Debunking the Myth of Body Image

A friend told me he thought his eyes were too close together. Another feels self-conscious about being too skinny; another about his height. Once we start broaching the subject of what we like or don’t like about our bodies, it seems as though the vast majority of people feel unhappy about some aspect of their physical appearance: the shape of the nose, size of the ears, or proportion of different features relative to one another.

Very few of us, it seems, are happy with our body image. There are all sorts of reasons for this, of course—the unrealistic standards of beauty being pushed on us almost constantly by the media for one—but the cumulative effect is that it can leave us thinking about our bodies in a seriously distorted way. Five myths about body image seem particularly prevalent.

Myth #1: My body is a mistake.

I recently bought a new lamp for my home. When I tried to set it up, I realized the various parts had not been made properly and could not be fixed together as they were meant to be. It is how many of us feel about our bodies, that there was some glitch at the factory when we were being made. Only we don’t have the same option of ordering a free replacement.

However we feel about our bodies, though, the Bible makes it very clear that God made them, and he made them carefully:

You formed my inward parts;
You knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. (Ps. 139:13–14)

David is praising God precisely because of the way in which God physically made him. David would have been well aware (as we all are) of the ways in which his body was not perfect. But that didn’t mean it was a mistake. God made it. He meant to make it. And he made it well.

God doesn’t make mistakes. Whoever we are, we can praise him for how we’ve been made.

Myth #2: My body isn’t really me.

Sometimes the way our body looks can feel so disconnected with what we want that we can conclude it isn’t really who we are. The image fails to correspond to what we desire, to such an extent it can feel alien, other. This isn’t me, surely.

I just saw an interview with a transgender Hollywood star who has recently started identifying as a man and has now had the various procedures done to bring the body into conformity with that identity. This comment from the interview stood out:

“It’s getting out of the shower and the towel is around your waist and you’re looking at yourself in the mirror and you’re just like, ‘There I am.’”

Previously, by implication, what had greeted this person in the mirror was a body that seemed to belong to someone else. Now, at last, that was different.

Such feelings can be hugely painful, and we must always be sympathetic to such suffering. But the leap from feeling an intense sense of not belonging in our own skin to concluding it “isn’t really me” is one the Bible won’t let us make.

Scripture shows us that just as God has made our bodies (and intended to), so also they are part of our calling. Our bodies don’t represent the totality of who we are. We are more than our bodies, but we are certainly not less, or other, than them.

When God created Adam, he didn’t make a soul called “Adam” and then look for some arbitrary matter to contain that soul. “God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” (Gen. 2:7). We are not enfleshed souls; we are animated matter. Our bodies are us.

Myth #3: My body won’t be pleasing to others.

Part of our self-consciousness about how our bodies look may not be so much how we feel about them, but how others feel about them. A friend of mine in high school had a couple of prominent moles on his face that became the target of other boys looking for any way they could find to tease others. Years later, he confided just how painful the experience was, even to the point of causing long-term insomnia.

My friend’s experience is not that unusual. Whether it is bullying from others or some other reason entirely, we can feel that aspects of our appearance cause us problems with others. We might feel we have a target on us because of it.

The fact is, we can’t make our bodies as pleasing to others as we might want. Even if we get ourselves in shape, or could afford to have cosmetic surgery, we will always be flawed in our appearance. Nothing can ultimately change that. We will never perfectly reach whatever standard we believe is necessary to be pleasing to others.

This is why the gospel is such good news. The Bible tells us that through his death, Jesus has purchased us. As a result, we now belong to him:

You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. (1 Cor. 6:19–20)

Much needs to be said about this, but for now we can rest in this truth: if our bodies belong to Jesus, then the only person our bodies need to please is Jesus. And he is far easier to please in this regard than our culture or our school friends. Paul urges us to “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (Rom. 12:1). A body that is pleasing to Jesus is a body that is offered to him and given to his purposes. And if he is pleased with such a body, we soon learn that this is ultimately all that matters.

Myth #4: My body is uniquely shameful.

All of us are aware of our physical imperfections. But some will feel a more intense kind of unhappiness with their bodies, that they are uniquely problematic in how they look. Some people believe themselves to be unusually unattractive, even repulsive.

A family friend of mine some years ago would only ride with us in the car if she could get in the back and if we promised we wouldn’t look at her. She felt her appearance to be that terrible. She was incredibly self-conscious.

The reality is that people who wrestle with this so intensely are never as unattractive as they feel they are. It is as if they are unable to see past their imperfections. It is all they see, and it is all they assume everyone else sees.

The gospel is good news for our bodies, and not just our souls.

At such times it is good to be reminded of this description of the suffering servant:

His appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, his form beyond that of the children of mankind . . . (Isa. 52:14)

. . . and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised . . . (Isa. 53:3)

The brutal flogging and crucifixion of Jesus was so unimaginably gruesome that people couldn’t bear to look at him. He knows what it is like for others to be physically repulsed by the way he looks. His shame—not ours—is unique. And he bore it for us so that we would never have to bear ultimate shame, and so that he can now comfort us when it feels like we do.

Myth #5: My body image will never be as good as it was.

One of the interesting things about things like Facebook is stumbling across people you’ve not seen for years and seeing how they now look. The comparison is not always flattering. There is the middle-age paunch, the loss of hair, the premature graying, or the deep lines in the face.

The fact is, we all face a time when we will have passed our physical best. We won’t be as strong as we once were. And we won’t have the looks that we once did. The glory days, if ever they really existed, are now firmly in the past.

But the gospel is good news for our bodies, and not just our souls. We might tend to think that God only has long-term interest in the “spiritual” side of us, but the biblical gospel is much fuller than that. In Christ, our bodies have a future. Paul speaks of us all awaiting our “adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:23). God’s eternal plan for us includes our bodies. The age to come will be one of physical existence, and with redeemed bodies. Jesus’s own resurrected body is something of a template for what we can expect for our own (Phil. 3:21). Physically, our best days are ahead of us, not behind us.

Sam Allberry

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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