Today, I would like to try and give some answers to our culture’s body image problem. But this is a huge topic. (We may have tried to fit more than was feasible into one post.) So understand that we can’t delve into every specific type of situation or background. Nor can we even explore the whole Scripture on the subject. Rather, we will focus on those things that God has graciously taught Liz and me during this past year. Hopefully our account will be an encouragement and help to you.
For our purposes, we assume that each of you who are reading this knows Christ as your savior and desire to become more like Jesus. With that as our baseline, we must ask the question, “how can we begin to think about body-image in a constructive and biblical way?” We need to change the criteria from weight + someone’s opinion = confidence to sovereignty + health + inner beauty = confidence.
God Has Sovereignly Created You to Be You.
Now before you roll your eyes and close the window, hear me out. Most of us accept that God is in control of all things and that his control spans the distance between the immense and dramatic macro-universe revealed in the night sky and the minuscule, though no less dramatic, micro-universe contained within single human cell. Clearly, if God controls all things from galaxies to microorganisms, then he exercises the same control over your physical design. He determines you. He determines when and to whom a child is born, he determines the number of hairs on your head, your height, your metabolism, your shoe size, your gifts, talents, abilities, looks, intelligence, and etc. But this isn’t the whole story. God has determined you to be you for a good reason—so that you would glorify him in a unique way, stewarding and responding to these gifts, looks, and abilities he has ordained for you. In short, he wants you to love him and love others, just like Jesus told us to (Matt 22:34-40). Sometimes he gives us physical limitations or “imperfections” (only by culture’s standards) because he plans to use that limitation or imperfection to grow us spiritually and display his glory (John 9:1-4, 2 Cor 12:7). As Liz struggled to understand her concept of herself, she began to understand God more fully as her creator. Her eyes were opened to the freedom of trusting that God’s design for her was good and could bring him glory. The truth is, our physical appearance is so precious to God that, rather than just erasing these fleshly bodies after death, he plans to perfect them. He will free our physical bodies from the ravages of this broken world (1 Cor 15:42-44) but won’t change those features that make us unique and recognizable (Rom 8:11). What a thought a glorious thought! He cherishes your face and figure because he made them as part of you. And you are his precious child. Why would we let someone else’s opinion of us eclipse the opinion of our loving, heavenly father?
So the first question we must ask is, “do you trust God’s good and glorious plan in making you to be you?”
God Sovereignly Placed You in a Specific Culture
The day you were born you entered a specific culture that came complete with set of guidelines for determining a person’s level of “beauty.” And if we know anything about cultural norms, we know that they are notoriously fickle. Each decade (of each century, most likely) has a physical stereotype that will inevitably be unattainable by a majority of humans. It doesn’t mean that the sterotype is somehow unethical, it just means that each time culture changes the qualifications for “beautiful” you will again be faced with your own inability to meet that standard (Liz is waiting for the day when short, soft and freckled is all the rage :-) That’s why it is imperative for every woman to decide how she will respond to these unattainable and unreasonable standards of beauty. When confronted with the magazine cover, or billboard, or newcomer at church, what will you do? Will you immediately compare yourself to that “beautiful” stereotype and become frustrated at not being made in that image? When confronted with the number on the scale or an imperfection on your body will you fixate on it, choosing to believe that it defines you as a person?
Or will you—as the second question asks—”respond in a Christlike manner to these stereotypes—believing that God made you to be you for his glory and measuring yourself by his standards against all others?” (In principle—let every advertiser and supermodel be a liar and God be true!).
We Must Measure Ourselves by God’s Standard of Stewardship.
How beautiful does God want you to be? This is a strange question, but one that needs to be asked in a culture that strives for unattainable beauty. Given the time constraints placed on you by your work of glorifying God, you most likely won’t have time to strive for external beauty hours and hours a week. And this is okay. God didn’t create you unique and priceless so that you could expend time and mental energy fighting to achieve a cultural standard. Instead, he created you to glorify him with your body. You must accept the glorious and emancipating truth that your value and identity are primarily defined by the condition of your inner spirit (2 Peter 3:3-4). Once this truth has rooted itself into your heart can you start to see your outward appearance as God does; a vehicle for displaying God’s love to others and outlet for individual expression and creativity (see the extended quote below.) And if you end up fitting the culture’s standard of beauty while doing that, so be it! If you don’t, this isn’t a cause for despair. This brings up another point: God wants you to steward your body for his glory. More specifically, he expects each person to meet certain physical criteria necessary to do the God glorifying work he has prepared for them. So, for instance, if I am to glorify God in the Air National Guard, then I must pass my fitness test. If Liz is to glorify God as a wife, mother, and friend, then she must be healthy enough to do those things well. (I think it goes without saying that there is a general standard of health necessary to function in any society or, at the very least, not to die young and cut off your time to glorify God). Stated another way, God has fashioned your face and figure (the raw material if you will) and you can form these into culture’s ideal only to the point of good stewardship. When we take away culture’s power to determine our worth we are free to regard physical “beauty” as just an effect, a byproduct, of being healthy for the glory of God. If we are to believe the Apostle Paul (and please, I would advocate that you do :-), we are comparable to clay pots, imperfect so as to display the manifold glory of God and his power to create inner beauty in a person that will far outshine any outward appearance (2 Cor 4:7). Are you content to be the earthen vessel or will you forever long and strive to be the oriental vase?
