Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Church, Culture, and Body Image

Rachel at Eat with Joy recently blogged with the question of what is missing from the Church in response to the photo-shopped culture and unattainable beauty ideals that surround us. I had recently drafted a post on my struggle with body image in relation to my Chistianity and that question prompted me to polish it off and post it here.

My venture into the world of a positive body-image, healthy habits, Health at Every Size, and the advocacy for body diversity began around 2006. It started off with my love of clothes, fashion, and creativity. (I'm not entirely sure where that came from as when I was a child and teenager a t-shirt and jeans were good for me. I once remember a friend imploring me wear something, anything, other than a solid colored t-shirt.) I found an online "fat fashion" community and it was my gateway drug to advocacy, oppression-awareness, questioning the dominant narrative, and being intentionally subversive to the dominant culture. I was definitely in the minority (at least of the vocal people) as a Christian in this community and I started questioning my own theology-based assumptions about size, health, and worth.

I marveled at the ways in which our culture of beauty, sex-appeal, and the "role of woman" as a baby-maker had influenced us even within the church. I listened closely to what was said in church about bodies and size and health and began to examine what I heard. I reflected on my formative years as a child and in the youth group.

I recalled various studies and lessons aimed at girls in which I was taught that I was to be pure and patient. The general impression was that we were daughters of the King and as such should act as a princess and wait on a gallant, daring, and warrior prince to arrive. In general, I can see this perspective and embraced and perpetuated it myself for years.

It is seen as positive, helpful, and empowering to call girls "princesses" and to implore them to live up to that standard. For, after all, don't all little girls want to be beautiful princesses who live happily ever after? I think the problem comes from the fact that we were told "be a daughter of King Jesus!" and there was rarely a caution to remind us that a daughter of King Jesus is not the same thing as Cinderella, or Belle, or Princess Di. The princesses of storybooks are largely passive, weak, and waiting. They earn praise (or envy) for their beauty and rarely for their character, strength, and use of their skills and gifts.

And then there is the question of beauty. By calling a girl a "princess" we insist that we are calling all girls "beautiful" and that that is a good thing, for don't all girls want to be beautiful? But, by doing that we reinforce the standards of this world that beauty is something of superior value to other things. And by the secular standards, very few of us are beautiful. No matter how many church retreats tells us we are, the images glaring at us from the covers of magazines and our television screens tells us we are not. Sometimes we get the instruction or comfort to be "beautiful on the inside." Any good teacher will make sure to emphasize inward beauty, but the world around us is a much stronger voice in insisting that it is otuward beauty that gains attention and priase most often. The church needs to stop using the "beautiful princess" story in how they teach girls to be women of God, there is too much cultural baggage tied to that image - especially considering we are never commanded to be outwardly beautiful, or a princess.

Various leaders and teachers in the church, on a few occasions, commented on efforts towards exercise and weight loss. It was always part of "honoring the temple" to be losing weight. The intentions and goals were pure and honorable I'm sure, but what I internalized as a fat child sitting in that pew and completely trusting that spiritual leader was that my fat body was wrong. That the body I lived in was not glorifying to God. That I needed to change me in order to serve God.

As a teenager I agreed with the theme of being a "princess" who waited patiently on God, learning to be pure, and hoping for my "prince." I would have absolutely told you it was all about inner beauty. I would have said something about how inward beauty is greater and God would make sure it shone brighter than my outward appearance. And yet, I cried and begged and pleaded for God to allow me to be thin. My motives were pure and honorable. I honestly thought that if I were thin, then more people would bother to notice me, and if people noticed me, then I could tell more people at Jesus. I asked to be thin so that I might serve God. I believed that my fatness was a stumbling block. I believed that for me to open my mouth about God was to take a risk that someone would associate my fat (and therefore less than, ugly, and unworthy self) with Christ. I didn't want that. I started and stopped a variety of exercise and diet routines. Nothing stuck. Nothing worked. I remained fat.

