America has body-image issues — everyone knows that. But, when I recently complained to my boyfriend about the pressure on women to be beautiful, sexy, and the size of a Starbuck’s straw, he responded that men feel pressure, too. Since women now earn PhDs, make six figures, and head into their thirties both single and respected, it’s not enough for Mr. Darcy to be rich. He also needs a six-pack and a full head of hair.
According to research, my boyfriend was right. Men claim nearly one in four cases of anorexia and bulimia. Pop culture also testifies to the growing number of men concerned about their bodies—from actor Jamie Dorian, of Fifty Shades of Grey, who admits to having “massive hang-ups” about his body to last spring’s media flurry over the virtues of having a dad-bod.
So, while Dove®, BuzzFeed, and MTV tackle the body-image epidemic in our country, I keep wondering when Christians will pipe in. Our story, after all, affirms the goodness of the human body from beginning to end. Consider any of the Bible’s climaxes—creation, incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, or Jesus’ future return. God’s best work plays out through the human body.
So, even though the heavyweights in the body-image discussion may not be coming from the Christian corner, I’m cheering them on. One such person is Caroline Heldman. Her TEDxYouth Talk, “The Sexy Lie,” reveals how our culture trains girls to view their bodies as “projects in need of constant improvement.” Boys, on the other hand, learn to understand theirs as “tools for mastering the world.” Heldman challenges the audience to envision a world where men and women are *both *valued for their contributions to society, rather than their bust or bicep size.
Heldman’s talk taps into the Christian doctrine of imago Dei—that God created humans as his image-bearers in the world. Even with zits covering our chin, extra fat hanging over our belt, or a car accident breaking off our legs, God designed our humanity—including our physicality—so that we could reflect his presence and activity in the world. When Heldman describes our bodies as “tools for mastering the world” she echoes Genesis 1:28, God’s commission for humans to “fill the earth and subdue it.”
While this is where Heldman leaves off, Christianity has more to say. Since God is love, the imago Dei is, first and foremost, about love. The first man and woman would experience deep relationships like God does—through love. They would care for and cultivate the earth like God does—through love. They would trust and submit to God like Jesus does to the Father—through love.
Reflecting God’s love in these ways required fingers, vocal cords, and fat cells. Adam and Eve needed their bodies to name animals, cultivate trees, and enjoy sex. Their bodies were more than tools for mastering the world, they enabled Adam and Eve to enjoy God’s creation and participate in his love. Their bodies were gifts.
Sometimes, though, our bodies don’t feel like gifts — or, they feel like that ugly sweater our aunt gave us for Christmas. We wish we could get a refund. That’s because we inherited more than the imago Dei from Adam and Eve. We also inherited their brokenness.
Adam and Eve’s rebellion against God shattered their bodily bliss. Suddenly, they felt embarrassed by their nakedness. They pointed fingers and used their voices to blame. Their bodies—meant to be gifts—became objects of shame and tools for self-promotion.
We’ve inherited this body-brokenness. When we compare ourselves to a Victoria Secret model, worship our muscles at the gym, or loathe our sexuality after being abused, we forge a link between our bodies and our self-worth in a way that God never intended. We struggle with body-image issues and eating disorders, because we’ve lost track of the gift — that God gave us our bodies to enjoy his world, through acts of love.
Photo by Emily