One of the sadder effects of my time back in the United States is my subtle and instantaneous body-consciousness. (This is not a cultural diatribe; I’ve got body issues.) Unpacking my jeans in the cheap hotel we checked into after flying in, I remarked to my husband, “Why is it that I just feel like I’ve gained 25 pounds?”

He shrugged. “Maybe because it’s so easy to gain 25 pounds while we’re here?”

Later I realized—nope. It’s because instantly—I must sheepishly admit image rises in priority in my mind. Yes, I am inundated with marketing, much containing women both airbrushed and well-paid to look both stunning and underweight. But, as I was recently reminded by my sister’s post, even the time to focus on image, or to work out, is a sign of all the excess I enjoy. Which means that in Africa, I have been fasting a bit from this fixation on modern instruction in beauty. It also means that the geometric shapes of my body are a little more appreciated.

(Hm. There are also less yummy snack foods. The fact that I have borne four children is prized. And the skinny jeans fad was delayed about two years.)

I remember greeting African friends, who’d been raised in the village, once while I was out on a jog. They laughed good-naturedly. “Why do you run?”

Well, I explained, there was my health. I like feeling good and taking care of my body. And have they seen that husband of mine?! I want to stay lookin’ good!

They chortled again. One patted her girth. “If I am too skinny, people will think my husband doesn’t feed me! After I marry, I need to get fat so people know my husband takes good care of me!”

Cultural formations of beauty fascinate me. My own body type may have been more appreciated in, oh, say, the Botticelli era. Someone I love once told me she couldn’t wait until she got to heaven and finally had the perfect body. I actually thought, What if I have the perfect body for me, but it will take heaven just to appreciate it?

body-image

I like author Lauren Winner’s reflections, which she hilariously drapes around a narrative of her not fitting in a medium-sized sweater at a boutique which, she notes, was not the type of store to carry a large. “Ah, well,” she quips coming out of the store. “Think of the $182 I just saved, thanks to my hips, which were designed to have babies.” And she begins to cry. She remarks,

This shopping expedition is good proof that, though I believe God has something to say about human bodies, I generally listen to Cosmopolitan instead. I’m pretty sure that God, if He called me to chat about my body, would say things like, “I like your body. I created your body, and if you have read the first chapter of Genesis lately, you might recall that I called Creation good.”

 

….This desire to diet is…bad faith, for the biblical story of the body is very different from the stories Cosmo and Maxim tell. The magazines (and movies, TV shows, and advertising campaigns) speak of bodies that are both too important and not important at all. Scripture speaks of bodies that God created in His image, bodies that are doing both redemptive work and being redeemed. (emphasis added) [1]

 

Recently, Real Simple published an essay by a woman whose college-aged daughter requested to use photos of the mother’s body for her art composition. While at first the author reflects on her own self-consciousness, the finished piece opens her eyes: “It struck me as an intimate portrait…a narrative of my life through the lens of my body and its work” (emphasis added). [2]

Maybe it sounds elementary, but my body deserves a little more credit for its work than I stingily award. As of my birthday next month, my heart will have beat approximately 1,513,728,000  times without me saying a word (a little faster, perhaps, when my boys are, say, launching themselves off something). My body has produced and fed four children for one year each. That’s 84 months of sustaining another human life besides my own. My muscles have brought me through each of my daily required functions for nearly 36 years, including the good stuff God prepared for me to do.

Yet when I think of my body, I’m ashamed to think that instead of gratitude, I often associate it with more mortified emotions.

Going back to a theme God has been forming in me: Is it possible that when I’m honing in on what is not the way I like it, perhaps I’m withholding worship from Him? That I’m choosing to part from gratitude and trust in His work–for the sake of my own garbage-collecting eye?

Truth is, in college, I came frightfully close to an eating disorder—in part because exercise and eating were channels to leverage control over myself and what others thought of me. I told myself it was health and discipline; and in some ways, it was certainly that. But I wonder how much of it was a refusal to accept the body God had sculpted for me?

I unquestionably believe in the value of caring for this body God crafted, and even in ways of beauty. God didn’t create a white, flavorless, scentless world. He values beauty, too, and I do believe it tells us a great deal about Him. But I wonder how much time I’ve squandered not on mere diligent nurture for this gift He’s given me—but rather into treasures that will evaporate before me in mere decades?

Could they have consumed a piece of my heart with it?

I constantly wish that writing about something—seeing its truth with my mind—meant I’d mastered it. But maybe in that next moment in my bathing suit when I’m embarrassed I’m not different-looking, I’ll remember God was intentional and proud of what He’d made. …Whether Vogue might approve or not.

 

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“Effortless beauty”?

Mirror, Mirror: A summary of research findings on body image (external site)

 

[1] Winner, Lauren. Mudhouse Sabbath: An Invitation to a Life of Spiritual Discipline. Brewster, Massachusetts: Paraclete Press (2007).

[2] Baggott, Julia. “How I Made Peace with My Aging Body.” http://www.realsimple.com/work-life/life-strategies/made-peace-aging

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