I whole-heartedly believed that if I ever got married I would marry a man who loved my personality so much that he accepted my body. I never expected anyone to be attracted to me. I was told that non-Christian men just wanted sex (and I couldn't see any non-Christian man being attracted to my fat, so I just crossed that off the list of possibilities) and that Christian men wanted a "beautiful, pure, lovely princess to rescue." I figured I could at least try for innocent and pure. I embraced "princesses" as well as I could. (My first online username was something to the effect of a princess of God.) I was going to be pure and princessy enough to make up for the fat. I literally believed that my fat was so off-putting that any man who would even attempt to pursue me had to be so godly that he saw through my fat and saw God in me. I figured I'd end up with some super insightful and sensitive Christian who would "love the God in me" so much that he'd overlook the fat. There was no way some guy that wasn't a good guy would get that far. The fat would stop him. I believed this so much that I skipped out on the "preparing for marriage in the future" studies they did at church for teenagers. I wasn't going to have many options, and the one that did come along was going to be the right one for the aforementioned reasons. I don't recall ever voicing these thoughts beyond telling my friends I only planned to ever date just one guy. He'd be the right one. I'd know it. And, while my issues was weight, I've heard from others that had various similar stories that they were sure there was that one thing about them that was going dissuade the wrong men but be the strong enough inner-beauty that would attract the right man. In my perspective, that is perhaps the most dangerous part of this Christian sub-culture treatment of women and girls.

I say that because, do you know what all of that set me up for?

Not the potential for healthy relationship, that's for sure.

In college I met someone who was interested in me and we dated for a few years. I was elated! I fell quickly in love. It was rocky from about three months in.While I make no claims of relationship perfection, I tried endlessly to be pure and kind and gentle enough. To be all of the princess qualities that I could. I would not be the nagging woman that would lead a man to the corner of the rooftop. I would allow him his strength, I would praise him when he rescued me, I would defer to his opinions and his leadership. It was how I was taught to behave as a woman. It was what I was told would land me my prince. I had waited patiently, and at 20 someone said they loved me and that I was beautiful.

In a conversation we had a after breaking up - as I struggled to understand what I had done wrong, why I had not been enough - he told me about his new girlfriend. "She's stronger than you, and I need that kind of personality to balance me." What I heard was, "you're weak." Without going in details, I realize the relationship crumbling wasn't my fault. I may have had a doormat of a personality while we dated (and I don't today largely because of it) but I fully recognize that the fact that I sought gentleness and love does not excuse his misdeeds. I don't claim to have been perfect in the relationship, but I no longer own the "you were weak" as the reason for its end.

I'd like to think that if today a similar man tried to enter my life I'd be able to spot his faulty ways and depart immediately. At the time I was an innocent, gullible, and oh-so-hopeful "lady-in-waiting". (The title of a popular book during my adolescence which focused on "becoming God's best while waiting on Mr. Right.") I heard "princess" at church and got my cues for what that meant from the dominant culture.

The timing of my emergence from this toxic relationship coincided with my discovery of Health at Every Size and it's accompanying movements. I learned about the oppressed and the voice of the marginalized, I became a different person. Once, a couple years into this transition I talked with my ex and he told me I was different. That who I was that day was a better match for him than who I was before. That I was stronger. That I spoke my mind. That I knew what I wanted, and he liked that. Part of me felt the old flutterings of pleasure at his approval and recognition. The other part, mercifully the larger part, wanted to tell him I could care less what he thought about my new self. My well-bred instincts to be polite won out and I responded with something like, "Yeah. I have changed."

I have not shaken body-image issues completely. There are times when I still compare myself to the photo-shopped images I see all around me. Some days I have to constantly remind myself that I am making nutrition and activity choices in order to be healthy, not to achieve a body shape or size ideal. In a few months I will stand up with a friend as she marries the man of her dreams. The dress is sleeveless and knee length. I found myself googling "upper arm toning exercises" and "self tanning lotions" before I even realized what I was doing. Something about being on display before a crowd of people and having pictures made that will be in someone's treasured scrapbooks for years to come made me image obsessed. I'm still processing all of that and trying to find that line between "feeling good and healthy and confident" and "buying into what the world tells you is good and healthy and confident." But, in general, HAES is my instinct and I see the fat-bias, discrimination, and hatred in the media, culture, and even the church without even trying to see it. I can't not see it now.

