Body Image #1

Recently as I was leaving to go shopping, I told my husband on the way out the door, “I’ll be back in a little while. Be ready for tears.” That simple statement sums up my long-time approach to body image issues: be ready. Accept it and carry on. I have struggled with my body type for as long as I can remember. I can’t pinpoint many specific external instances that led to it. But over time—and mostly unbeknownst to me—I internalized cultural standards of beauty (that were often upheld within the church as well) and became keenly aware that I did not measure up. I tried to compensate in various ways over the years, which led to disordered eating and an obsession with exercising. (And a trip to a nutritionist that involved the receptionist greeting me with, “You don’t look like you have an eating disorder.” Yes, that really happened.) Aside from her receptionist, seeing a nutritionist helped. Learning about how different foods affect our bodies helped. Setting boundaries in exercising helped. But for the most part, I reached a relatively comfortable place physically and the body image struggles became background noise. The noise would grow louder every so often, but I would just tune it out and move on. There were usually more pressing struggles to address, anyway.

The dangerous thing is that I accepted these thoughts as normal. They made me miserable at times and simply annoyed me at others, but overall, I just treated them as something to move past. Because of this, they became second nature to me, and I didn’t even recognize them much of the time. And even if I wanted an escape, I sought after the external—more exercise, more stringent diet. But in pursuing these things without addressing the lies rooted in my heart, my external attempts to fix the problem were mere behavior modifications that offered no lasting hope.

We all know the verse—“I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” Can I be honest? I hear this phrase and often my first response is to roll my eyes and to think, “so what?” As if it makes no difference. It feels more productive and fruitful to go to the gym than it does to actually wage war against my thoughts. But this is not the way of Jesus; He works from the inside out. We bear fruit in keeping with repentance—but repentance and faith come first. Paul tells us in Romans to not present ourselves to sin as instruments of unrighteousness. Too often I give my mind over to self-degrading and self-hating thoughts, as though it were the only way. But sin will have no dominion over those of us who are in Christ. The numbers on the scale or on the tags of our clothes are fickle, relentless masters. They are unyielding and impossible to please. We serve a greater Master, One who fulfilled His own law on our behalf, so that we might freely walk in newness of life —able to see God’s good work and to enjoy His wisdom displayed in how He made each of us. Able to say with the psalmist, “Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well.”

In fact, the Hebrew word for “wonderfully” in this verse means “to be distinct.” We see this in the fact that we are made in the image of God and therefore distinct from all other living things, but also, the psalmist is speaking very personally and specifically here-I, myself, am fearfully and distinctly made. He shows how God individually crafts each tiny detail of our being, down to the number of hairs on our head. It is His intentional, good design that we each be distinct. How deceitful of the enemy to twist this beautiful fact and to whisper lies to us that speak of one true standard of beauty that we have fallen short of. No wonder our attempts to reach this mythical standard leave us exhausted and in despair.

What’s more, the havoc these lies reap in our own minds doesn’t stop with us. We’re commanded to love our neighbor as ourselves. I would never say the things I think about myself to someone else. But if my mind is trained through repetition to see and analyze myself with a critical eye, I can’t just turn that off when it comes to others. The lies that warp my view of myself will also warp my view of those around me. When we begin to experience freedom in the truth that we are beautifully unique, it is not only for our good but for the good of the church. When we live in the freedom of Christ, it gives others the boldness to live in that same freedom.

I am still very much in this battle. I have spent the better part of the last 6 years either pregnant or nursing one of my four children. I have not been in a season where these struggles are quiet. There are days when the despair feels palpable and hope feels nonexistent; days when I have to trace my thoughts backward and cling to truth. Am I in despair because of unhealthy choices I’ve made? There is hope! I am not condemned, because Jesus was condemned in my place. Am I in despair because I fall short of the cultural standards of beauty? There is hope! I am made in the image of the God who designed me to be distinctly beautiful and set apart. Am I in despair because I went shopping and the tags on my clothes don’t say what I want them to? There is hope! I have a fixed identity in Jesus that is not at the whim of the fashion industry’s measuring stick. We have a suffering Savior who not only empathizes with our weakness and sorrow, but who also has the power to help us overcome. There is hope. Body image will have no dominion over us, for we are not under law but under grace.