A few weeks ago, I criticized a post written by Tim Challies, in which I felt he had skipped an important step and uncritically assumed our culture's objectifying, consumerist, and harmful influences on women's body image. Since then, I've thought a lot about what articulating a redemptive body image would look like. I'm often criticized for only being "against" beliefs and practices of the evangelical church, without ever offering a constructive "for." So, this is an attempt to work out an alternative to an aspect of American Christianity that I've taken issue with, drawing from my own experiences.
Early last year, I discovered the healthy living blog community. Women in their 20's and 30's post up to three times a day about what they cook and eat, and also how they exercise. While there are some on the fringes who clearly struggle with disordered eating (and thus blog every last morsel eaten and calorie burned), generally the emphasis is on eating real, unprocessed, ethically-derived food, without obsessing about a number on the scale or a clothing size. These incredible women have run marathons and done triathlons -- but they've accomplished these athletic feats as ordinary, everyday women, not primarily athletes. I've found that these blogs' focus on healthy living is positive, informative, and moves the discussion away from whether the bloggers have finally reached a certain weight or a size 6.
One of the things that struck me in reading these blogs is that they offer an alternative to the harmful female body image that is dictated by our culture. When many parts of the church have become dualist, in the sense that the physical, material world takes a backseat to the seemingly more important "spiritual stuff," I found it interesting that a blog community ended up articulating for me a "theology of the body" that is redemptive and directly confronts the consumerism and objectification that crushes women.
Personally, I have struggled, and continue to struggle, with disordered eating. I binge. It's an ugly thing that I do to my body. The cycle of guilt and fat-talk isn't helped by the forces I mentioned in my post criticizing Challies: women's bodies are used everywhere, every day, to sell things, and a physical ideal is held up for us women. Often, this ideal is not reality, and is instead created from Photoshop.
Recently, a Yoplait Lite commercial, which the company ended up pulling, showed a woman's internal dialogue while she was deciding whether to eat dessert. She claimed she had been "good," so she deserved to eat it. During the mental bargaining, she even offered to jog in place while eating. These sad gymnastics are what many women undergo on a daily -- sometimes hourly -- basis. The act of eating food is a battle against the enemy, and we have this Photoshopped ideal hanging over every bite. What a shame that something God created to sustain us and for us to enjoy has turned into a psychological nightmare at times.
However, the healthy living community has shown me that there is an alternative. Food isn't the enemy; rather, it's fuel. Want to train for a half marathon? Then be sure to fuel your body and treat it with care. And after you've run that race, even if just a 5k, you will be so proud of what your body just did. My legs may be short and stumpy rather than our culture's oft-praised long and skinny, but they have brought me through several 5ks and a 10k. Maybe someday I will thank my legs for getting me through a half marathon.
Also, thoughtfully determining where my food comes from has been redemptive. I cannot remember the last time I ate meat. The seed was probably planted years ago when I read Fast Food Nation, but thanks to the likes of Michael Pollan and the healthy living blogs I discovered, I have no desire to eat factory-farmed meat. Food and exercise, then, aren't a constant push-and-pull that will somehow get me to a size 2 or 4. Believe me, I still struggle very much, but what was once a battle has been turned into a positive: fuel for health and for personal athletic accomplishments, as well as a way to live more justly in not contributing to the industrial food complex.
I thought of this more redemptive alternative last night at church, when we covered the whole "sex" topic with the students. We discussed 1 Corinthians 6, where Paul says:
Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.
Yes, this is the anthem of evangelical youth groups all over North America when it comes to sex. But, couldn't it also be a great way for women to reframe our distorted and damaging body image? N.T. Wright, in a lecture he gave on worship and the spirit, discusses this passage and puts it into even richer context:
If the living God has chosen to come now to dwell, not in a single house of stone and timber but in the living bodies of human beings, that constitutes a call to worship, to a worship which consists of bringing glory to God in that body, not using the body for purposes which dishonour it, which (in other words) deconstruct the very nature of what humans were made to be and do. That is of course, in our language, a powerful ethical imperative. It is, for Paul, a matter of transferring the holy worship of Israel from the Jerusalem Temple to the bodies of individual members of the church, even in Corinth – especially in Corinth! Once more, the Spirit has taken the place of the Shekinah. Those who by baptism and faith are constituted members of the renewed worldwide people of God are called to a life of constant worship, constant sacrificial devotion to the God who is present to them and within them.
It deconstructs the very nature of what I was made to be and do when I engage in a cycle of restrict-and-binge. It dishonors the purpose of my body when I tell myself I'm fat and let those glossy magazines dictate my self-worth and jeans size. And moving away from strictly individual terms, this harmful body image and disordered eating interferes with the call to worship to bring glory to God with our bodies, as a worshipping community.
If you're curious to see an example of this alternative lived out, check out Sarah's beautiful post at her blog, Emerging Mummy: In which I promise not to call myself fat.