“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.”
This is a rather ridiculous lie. Of course words can hurt — words to myself, others’ words to me, words I think but can’t say aloud — they all have the power to inflict pain. And in my experience, the words that sting the most are always about my body, which might seem surprising because I’m a man.
Our Cultural Climate and Body Shame
Body shame is experienced by many of us, men and women alike. In her book Unashamed, Heather Davis Nelson argues, “It’s not only women who are haunted by body shame. Men, too, are increasingly pressured to achieve body perfection through well-developed physiques, and many men feel shame when they don’t have the ideal body.”
This shame manifests itself in numerous ways. Many consider altering their bodies, either through extreme diet and exercise or surgery. According to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, almost 40 percent of women and 20 percent of men admit to considering cosmetic surgery, a statistic which remains relatively constant across gender, age, marital status and race.
Additionally, one study shows that 20 million women and 10 million men in the United States suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some time in their lives, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa or binge-eating disorder. This is the cultural environment we find ourselves in, where “anything less than a perfect body is a body to be ashamed of.”
When so many of us idolize physical beauty, the body shame we inflict on each other is often subtle. While there’s still obvious mocking that occurs of those who are morbidly obese or physically deformed, more often than not we make remarks that seem harmless but actually only work to perpetuate this idolatry: friends are praised for losing weight, a strict diet and workout regime is seen as indicative of discipline and strong character, and not conforming to conventional beauty standards changes the way people perceive us and their interactions with us.
The Struggle to Meet a Standard
Within the cultural ethos of Western society, gender stereotypes work to feed insecurities. When we create, either consciously or unconsciously, a physical ideal of what it means to be a man or a woman, often the result is shame associated with failing. We tend to look at our physical bodies as sources of blame when we don’t fit the expected mold. Paul Maxwell describes his experience wrestling with his own impossible standards:
[Men compare themselves] to others in the gym. We come away from movies wanting to exercise for eight hours. We would rather jump in front of a truck than take our shirts off at the pool. We feel pathetic and small. We look at ourselves in almost every mirror we pass. When alone, we flex — not because we like what we see, but because we don’t. We have spent hundreds of dollars on pre-workout, weight loss, and weight gain supplements. We research the best way to bulk, shred, diet, and binge.
As someone who struggles with body shame, my own pain in this area has been multiplied by the other ways I subvert the ideal Christian man. Truthfully, I’ve never liked what I’ve seen in the mirror. I’m tall and thin. I don’t have a six pack or large biceps. I’m what some might call “lanky.” I don’t work out every day, I don’t possess the skills to be a handyman, and I’ve never hunted. I know several men, myself included, who’ve felt constrained by these stereotypes as we’ve seen them valued and reinforced by our interactions with women.
Men, overall, spend a great deal of time analyzing and critiquing their appearance, yet they also cultivate a skill of masking their body shame. Women also struggle as they live in this tension of wanting to be physically desirable but not wanting to tempt their brothers in Christ. As Christians, we often have an uneasy relationship with physical appearance.
“Are Christians ashamed of themselves for wanting to look good?” Maxwell writes. “Yes.” Because these are tough waters to navigate. You want to be attractive, but that means highly valuing your physical appearance, something that’s often preached against. You want to be feminine, but in fitting that ideal you may be compromising your own preferences. To chase after looking good is, ultimately, to compromise some piece of yourself.
As we all fall short of the expectations around us, we’re constantly assessing (and judging) others in an attempt to measure where we fall on the spectrum. Maxwell again is helpful here, suggesting a possible reason why it’s easy for us to look down or view differently those who come across as attractive:
Christianity is full of very sticky labels that we are very careless with. I think that our judgment of those who are image-conscious likely comes from our own insecurities about our bodies. Humans are a race of one-uppers, and so if we see a fellow believer who is in much better shape than us, or who is going on a diet, or who is a better dresser than us, or who is trying to physically improve themselves, we just call it a sin issue, and we feel justified and godly for our own insufficiencies for (just) a second.
