Loving the Body
Body image is still a resilient problem. Despite the widespread rhetoric that “it’s what’s on the inside that counts” (who ever explicitly states the opposite?), despite all the self-help books and the public resistance against contemporary beauty standards, the anxiety and self-hate that results from one’s own body image remains rampant. It is often argued that this is an indication that we ought to love ourselves more, but the problem is more likely caused by an individualistic understanding of the body.
We could attribute problems of body image to our current culture of photoshopped images and movie stars, and not without warrant; after all, the silver screen has led trends in the ideal male physique, based on figures like Arnold Schwarzenegger in the ‘80s and Brad Pitt in the early 21st century. But our modern plight is merely an intensified version of a perennial problem: beautiful people have always received more attention and affection. The most ancient literary works attest to this.
“Beauty means love,” writes Karen Lee-Thorp. “Studies confirm what most of us intuitively sensed as children: Mothers and daycare workers smile, coo, kiss, and hold pretty babies more than plain ones. Fathers are more involved with attractive babies.” (cf. Lee-Thorp’s “Is Beauty the Beast?”) The instinctive reaction is to hate one’s own body if it isn’t considered beautiful.
No one, of course, plans to engage in this kind of self-hate; it happens almost uncontrollably. When one comes to realize that he or she is not as appealing as other people, one might first feel indignant or jealous, but this anger is often quickly turned towards the self. After all, who can argue against beauty? Who dares to say to others, “Love me despite my ugliness?” However, since this self-hate achieves nothing besides exhausting the soul, eventually people turn to the rhetoric of “loving yourself.”
Considering our current culture, however, mere self-love as a response to self-hate does not seem to be a sufficient response. It seems we are being told to love ourselves more than we’ve ever been in history, and still personal anxieties and insecurities continually plague us. But more importantly, without a more profound response to self-hate, our self-love often seems little more than a prettied-up form of selfishness. Perhaps we need a different diagnosis for the problem at hand.
The contemporary ideal of “coolness”— feeling assured about oneself apart from the opinions of others — is a problem, I would argue. This is a lie of individualism. Because for better or worse, it is ultimately unavoidable that how other people see us shapes how we see ourselves. It is crucial to realize that we depend on others for a healthy self-image, firstly because we shouldn’t forget our dependence on God’s grace and acceptance, but also because our friends will depend on us to affirm their beauty—not with empty flattery, but with true affirmation that comes from seeing the imago dei in them. (As C. S. Lewis says, you have never met a mere mortal.) Without this understanding of humans as interdependent, we might expect others to be independent and to be content with self-love. And there is nothing that contributes more to a competitive system of beauty than the illusion of individual independence.
Lee-Thorp reflects this understanding when she writes, “The Scriptures envision a different system, one that is cooperative rather than competitive at its core. In this system, people are so bonded that they want everyone to win, for ‘if one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it’ (1 Cor. 12:26, NIV)” In other words, the antidote to self-hate is not self-love—both of these are rooted in the same selfishness anyway—the antidote is loving others. In our current discussions about loving the body, we seem to limit ourselves to the body of the individual person. Does not a deeper understanding of the word “body” include social bodies like the church, which is the body of Christ? Only when we love the whole can we truly come to a healthy understanding of body image and of self.