I'd love to see the church embrace the "Health At Every Size" model and to banish "weight loss Bible studies" where women crowd church classrooms and their devotion to God that week is measured on a scale. (Search for them on amazon if you want, I can't bear to link them.) I'd love for youth group leaders to cover the breadth and depth of the female characters rather than highlighting Rebekah being "very attractive in appearance" and using it as a reminder to "care for our temple" as if that was the deciding factor that brought her into the family of Abraham. David was also described as attractive (and dancing around naked in his attractive body), but it's not the first thing I think of when talking about him.

I'd love to see the church be a leader in ending weight/size-based discrimination. Learn how to make fat people comfortable in your church (think about the size and strength of your sanctuary seating). Do not judge their health, lifestyle, or activity level simply with a look. Have classes that deconstruct the marketing ploys of our culture. Put fat people on the stage to sing and talk and dance and act. Omit the sermon illustrations about being a certain weight. Learn to talk about health and nutrition and the life-giving benefit of exercise without insisting that we judge the effectiveness of these things simply with weight. Stick your hands in the air during worship if you feel like it, regardless of if your upper arm flab is gonna wave or not. Put on a swimsuit at the youth group pool outing and swim and have fun. Be modest, but don't shrink into the shade of a tree with a towel draped around you for fear of what others may think.

I've had the privilege to work with teenage girls the past few years. I've been blessed to overhear some of their conversations in which it seems they "get it" about body image and fat-shaming in regards to other people. But, sadly, when they direct their comments to their own bodies I often hear the standard negative comments. Their positivity about others gives me hope though - perhaps this generation will learn to love itself through loving others.


  1. I found your post via Rachel Stone's blog. I find your experience in the evangelical world to be much like mine! I was so embarrassed about my body, I hid it, and ultimately became quite self-destructive. I think that there are some insidious power issues at play in the church when it comes to womens' bodies. We are not taught that our bodies are good for anything more than what our sex organs can do. Seriously! Mens' bodies are celebrated for many things - their power, athleticism, ability to fix things - what specific non-baby-making things is a woman's body celebrated for, from the pulpit? By not telling young girls that their bodies can do more than serve (service) a man, we are kept in a place of insecurity that ultimately makes us easier to control. I think that many women live in sin by coveting a body they do not have, even developing addiction behaviors in the form of eating disorders, but the church doesn't speak the truth about this, for fear that women will "stop trying" to appeal to the male gaze. This is so insulting and betrays the thinking that womens' bodies need to be controlled in order to be appealing to men.
    The truth no one tells you is that men have a wide variety of tastes in bodies. We feel so guilty for not being attractive to all men, but the truth is that some men are super into skinny women and some men are decidedly NOT into skinny women (my husband would be in that group!) and neither of these groups of men deserves to be considered "shallow." They like what they like, and if a certain guy isn't attracted to a specific body type, that's fine. I wish I had known this long ago, it would have helped me get over the shame I had about my body. The church is not invested in telling women the nuanced truths about attraction because by keeping us insecure, we are less likely to discover the power in our bodies. This is so important to discuss and I'm so glad you brought it up.

  2. Thanks for coming by and commenting :)

    I'm so with you. I think more often than not it's a mistake of omission rather than intention (at least that's what I hope!) but I would love for the church to examine critically it's view and interactions with women (deeper than complementarianism vs, egalitarianism, which is about men anyway for the most part). So much is so heavily culture influenced that we don't even realize it.

    I like how you worded, "we feel so guilty for not being attractive to all men." exactly! Why did Iso pend so much time fretting over whether men, Christian men, would find me attractive? In my head was a running dialogue that a good Christian man deserved a wife pleasing to look at because looks were important to men. (which we were told repeatedly while we were being told to cover up so as not to make our brothers stumble)

    Anyway, thanks again for the comment. Nice to have some camaraderie here!

  3. Hey, superNicole! ;-) Good to read you after so long. ;-) This was super interesting. I don't... really know where I stand. But it was nice to see your point of view!

    Love, SuperBrianna

  4. It was good to read this. Kind of a lame comment, but it WAS good to read this. Thanks for sharing. :)

  5. Just realized I never responded to these other two comments. Sorry!

    SuperBri! Awesome to see you too! I was probably a bit harsh with my "no more princesses ever!" lol. I don't necessarily find it a bad story - - just a problematic one.

    April - thank you! :)