Every Monday I like to put up a reader question and take a stab at answering it, but today I’ve got one of my own that I wanted to tackle: how can we frame body image issues properly? I really have no idea.
So I’m just going to give maybe a stream of consciousness post of all the things I think about, and then I’m hoping you can all chime in with your opinions! I think this is an important topic, but it’s just so emotionally laden that we don’t cover it well. And I’m not sure what to do with it, so I tend to shy away.
With quaking hands as I’m typing this (because I really don’t want to hurt anyone), let’s take a stab at it.
I’m going to list a whole bunch of truths, and then I’ll ask you all to help me come up with some sort of an approach that encompasses them all. If that’s possible.
Truth #1: Our Society’s View of Body Image is a Prison of Expectations
Here’s how I explain it in my Girl Talk (the talk I give about sex and marriage in churches): Our society has taken sex outside of the marriage relationship, and when you do that, all you have left is the body. It’s not about intimacy or commitment or love; it’s only about pleasure. When you do that, the body takes on far more significance than it ever should have, and that’s why, in our society today, sexy is all that matters.
Our worth is so much in our bodies as women, and our bodies don’t have to just be “beautiful”, they have to be a certain size that really isn’t found in nature very often: large breasts, narrow waist, curvy hips, with no trace of fat or cellulite. Just doesn’t happen.
Especially after you have babies and things are just flabby, even if you’re not carrying extra weight.
And this leads so many women to feeling helpless, and like we’ll never be good enough. It can lead to anorexia. It can lead to self-loathing. It can lead to ridiculous diet trends that are distinctly unhealthy. And it can also lead to women just giving up. They’ll never be good enough, so why try?
Thought #2: The Porn Industry Has Made Men Have Unrealistic Expectations
Combine our general societal push to have a perfect body with the porn industry, and you have the perfect storm of pressure to look a certain way.
As more and more men view porn, more men start to expect a certain body shape. I get so many letters talong the lines of “I’m 125 pounds and keep myself in great shape, but my husband says he isn’t attracted to me anymore because I have a tiny bit of a tummy. And he wants me to get breast implants.” Isn’t that awful?
A lot of women have husbands who tell them they need to lose weight or look a certain way, and it’s downright, well, creepy.
Thought #3: We Should Be Able to Enjoy our Bodies Sexually Without Being a Certain Weight
Nowhere in the Bible is sexual satisfaction combined with a perfect body. Certainly in Song of Solomon the beauty of both the bride and groom are extolled, but if anything, the Bible teaches that we should love our spouses regardless of what happens to their bodies.
Proverbs 5:19 says:
A loving doe, a graceful deer– may her breasts satisfy you always, may you ever be intoxicated with her love.
And the context is rejoicing in the wife that you have been married to for decades–rejoice in the “wife of your youth”. So God is telling us that we should enjoy ourselves even when our bodies are no longer perfect or no longer young.
Thought #4: Sex is More than Physical
Sex is about so much more than just physical pleasure; it’s a deeply intimate and spiritual experience, too. And, indeed, as I explained in The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex, when two people feel spiritually connected, physical pleasure often is enhanced. For women, especially, sexual response seems linked to feeling intimate. So it’s not only about feeling sexy; it’s about feeling close. When we emphasize the physical at the expense of the other, we often lose out on the best aphrodisiac that God’s given us.
Okay, so I believe all those four things with all my heart, and I’ve written posts about each of them at length. But, but, but…there’s another side to it, isn’t there?
Thought #5: We Are Attracted to the Physical
As much as the physical shouldn’t mean everything, it does mean something, doesn’t it? There’s nothing wrong with being beautiful, after all, and the Bible does talk about women in terms of their beauty (and men, too, by the way!).
And if that’s true, then isn’t part of being a good wife also taking care of your body?
The problem with this line of thinking, of course, is what does that actually mean? Does a good wife have to be a size 6? Or is anything okay except a size 14? Except plus sizes? Of course not. But, but, but…shouldn’t there be something?
I’ve always felt like most guys would be happier with a larger woman who was enthusiastic about sex and willing to initiate than with a smaller woman who kept sex off limits, because “sexy” is still a lot to do with attitude more than anything else, but I do think that keeping ourselves in as good shape as is reasonably possible with our lifestyle is a gift that we can give our husbands.
Thought #6: People Who Respect Themselves Tend to Look the Part
Whenever I talk about fighting the frump this is really what I mean. If you respect yourself, then you will tend to dress that way. You will take care in your appearance. Someone who puts on a shirt that flatters and some jewelry and a bit of makeup (or at least brushes their hair) will look like someone who respects themselves far more than someone who puts on yoga pants and an ugly oversized T-shirt. And if you look like you took some care in your appearance, then other people will take you more seriously. If you look like you don’t care, then why should they?
People who don’t take care of their appearance do tend to look like they’re keeping others at arm’s length. The whole “I don’t care what other people think” thing sounds more like an excuse. It’s an “I don’t like my body and I’m insecure and so I’ll just say that it’s other people’s fault” attitude. That’s likely too harsh, and I explain it far better here about fighting the frump. But I do think we can look put together whatever size we are.
Thought #7: Our Bodies Are the Vehicle Through Which We Reach the World
We’re on this earth for a limited time. And the vehicle through which we impact our families, reach the world, and tangibly carry out the Great Commission is through our bodies. We are physical beings.
Thus, the way we treat our physical bodies will have a direct correlation with our ability to be effective on this earth. Obese people tend to die earlier. But they also have a string of health problems throughout their lives which will eat up time and resources and energy that could have been spent elsewhere.
Thought #8: We Owe it to our Kids to Give Them Good Habits
The thing that most correlates with a child being obese is parents being obese. And given the social ramifications and the health ramifications of being obese, we owe it to our kids to instil good habits in them.
I’m just going to be frank here, and mention a very not-so-pretty truth: If you look at the single thirty-somethings in churches, they tend to be a “larger” group than the married ones. I know that’s mean to say, but in my experience I would say that’s true. That doesn’t mean that no heavier people will marry, or that no “lighter” people will be single. It’s only that heavier people are over-represented in the single ranks of young adults. And I would venture to guess that most of them want to be married (at least the ones that I have talked to).
My heart just breaks for these people. I’m one of those annoying matchmaker type people who doesn’t want anyone to be single who doesn’t want to be single. And I’m forever in my head trying to make matches. I so want to see lots and lots of weddings! And when I see College & Careers groups with singles I just get sad, often more than I should (since many of these adults are perfectly at peace with it. It’s my problem, not theirs).
But nonetheless, I do think that raising kids to have healthy eating habits gives them such a leg up in all kinds of ways, and something that important to their future is not something which should be overlooked just because “we should love everyone whatever their size.”
Thought #9: Gluttony is the Forgotten Sin
There’s a problem when Christians are bigger than non-Christians, and in many places we simply are. Gluttony is a sin in the Bible. I think it was easier to see gluttony as a sin when food was scarce, and today it’s abundant. Us eating a lot really doesn’t take food away from anyone else in a tangible way (though we could, of course, be donating that money).
Yet many people use food as an escape. When we’re sad, we turn to the ice cream in the freezer rather than turning to prayer. We build literal distance between us and others to keep them at arm’s length and to stop expectations on ourselves. That’s wrong.
But how do you quantify that? Is it a sin to order that delicious warmed chocolate chip cookie with ice cream and caramel and hot fudge sauce for dessert at restaurants (I can never resist). Or is it only a sin if you have dessert all the time? Is it a sin if you enjoy your food (absolutely not)? Is it a sin if you do split a Haagen-Dasz container with a teen who is sad? When does it cross into sin territory? I have no idea.
So there you have it–nine thoughts about weight that seem to contradict each other. And because it’s such an emotionally laden topic, I often steer away from it. I’ve written a lot about the first four thoughts–those that focus on how we shouldn’t give in to our society’s pressures to conform to a certain body size. I’ve written a ton on respecting yourself. But I’ve never really written on the other thoughts, on how important it is to be healthy and try to keep the weight down, because I don’t want to make women feel badly.
But is there a happy medium? How can you reconcile all nine thoughts? I don’t know, and it really isn’t my intention to make anyone who is wrestling with this feel worse than they already do. I hope I haven’t done that. But how do we talk about weight properly without giving in to society’s ridiculous expectations about body image? I’d love your thoughts in the comments today!