“Real Beauty”: What Can Christians Say About Body Image?

Today we are beginning a marriage situation post about body image. This topic has been on our “list” of things to write about for a while. Given all the attention that the Dove “Real Beauty” video has garnered in the last few weeks, it seemed like a good time to cover the issue. As always, my comments are normal, while Paul’s are bolded. 

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At the age of eighteen (see the picture below) I had a pretty simple philosophy about self/body image, attractiveness, gaining weight, etc. Basically my motto was something along the lines of, “don’t worry about it because, girl, you are one good looking chica.” This extremely well-reasoned argument carried me through my freshman year of college and blinded me to the weight that I was slowly adding to my frame. By the time I packed my bags and headed home for summer break I had gained 20 pounds and gone up 3 dress sizes. That was the heaviest that I have ever been outside of my pregnancies. As my gentle artist of a grandfather quietly commented to my mother after seeing me, I looked “much healthier” after that first year.  Yet surprisingly, I was still confident that I looked pretty darn good.

I say surprisingly because if the same scenario happened to me now, I would feel anything but confident. Rather, I would feel ashamed and embarrassed. I mean, I’m the girl that recently freaked out over five pounds gained during  the winter season. At that rate, twenty pounds of unintentional weight gain would most likely leave me mentally incapacitated.

In his popular marriage seminar, “Laugh Your Way to a Better Marriage,” Mark Gungor spends a few minutes during one session speaking to women about self-image.  I’ve included a link to the clip so that you can watch it (and chuckle a little). Basically, he posits that women need to become less critical of themselves and more confident about their looks. This, in turn, will improve their relationships with the people around them (especially their husbands.)

To a certain extent, I would agree with his admonition. It is true that somewhere between the ages of twenty-one and thirty-two I exchanged confidence for criticism when it came to my opinion of my physical appearance. I also know that this exchange has frustrated Paul to no end. When we were dating and he would say something like, “wow, you look great tonight” (a rare occurrence, which is understandable to those of you who know how often Paul remembers to actually say the nice things that he is thinking in his head :) I would mentally agree whole-heartedly, fifteen extra pounds notwithstanding. If Paul made the same comment tomorrow morning I would probably roll my eyes and think something like, “he’s just saying that to make me feel good.”

So does it come as a surprise to you that  Paul says he prefers the fifteen pounds heavier, yet confident, Liz to the uber-critical Liz of this present time?

No, of course it doesn’t. I mean, who really loves to share a home with a woman who is constantly criticizing themselves—fixated on their weight, their features, their stretch marks, their limp hair, and etc?  I’m sure that it’s irritating. (Proverbs 21:19 comes to mind : ) Especially if you are the one trying to compliment them.

And yet, is greater self-confidence alone the answer to poor self-image?  If not, what is the answer?

I remember the third time I ever saw Liz during my freshman year (“why the third?” you ask? Well, the first two times I was in her company I was too nervous to really notice anything.) Those crazy blue eyes were merrily reflecting the artificial lighting of the dining common as I sat across from her at dinner (and give me a break, it’s not like we were allowed to look at the stars :-).  I remember her smile—it would be difficult not to—and that she seemed to smile all the time while carrying within herself a burnished optimism, a confidence in who she was and what she wanted out of life. After dinner I recall telling my roommates about “this girl,” and one of them leaned over to the other and joked, “Yep, he’s gone.” And I was. I didn’t know at the time that she had me, but for all intents and purposes, I was “gone.”

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Fast-forward four years which included a year and a half  “long-distance relationship,” an almost breakup, a proposal on the cliffs at sunset, and a wedding with some gorgeous music (at least that’s how I remember it :-) and we were married. And then I worked. And worked. That first summer together saw me trying to manage a grueling schedule of  40-50hrs of painting per week plus a church internship  that filled up the rest of my free time. It was an exhausting pace to maintain. My compliments to Liz that summer were as few as was the time I spent with her. In fact, I can hardly remember anything from those first three months. At the end of the summer we moved to Greenville  and began the school semester. As life slowed down a little and we settled into lives as graduate students, I began to noticed a change in Liz. Though still attractive inside and out, she was becoming less self confident.

Given another 5 years, I could hardly convince her that she was attractive at all. She just simply wouldn’t believe me. In hindsight, I know that some of this change in attitude was my fault. My all-too-few compliments made it difficult for her to believe I was serious. You see, throughout our marriage, I had never clearly understood the differences between me and her and had been operating under the faulty assumption that her self-image was like my self-image. My self-image is rarely shaped by someone else’s opinion. I tend to look in the mirror, make an objective evaluation and move on. Women, I have discovered, are not at all like this.

 Still, another part of the reason I had stopped complimenting Liz was due to her poor response when I did. After being brushed off after each attempt, I began to get resentful.  If giving her a compliment was like climbing mount Everest, always climbing and never reaching the goal, then why should I even try?

How could I help her regain that confidence?  Or should that former confidence even be the goal? It seemed like the criteria for estimation had to change, but how could I help her do that? I felt as if being married to me had broken something inside her and I wanted to fix it, but I just didn’t know how.


The second half of this post (found here) will give some of my (Liz) feelings about the question of body-image. It’s a tough topic. It has lots of pit-holes and unexplored implications. But it is important. After that we will post Paul’s thoughts (found here). (This last post turned out to be the best of the bunch. Very straight-forward, biblical and helpful.)

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