We all long to be found attractive, both in our own eyes and in the eyes of others, but we’re hesitant to label others as attractive because we feel it undermines our own attractiveness. It’s a ridiculous cycle that will only continue to breed self-consciousness and shame unless we, as Christians, intentionally strive to break it. Perhaps this is an indication we need a much broader definition of attraction that takes into account more than one’s physical features.
So what can we offer as a healing balm to those struggling with body shame? For starters, we need to emphasize the importance of being made in the image of God.
“In His Image”
In order to develop a better view of our bodies, the first place we must turn is Genesis. In the opening pages of Scripture, we read “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (1:27). While significant debate has gone into what being “made in God’s image” entails, at the very least it means every human being — every body — is deserving of respect and dignity.
I’ve heard Christians dismiss the imago Dei as simply meaning we’re made with something on the inside that carries an imprint of God — beneath the skin, that’s where the really significant stuff starts. But as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, one of the most dangerous things we can believe about our bodies is that they don’t matter, that they somehow just get in the way.
God created us with the bodies we have, and He wouldn’t love us more if we had someone else’s body (or if we were shorter/ taller/ skinnier/ shapelier/ more muscular). As we are embodied in the bodies He’s given us, He loves us.
The downplaying of the importance of our bodies grows out of Gnosticism, a form of heresy in the early church. A common belief held by Gnostics was the physical, material universe was evil, which led many Gnostics to either licentious living or ascetic practices. Christians in the present day subtly carry this heresy into their views of the body: A woman’s body is innately tempting, so modesty is taught merely as a means of defense. Our bodies are unable to conform to the ideal, so they are worthy of shame and disgust. Or our bodies are simply flawed and broken, and therefore their only value comes in housing our soul and spirit.
But Christian theology teaches that God created everything, even our bodies, and He calls them good. As Christians, our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. This language is so important because in the Old Testament God repeatedly gave specific, detailed instructions regarding the temple: It was to be so many cubits, the rooms were to face certain directions, and gold would adorn the space in a particular way. Only the finest materials were used, and exact, intentional workmanship was required. God didn’t need the temple to be just so in order to fill it with Himself, but He still demanded this level of attention. Would He pay less attention to your temple, as He crafted you in your mother’s womb, only later to fill you with His Spirit? Even though we’d like to dismiss them (or even worship them), our temples are painstakingly and intentionally made in anticipation of the Spirit we will house.
The Need for Community
For those struggling with body shame, know that you’re not alone. Tell someone your story and find a way to express the pain you feel. This is one reason belonging to a Christian community is so important: We need to be known and cared for. The gospel tells us we are clothed with Christ, and we no longer have to be naked and ashamed like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
Though we often feel identified by it, our shame can’t define us because Jesus has set us free from those shackles. May our churches reflect this reality and communicate to all, “You are deserving of respect and love, and so is your body.”
So how might this look? For starters, we can cultivate healthier views of our bodies by recognizing our own personal physical limits and sleep needs. Some of you may need ten hours of sleep a night while others might get away with six to seven. We can steward our bodies better if we don’t try to transcend or ignore them — instead learning to live in them responsibly.
Churches can help with this by emphasizing the role of our physical bodies in our spiritual formation. Think of how spiritual disciplines orient us towards the reality of our physicality — fasting exists to ground us in our humanity as we hunger for food (and so much more). Once I began to understand the partnership between the body and the soul, instead of seeing my body as a curse, I saw it as a gift. God intentionally gave me this body for a reason, and while some days that’s enough to abate all my insecurities, I still struggle to reconcile the body I want with the one the Lord crafted for me.
The language we use will reflect the theology we hold for our bodies. Be intentional with your words. Be purposeful in conveying the goodness and sovereignty of God seen in the creation of these flesh and blood temples. And even though sin has messed everything up, one day Jesus will return to make all things new, giving us glorified bodies free from the effects of sin and sickness. Until then, let’s steward our bodies and words well.
Copyright 2016 Chris Crane. All rights reserved.