Have you ever heard a sermon about body image?
Aside from the occasional side comment, I've never heard body image given substantial treatment from the pulpit or serious attention from leaders in the church, which is surprising since body image is not a marginal issue in our culture.
Statistics vary, but research shows that somewhere between 80 percent and 90 percent of women are dissatisfied with their bodies. Although the percentage of women with severe eating disorders is between 0.5 percent and 3.7 percent, roughly 3 out of 4 engage in some form of disordered eating.
And in 2013, women had more than 10.3 million surgical and non-surgical cosmetic procedures, signifying a 471 percent increase since 1997. The top procedures were breast augmentation, liposuction, tummy tuck, breast lift, and eyelid surgery.
Although body image is a predominately female struggle, it does not affect women alone. Approximately 43 percent of men report body dissatisfaction. Among adolescent boys, nearly 18 percent are highly concerned about their weight and physique. Men also had more than 1 million cosmetic procedures last year, contributing to a grand total of $12 billion spent on such surgical and non-surgical procedures in 2013.
These statistics are alarming for two reasons. The first is health-related. Many women—and even some men—are starving themselves and mutilating their bodies to conform to a particular standard of beauty. The second cause for alarm is spiritual. When Christians are preoccupied with their bodies, it inhibits their worship.
To understand why body image is a matter of worship, consider an analogy from Tim Keller's The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness. In it he compares spiritual sickness to a broken limb. When your leg is healthy, you don't give it much thought. You walk, run, and jump on your leg without a care in the world. It is only when you break your leg that you give it much attention. In fact, your entire body must compensate for the wound.
Keller goes on to explain that when some part of yourself is injured or unwell, it consumes your attention. In the case of self-image, a broken view of the body results in a preoccupation with the body. Rather than live a life oriented toward God, many women (and men) are oriented toward their appearances. And until that view of the body is healed, they will forever struggle to focus on anything else.
Countless women prepare for worship on Sunday morning, not by quieting their hearts and minds before the Lord, but by putting on makeup, curling their hair, and squeezing into a pair of Spanx. These women then walk into church, distracted and insecure, comparing themselves to the women around them, and wondering if they measure up. Focusing on God is a battle.
Of course, worship is not just a Sunday morning affair, and neither is the battle over body image. Every time a woman turns on the television, strolls past a magazine aisle, watches the numbers rise on the scale, or spots that first gray hair, the battle wages on.
I cannot speak to the experience of men, but studies show that men fight this battle too. Images of six-pack abs, athletic builds, trendy clothes, and perfectly styled hair are all over the media…and if we're being honest, in many an evangelical pulpit.
For these two reasons—physical and spiritual—Christians need pastors to talk openly and thoughtfully about body image. The problem is, very few are doing this.
I can only speculate about why church leaders are largely silent about body image. Perhaps it's seen as a "women's issue," whereas the majority of pastors are men. Perhaps the topic is just too sensitive. Perhaps it speaks to a theology more concerned with the spirit than the body. Or perhaps it is an idol so entwined in Christian culture that we hardly even notice it.
I don't know the reason for the silence. But I do know Scripture speaks into that silence. If the church is to be a prophetic witness to a culture that degrades the image of God in the human form, we need to teach Christians how to think about their bodies.
Since most pastors are men, and body image primarily impacts women, this can be tricky territory. Body image is a delicate issue fraught with shame, so it's important to avoid framing the message as a rebuke. Instead, I would advise male pastors to consult with women before addressing the topic from the pulpit. Then, rather than issue a reprimand, consider offering them the biblical and theological tools they need to think Christianly about their bodies.
Here are some of the many biblical categories that help us navigate these waters:
· Body image and the doctrine of creation. A robust doctrine of creation helps us to think about our bodies as intentionally designed by God.
· Body image and love of neighbor. When we contribute to a culture of comparison, we pressure others to do the same. By resisting the cult of image, we show love to others, and help them to love themselves.
· Body image and parenting. We will not teach our children to love and embrace their God-given selves if we fail to model it for them. How we treat our bodies, change our bodies, and talk about our bodies will impact how our children view their own bodies.
· Body image and stewardship. Our finances reflect our priorities. In a country that spent $12 billion dollars on body altering cosmetic procedures (which doesn't include make-up, hair styling, tanning, etc), we need to think seriously about how much money we spend on our appearance.
· The post-baby body and the post-resurrection Christ. I have written more about this topic here, but it has always struck me that after the resurrection, Jesus still bore his scars. That truth has given me a new lens for viewing my own post-baby marks. Rather than be ashamed of them, I can celebrate the sacrifice and the new life they signify.
· Body image, marriage, and pornography. One way that men can help their wives is by guarding the images they consume. Pornography in particular and culture more generally gives men an impossible standard of beauty. When your wife is your standard of beauty, and you delight in the body she has, it is an invaluable gift you can give her.
In addition, consider these biblical passages as well:
· Psalm 139 is a powerful reminder of God's intentionality in our creations. He made us for a purpose.
· Song of Solomon—Although this book is often interpreted as an explicit celebration of sex and the female body, it is anything but explicit. The language is obscure and frequently non-specific. For all the detail about the woman's body, we don't know much about her appearance. The poet manages to celebrate the beauty of a woman without comparing her to any particular standard of beauty.
Body image is not a fringe issue. It is without a doubt ravaging members of the church in both visible and invisible ways. That's why I hope pastors will end the silence. I hope pastors will speak compassionately and theologically into the hearts of men and women who have this struggle. For the sake of their lives and for the sake of their faith, let's start the conversation.
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