What is Wrong With This Picture? How the Church Can Help Solve the Crisis of Body Image

March 12, 2014

What is wrong with this picture?enhanced-6798-1394548095-1

It’s been floating all over the internet the last couple of days.  It doesn’t take a Where’s Waldo expert to notice that something has gone horribly awry in the process of photoshopping the model to make her more…er…”appealing.”

I wasn’t sure exactly what Target was going for with this photo hack job at first.

Are girls supposed to be aspiring to have no crotch?  Because that is a standard no one can reach.

Are they supposed to be emulating Stretch Armstrong?  Because I’m not sure if we are looking at a young lady or a shaved orangutan.  I’m almost as gangly as guys get, with my measurements being 15.5 / 34-35 (yes, you can applaud my bravery for posting my real measurements), and I can tell you that there’s no way that girl is ever going to find sleeves long enough.

It turns out that the object of the ad was to give the girl a “thigh gap” a term that heretofore I was not aware even existed.  Trust me ladies, no gentleman suitor is going to be using his measuring tape on the space between your thighs to determine if you are an acceptable mate.

So it turns out that despite all we talk about positive self-image, there is still a lot that needs to be done to help ladies (and gentlemen) accept themselves.  And I think there is an especially large amount the church can do.

Because I happen to think that this problem (and a myriad of others) stem from how the church of past dropped the ball when it comes to our bodies.

God Created the Human Body and Said It Was Bad, Apparently

I teach art history to my high school seniors.

And if you’ve been to an art museum, you know that naked people are kind of hard to avoid.  Apparently, naked people just line up to get painted and sculpted since there isn’t much other employment available for them.

And every year, I ask my students what they think of that.  Is the nudity beautiful?  Objectionable? I am curious because we are in a Christian school.

And without fail, their answers largely come from how we were all indoctrinated in church, starting in Genesis.

It goes like this…

Adam and Eve are naked and sinless.

Adam and Eve sin and feel shame.

God clothes Adam and Eve.

And the conclusion that we all draw is that our bodies are bad.  That is the damage I try to undo every year.  The fact is that clothing was God covering not our bodies, but our shame.  God still saw us the same.  We just didn’t see ourselves the same way.  That was the day that poor body image entered the human heart.  God never said, “Put on some clothes, you two!”  Instead, He asked, “Who told you that you were naked?”

The Modern Victorianism

Maybe at different times and places, the church did a better job, but we still live with a pretty Victorian mindset that believes that the human body is actually secretly evil.  It must not be looked at.  It is not a thing of beauty.  It is inappropriate.

Every discussion that we have about “modesty” starts with that assumption.  We don’t start with the assumption that what goes into a man’s eyes does not make him clean, but the lust in his heart is what makes him unclean.

No, we tell girls, “Your bodies are evil and will cause men to stumble so make sure you cover them up.”  Framing modesty through that lens is just as neurotic as trying to achieve a “thigh gap.”  It makes women chase a moving target and lets men off the hook.  If more clothing equaled less male lust, then why do the places where women cover completely still harbor so much rape and violence against women?

It is this Victorian-esque repression of the body that has given permission, not only for so much misunderstanding, but abuse of the body.

How The Church Helped Create the Porn Industry

This is how far the church’s misunderstanding has gone:

Since the church has essentially said, “Bodies are evil,” it has left the conversation there.

And the rest of the world accepts what we have said and treats bodies like they are evil.

So fashion companies imply that girls should punish their bodies to achieve a certain look.  I even give the church partial credit for the rise of the pornography industry.  The church made God’s creation taboo.  And people always want to look at taboo things.  And the more the church refused to look, the more people wanted to look.  And now the problem is so enormous that I don’t know how we will ever go back.  Nothing is taboo, and yet people can’t seem to stop looking.  

The church said bodies are evil, so people treated bodies evilly.

Can We Start Being Honest?

So what can we do as brothers and sisters to repel this plague of body issues?

We can tell people the truth.  That their bodies are not evil.  Evil thoughts comes from our hearts, not our bodies.

We can tell girls about modesty, not in terms of being responsible for men, but in terms of what they need or don’t need to do for attention.

We can go back to Genesis and actually understand that clothing was grace, not punishment.

And we can remember that everything that is twisted into an evil thing was created to be a good thing.

What do you think?  Does the church bear some responsibility for our body image crisis or the porn industry?  How do we change the way people look at themselves?



7 responses to What is Wrong With This Picture? How the Church Can Help Solve the Crisis of Body Image

  1. I think another way in addition to the ones you’ve mentioned that the church has contributed to body image issues is by taking on the broader society’s fear of fat and adding a religious layer.

    One example is the assorted “bible based” diet programs that can way too tightly correlate weight-loss on their diets with spiritual achievement or maturity. No doubt there’s good things you can learn in doing a diet, but succeeding at one doesn’t make a person more spiritual than someone who didn’t loose weight. Not to mention that if bible diets work, its probably because they came from an age before processed sugar and trans-fats, not because they’re blessed.

    Another is the unspoken belief that sometimes exists that obesity is the result of sin. Maybe sometimes it is but for many believers dealing with it, there is all sorts of other issues in play like genetics, hormones, or having more pressing issues in their life to deal right now with than dropping some pounds. This attitude can heap lots of unnecessary shame on people.

