“Real Beauty” – What Can Christians Say about Body Image (Part II)

Paul and I decided to break the response to our first post into two separate entries. In this first I will write about how the problem came to be (how I went from a confident twenty-one year old to a critical thirty-two year old) and in the second Paul and I will give some biblical answers to the problem.

Many times we ignore the “why” of a problem and jump right to the solution (any men reading this? : ) But it is important to understand how we arrived at our way of thinking. That’s why I want to share my story. But really, when you finish, I want you to think about your story. Why do you have the body-image that you do? What are your criteria for determining this opinion?

Where it all started

I remember when I first started thinking about this topic seriously. It was about a year ago and as I was driving home after work I tuned into to my local NPR station. During a report, the show’s anchor cited a survey taken of women of all races and sizes by Glamour magazine and stated that most women polled have an average of 13 negative body image thoughts per day.

“Huh” I thought, “Thirteen doesn’t seem too bad.” But that little fact stuck in my mind and I pondered it for the rest of the ride home. By the time I pulled into the driveway, I had completely reversed my initial response. Thirteen negative body thoughts meant that a woman might disparaged something about her physical appearance one time during each waking hour of the day. What was worse, I began to realize how often I did exactly the same thing.  I thought them while getting ready in the morning, after catching a glimpse of myself in the mirror in the hall, while online looking at other people’s pictures, while driving and hastily applying my makeup, while at the grocery store and deciding what food to buy…the list could go on.

It was an unnerving realization.

Naturally, I had to figure out why I was thinking this way. Over coffee (but more commonly over the clamor of our two boys)  Paul and I have had many conversations about body-image. I’ve read about the subject, prayed about the subject and spent some serious time thinking about the problem. I needed to know how to think and then start thinking that way! So, first I had to figure out why my opinion of myself had changed.

Where does my self-confidence come from?

Growing up in my loving, godly, and supportive family had many benefits. As a very self-assured child I always had a plan, opinion, idea, or dream and I was pretty certain that whatever I ended up doing, I’d do it well (and with great flair : ). My parents always encouraged my ambitious goals and would congratulate me on my accomplishments – even the less than stellar ones (my take on the traditional lemonade stand was to sell plain tap water instead. Needless to say, it wasn’t a raging success : ) Included in this sweeping self-confidence was the notion that I was exceptionally good-looking. My mother, bless her heart, would often try to balance my self-ardor by reminding me of the verse in Proverbs, “pride is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord shall be praised.” Equally confident that my “fear of the Lord” was pretty top notch too, I’d skip off, glad to know that I was both attractive and praise-worthy. It’s not that I felt self-important or proud, I just didn’t worry that I’d ever have a problem attracting a boyfriend when the appropriate time arrived (because isn’t that was good looks are for anyway?!).  I’m sure that my best friends knew about this inflated view of myself, but I sincerely hope that the rest of the world wasn’t as aware. That would be really embarrassing.

It wasn’t until after I got married that my opinion of my looks began to falter.  I’d dated some nice guys and had more than a few ask me out before I began dating Paul. Because of this it seemed fairly clear to me that I was, indeed, attractive. Paul himself would even tell me from time to time how much he liked to look at me. “Wonderfully cute and pretty” were his exact words in one night-mail note that I still have.

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As Paul stated earlier, our first few months together were less than optimal. As a newly married girl, I was struggling to rely on Paul for emotional affirmation rather than my friends or family. Going from a family who constantly supported and encouraged me to a husband who was too busy to figure out my emotional needs, much less compliment me on my looks, was extremely difficult. I began to believe that his lack of interest and affirmation was my fault. That somehow I had been wrong about my self-perception and was really a failure when it came to the whole “wife and partner” part of my life.  Part of this failure included failing to be attractive enough to catch my husband’s attention.

Thankfully, Paul and I were able to hash out many of the issues that we faced during that early part of our marriage. It included a lot of arguments, epiphanies, and reconciliations, but about four years after we got married we found ourselves  a more unified and loving couple. Still, the issue of physical appearance wasn’t one of the things we ever discussed because I wasn’t even aware of the problem. Subtly, through aging, pregnancy changes, and life in general the idea that I wasn’t physically attractive had rooted itself in my heart. This idea only lessened when Paul would compliment my looks. That would boost my opinion for a few weeks until my doubting mind would regain it’s footing.

Eventually, this negative opinion became tightly bound to my weight.  I was a slave to the scale. After each pregnancy I would fret about my weight for months. I don’t loose weight easily and would agonize over ounces (not pounds!) gained or lost in the course of one day. If the weight went up, I felt devastated. If it went down, my day had just become awesome. Thankfully, I never made the very easy-to-make step from weight preoccupation to an eating disorder or exercise obsession, but I can see how this could happen.

Thus, for years the formula that would determine my level of self-confidence was this:  WEIGHT + PAUL’S OPINION = SELF-CONFIDENCE LEVEL.

When I finally figured this formula out (a few months ago) I was really surprised. It was so unbiblical. And harmful. And just….foolish!  I was making a determination about myself that was not guided by a love for God, his love for me, or a love for other people. Rather, it was guided by fear and a growing preoccupation with myself.  But it was all so subtle and so seemingly “normal” that I had failed to see the problem until God opened my eyes (what grace!). I am thankful that he did, even though the process of changing my thinking (not yet complete) hasn’t been a walk in the park. Your formula for determining self-confidence might be different than mine.  But you do have one. And God wants it to be guided by his word rather than our own, often foolish, thinking.

Monday we will post the biblical response (found here) that Paul and I came up with for this issue.

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