So our third question is, “In embracing God’s standard of beauty will I rest in the knowledge I am called to steward my body and have my service to God be the primary goal?”
Real Beauty and Our Relationships
I know that women have been told that they must maintain a certain level of physical attractiveness in order to keep their husband from straying. First, God never holds a wife responsible for her husband’s actions. Adam tried that in the garden and God really didn’t buy the excuse then and he doesn’t buy it now. If a husband chooses to make sinful choices with regard to sexual temptation it is not his wife’s fault. There is no fine print attached to Ephesians 5:25 that exempts him if and when his wife’s looks don’t meet with his approval. In fact, God is pretty clear that a husband is to delight in his wife’s body for his entire life (Prov 5:18-19). Again, no fine print that delineated what her figure should look like in order to deserve your attention. I hope I’m being pretty clear. As a husband, I cannot (and don’t) expect my wife to exceed the standards that God has for her to steward her body for his glory. If Ephesians five means anything, it means that my goals for my wife and God’s goals for my wife should match. Any other adornment or modification that she achieves (i.e. working out above and beyond what’s necessary to steward her body) is a gift of love and should be received as such. I can not demand it of her. Rather, I should be looking for opportunities to compliment Liz on both her inner and outer attractiveness (something that I admittedly struggle to do!) She needs to know that I delight in who she is and the way she loves and serves God (Prov 31: 28). And while it is my responsibility to love her, Liz needs to exercise faith and believe that my opinion of her will never be based on her ability to meet some subjective, cultural standard. If you have a wife who loves God and serves him diligently then you should truly value her “far above rubies” (Prov 31: 10). And if a man is struggling in this area, it is his responsibility to ask God to change his heart and give him a correct understanding of true beauty.
Thus, our last questions is, “Do I place too much emphasis on what other people think of me rather than relying on God to shape my opinion of myself?”
This is Liz. I hope that this post was beneficial. The truths here have helped me and we really worked to make it clear and biblical. Again, your life will present you with challenges as unique as you are. You may have been born with a physical disability or you might have just received the diagnosis of a life-long illness. You may be going through a period of physical weakness, like pregnancy or a complicated surgery. You may have had a difficult childhood that has indelibly scarred you and left you struggling to think of yourself the way God thinks of you. But whatever you are, you are lovingly designed by God and you have the chance to honor him with your body. With these truths as your guide, you can begin to faithfully navigate the choppy waters of cultural standards and relational exceptions without capsizing. I wanted to finish this post with a superb quote by writer Enumu Okoro.
However, lest we throw the supermodel out with the baptismal water, Kanazawa [a researcher] cannot be critiqued for researching physical beauty itself. Our culture’s sinful emphasis on it doesn’t make it bad. As one naturally motivated and affected by aesthetics, I won’t deny the power of the human form in the peoples and cultures that reveal God’s incomprehensible, holy imagination. As a woman convicted that cultivating internal beauty both honors God and provides a way of living into God’s best for us, I also hold that women, Christian or not, can and should delight in the beauty of their human form.
Physical attributes of beauty are also a segment of beauty from the God-centered perspective. Our bodies are works of divine art, in all their shapes and sizes and various abilities or disabilities. It is always an act of faithfulness to delight in that which God delights, and I believe that God delights in what God creates. How one accentuates the beauty of the human form is another topic altogether, full of subjective arguments. But there is nothing inherently wrong with minding how we look and expressing our attempts, albeit at times quite fallen, to layer our multifaceted ideas of beauty upon that which is already beautiful. I am both playfully and sincerely grateful that I have the luxury to dwell on what I believe is most flattering to my human form, what dresses, occasional shade of lip gloss, or flimsy scarf makes me feel beautiful.
But while I delight in seeking to be beautiful on the inside and on the outside, I don’t hang my existential coat on this body. The grace of Christ and the power of the Spirit help me cultivate the former and hold the latter loosely. There is no doubt that Kanazawa was on to something in that beauty deserves attention. But that attention should ultimately point us back to God, “beauty’s self and beauty’s giver.”
Articles that I (Liz) found very helpful: