuality was that the young women had the responsibility to set the sexual tone of romantic relationships. Young men were viewed as unable to control themselves sexually. In noting this, I am not suggesting that modesty is not valuable as a Christian discipline. When modesty is presented with the view that the female body is inherently seductive, however, it can only cause harm. Is it any wonder that young women show up on Christian college campuses with an ambivalent attitude towards their bodies?
Eating disorders, a negative body image, and a general disdain for the body are complex issues resulting from social, psychological, and spiritual factors that are too great to explore here. They touch on issues of power, the meaning of food, beauty, and one’s relationship to the community. Above all, I believe that for those who struggle with these issues it’s never purely a “personal” problem. Rather the culture’s and the Christian community’s dysfunctional attitudes regarding embodiment readily show up on the bodies of those with the least power. The college campus, which I visited didn’t merely have a problem of a few women with poor body image. There was a deep-seated community-wide theological problem that caused people who have been called to freedom in Christ to succumb to the body-hating attitude of the culture at large. Because women have less social power and their bodies are viewed with suspicion, they become the ones who more often live out the lie—a lie that renders their bodies unsuitable vessels for God to use.
If we are to stand as a distinctive community, Christians must regain a full-orbed biblical understanding of embodiment and vehemently reject the objectification of the body and the devaluing of its meaning. The biblical worldview challenges the utilitarian view in which the body is at our disposal to do what we will. Our biblical basis is rooted in creation, the incarnation of God in Jesus, and the promise of the resurrection. Creation teaches that we are an intimate unity of body and soul and that our bodies are good (Genesis 2:7). Created by God, we use our bodies to work the earth, build relationships, and multiply (Genesis 1:28). In this task, the man’s and woman’s bodies are seen as “one flesh” (Genesis 2:23). Therefore, what is done to women’s bodies, and how they are viewed, affects the whole community. The incarnation further affirms the goodness of the body, and that woman is also a means by which God brings redemption into the world. The resurrection teaches us that God’s plan includes the redemption of our bodies from decay and death (Romans 8:23). These spiritual and historic truths provide a paradigm by which we can build body-affirming churches that serve as a refuge from cultural assault.
In The Rise of Christianity, religion scholar Rodney Stark notes the key body-affirming teachings that made the early Church a shelter for women who were escaping the pagan practices of female infanticide, coerced abortions, and obligatory marriages. The Christian faith freed their bodies from the enslavement of pagan culture and religion. The early Church was known for its care of the sick, rescue of babies left to die of exposure, and the burial of the dead. These practices made the Christian faith distinctive and powerful in a pagan culture. Once again, as today’s Church, we have the opportunity to reclaim our distinctiveness and challenge the body-hating practices of our day.
What’s important is not only what we claim to believe, but also the body-affirming practices that are inherent to Christianity. In Scripture we have been given baptism, the laying on of hands, and the holy meal as a way to bring our bodies into God’s redemptive plan. We can build on these foundational practices by seeking ways to share meals, tend to the physical needs of our community, and embrace people who are desperate for community. As noted by a therapist that I interviewed, people who habitually eat alone in front of the television or out of a box are more likely to have disordered eating, whether it’s eating too much or too little. People who are seldom touched have greater difficulty believing that their bodies matter. Christian practices that affirm the body serve as antidotes for a body-assaulting culture.
It is through the faith community’s transformation that our individual dysfunctional relationship to our bodies will be healed. This is a communal work of rediscovering a fresh understanding of the body’s meaning in the Christian faith and the practices that secure that meaning. This cannot be done if women’s bodies are still seen as a source of sin. It cannot be done until men and women work together as true partners in displaying God’s salvation to the world. We bear witness to God’s salvation by providing shelter from the assault on the body, and by living as those who wait eagerly, not reluctantly, for the redemption of the whole person.
For further reading, please see:
Eve’s Revenge: Women and a Spirituality of the Body