    One that really frustrates me is that quite a few times I’ve seen in Christian books/blogs on dating targeted at women messages that essentially boil down to “Men are visual and slender appeals to their visual natures. Therefore, if you want to succeed at the hard task of finding a Christian husband, don’t you dare be overweight.” I think it was pulled down after some outcry, but I once read a piece on the website of a major ministry that went as far as to make fun of women who had not yet been successful in loosing weight but still hoped to find romantic love. Not hard to see why messages like these could have an unhealthy impact.

  2. Yes, though I think you have to go a lot further back than the Victorian era for the roots of “body is evil” thinking. Spirit vs. matter dualism was rampant in the ancient world and got absorbed by the church in the form of gnosticism, which for all the church fathers who condemned the idea still pretty much colors the way Western Christians think. For me the resurrection is the doctrinal corrective to that distorted thinking — or at least the place to start. If God promises to resurrect us in bodily form, not as disembodied spirits or some idealized version of what we look like now (which most of us functionally believe), then bodies per se cannot be bad. Jesus’ scars in heaven argue against the photoshopped version, I think.

  3. I think what “the church” needs to do to combat this problem is the same thing that the rest of the world needs to do, and it’s a pretty radical concept:

    Treat women like humans.

    That would mean NOT treating them like the following:
    –“smokin’ hot” show ponies
    –mysterious alien beings that can only be understood by someone with a PhD
    –incubators/future incubators
    –unthinking globs of emotional, weepy female hormones

    “Treating women like humans” would also include allowing them to contribute, speak out, and lead within “the church”, rather than either shuffling them off to “women’s ministry” or just outright silencing them like “the church” has done, and continues to do.

    Because, face it, guys (as a rule) don’t worry about their “thigh gaps” because they have the privilege of growing up having the whole darn world telling them that their appearance is the only thing that matters about them. You teach a girl that her thoughts, goals, opinions MATTER–well, body issues will have less of a chance to take hold. I practically guarantee it.

  4. Hmm, this is interesting. I’m not sure what I think. It seems a little out there to blame the church, in part, for pornography. I don’t know. I like what you said about countries that cover women up and yet rape is still so pervasive – so true. I do know that that photo cracked me up once I realized how long her arm is. How ridiculous. And the shaving down of her thighs, also ridiculous. I wish they’d do more photos of models and the way they really look. I remember seeing an article of Jamie Lee Curtis, two photos side by side, one photoshopped, one not. Stark difference. Made me more aware of how much photoshopping is done on all photos. Also just seeing some of these models on America’s Next Top Model, or whatever that show is called, I think, wow, she’s really not that pretty. But with makeup and lighting and photoshop, they can take that six-foot body and totally transform it.
    Kate Hall recently posted..I Was Embarrassed at Denny’s and Driven to Drink This Week

  5. Matt, thank you for this. I know our husbands and brothers and friends notice these issues, but it’s good to hear a guy speak about it, speak for truth and freedom. I find it interesting that your view of art history has informed your view of the body.
    I’m not sure if the church made the porn industry–even without the church, I think it would be there, but I wish it had a better response, and that sex and bodies would be seen in a holistic way.
    I agree with Abby’s assertions: seeing women’s bodies in a whole way is part and parcel of not objectifying them or denigrating them in the first place.
    Heather Caliri recently posted..The brief moments where I did not hate the Bible

  6. Matt, I love your comment that God used clothes to cover our shame, not our bodies. And I agree that we need to tell people not only that bodies are a glorious part of God’s beautiful creation, but also that we are fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139) and that it is not what is outside that corrupts, but what is in the heart (Matthew 15:17-19). These are indeed the messages we need to hear and spread along with the amazing, incomprehensible, wonderful news that Christ died on the cross so that we could be made right with God and start a process of renewing our hearts, minds and bodies.

    What I disagree with is that the “modesty” issue that the church takes is based on the church’s belief that the body is evil and that women are responsible for men’s lust problems. The message I have always heard about modesty is more linked to Ephesians 5:21, which tells Christians to submit to each other in reverence for Christ. I have heard from the pulpit pastors telling men to submit their lusts to God and train their hearts and minds to be pure and asking women to help their brothers in Christ in these efforts by dressing modestly, especially in church, where our thoughts and worship should be focused on God, not each other. I have never heard a one-sided, blame-women message or that bodies are evil. Maybe I haven’t been to enough different churches, though.

    Furthermore, in your paragraphs, The Modern Victorian” and “How the Church Helped Create the Porn Industry”, you engage in blame-shifting, which is exactly what men do when they blame women’s outfits for their lustful thoughts. And if you consider the origins or women’s body issues and their doubt, I think it might be something that is linked to the original sin. The devil not only caused Eve to question God’s goodness, he also caused her to doubt her own abilities enough to want to “be better.” Don’t most of our body issues circle around the issue of “am I good enough?” So if you want to blame someone, blame the devil for actively working to mess up God’s world and for continually twisting God’s message through His Church and causing us to get worked up over side issues rather than focusing on the main message of God’s great work of grace on the cross leads to more of His great works in us and through us. But honestly, does blame-shifting really accomplish anything except make us think that we are not responsible for our actions and that we shouldn’t be held accountable?

    Once again, thank you for continuing to blog and continuing to perfect God’s message to those who need it and for making me think deeply about how I am presenting God’s message. Keep up the good work!
    tandemingtroll recently posted..My Husband vs. Superheros