A Question of Identity
I’m not sure girls ever outgrow body image issues. I know I certainly haven’t yet. If you’ve ever been a girl, you’re probably familiar with feeling like there’s something wrong with your physical appearance. You’re too fat here and too thin there. Your hair isn’t shiny enough. Your eyes aren’t big enough. Your skin isn’t clear enough.
If you’re a woman who grew up in the American church, you’re also probably very familiar with the church’s attempts to combat this problem, relying on female-only retreats and devotionals focused on learning to love your body like it is and appreciate your own beauty. Despite this response, the beauty problem is alive, well, and thriving in female circles and I think it’s time to think up a new game-plan.
Unfortunately, the American media has played a mean little trick on both women and men. Of course, it’s not only the media’s fault, but forgive me, as a Media Studies major, I tend to want to blame the media for everything. Whether it was the advertisement boom of the 1960s, the pornography boom of the 1980s, or the image of the “perfect” woman that developed on screen in the early days of cinema, there has been a constant stream of images and messages telling women exactly what they need to look like to be deemed beautiful, accepted, and worthy of love.
The typical Christian response to these issues is to try to ignore mainstream media and teach young girls that they’re beautiful just the way that they are. We try to replace one definition of physical beauty with another—you don’t have to look like that to be physically beautiful, you already are physically beautiful just the way you are. However, I believe that I am testament to the fact that this approach doesn’t always do the trick.
I, of course, want all women, of every weight class and race and body type, to know that they are beautiful and to have healthy self-esteem and confidence. However, this confidence cannot come simply from learning to accept our physical appearance. Because I think the problem with this response is that it teaches women to continue defining themselves through outward appearance. It teaches a woman to think, “Even though I don’t look like that woman, I am still beautiful just the way I am, and that makes me good enough.”
This perpetuates an unhealthy understanding of our worth, continuing to tell us to find validation in our physical appearance. When really, we need to teach women to find and define their beauty, worth, and identity in the truth of Jesus, who He is, and who He tell us we are. It is only after our identities are completely founded and rooted in Jesus that we can learn to accept our physical appearance.
In All Honesty
Most of the time, I know that I am a smart, confident, beautiful, Christ-following young woman. But, in the spirit of honesty, I’ll admit that at least once a day, I think something along the lines of “I am too fat.” On my college campus, I am constantly surrounded (or so it seems) by thin, beautiful women. Satan worms his way into my head and tells me that I am not good enough because I don’t look exactly like that.
And, sadly enough, sometimes I listen to those lies. I am a feminist and I constantly try to teach the women around me that their worth is not defined by their beauty (see above). But despite these trumpeted believes, I still daily obsess over my own physical appearance, sometimes to the point of anxiety.
For much of my life, I came to accept my body image issues as something I would always live with. A thought always nipping at the back of my head that I would ignore in my exterior life and never admit to my friends or family, but something that I would always dwell on in my interior life. I rationalized these doubts and insecurities as something everyone deals with. However, I’ve come to realize in recent years that my obsession with my physical appearance falls often into a place of sin.
Because, in focusing on myself, I am certainly not focusing on Jesus. I am making an idol out of my own desire for physical perfection and I am distracting myself from my relationship with the Lord. This practice I have, of looking in a mirror and reprimanding myself for what I look like, draws me away from Jesus. And anything that is not bringing me closer to intimacy with Jesus must be done away with.
For most of my life, I might still struggle with this sin. But in recognizing it for what it is and calling it by its name, I have already rid it of much of its power. And I can rejoice because I know that even though I am still battling it, I can confidently say that Jesus has already defeated it.
Women and men, rise up. We can no longer ignore the perpetuation of this harmful “beauty system” ideology that teaches everyone, men and women, young and old, to define a woman by her physical appearance. This is a sinful practice, creating an idol out of a woman’s body and distracting both the idolizer and the idolized and, unfortunately, often causing both to fall into sinful mindsets, turning our eyes, hearts, and minds from the Lord and onto the things of this world.
We must recognize this problem for what it is and begin instilling in the mindsets of young men and women that they are not defined by the things of this world, what they look like or what they’ve done. They are defined only by Jesus. And the attempt to find our identity in anything else is sinful.
Now, I’m not saying that everyone needs to forgo makeup and showering and wander around in giant burlap sacks all day (though if you want to do that, more power to you). It is easy to make this issue into something legalistic and scold yourself for every time you want to look pretty or your mind drifts to your appearance. I do not think there is anything sinful about a normal, healthy desire to look good.
However, there must be a balance. When we find that this normal desire is entering unhealthy territory and taking hostage our minds and our hearts, that’s when we need to repent. Clearly, this is a delicate tight-rope to walk. But luckily, we don’t have to walk it alone because we have the Holy Spirit who will teach us how to walk it, who will lead us, who will gently rebuke us when we fall, and who will pick us up and put us right back on that tight-rope.