I’m going to start this post like I usually start such posts: with a story. Theology, like other areas of study, searches for truth that transcends experience, but it has little meaning to an ordinary person like me apart from experience. Hence, stories. WARNING: This is long, and I’m going to be rather transparent – possibly even shockingly so. This isn’t a plea for help as much as it is me thinking through issues in a public way in case such thinking helps someone else do their thinking too.
I was always skinny enough. I never struggled with my weight as a teenager. I hated myself as much as any other young person with ebbing and flowing levels of depression and an overactive sense of guilt, but it manifested itself in other ways. I was pretty comfortable in my body. My mom always made sure we knew that the human body is a beautiful thing, and it doesn’t have to look like the ones on TV. This was easy to believe, since I always thought my mom looked just as pretty as the women on TV. Aside from the odd diet and the acknowledged fluctuation of a few pounds, Mom never complained about her body. She strove for balance, and I got off pretty easy compared to many young women whose psychology of image was screwed up before they even got to middle school.
I didn’t really encounter real “weight issues” until I was in college, and when I did, I was largely oblivious to it. That was the first time I had friends who struggled with weight and for the most part I didn’t see it. I dated a guy who was very overweight, and I didn’t care, but that also meant that I was completely out of touch with the fact that he was losing and gaining 10 or 15 lbs on a weekly basis, and that was a key factor in his ongoing depression. I had a good friend who struggled with weight and I wasn’t bothered, but that also meant that she lost 40 lbs before I even noticed. When my friends would open up about the issue, which was rare, I sensed deep undercurrents of shame that impacted everything about their lives, and there wasn’t much I could say except “wow, that must be hard.” I wanted to say so many things, but how could I without sounding like a jerk? I wasn’t any better than them for being naturally thinner.
I also encountered, for the first time, the phenomenon of body perfectionism. I remember the first time one of my friends, who is a runner, extremely fit, and quite skinny, went on and on about how she struggled with her weight. I was extremely confused, but I didn’t think I could say “what the hell is wrong with you?” without, again, coming off like a jerk.
It was weird. I was grateful for the fact that my body was proportional, if not totally twiggy, but I felt kinda bad that I didn’t struggle with how I looked as much as everyone else apparently did. So slowly, subconsciously, I learned how. I learned how to look in the mirror and fuss about my tiny bit of tummy pudge, about the extra roundness in my neck, about the backs of my arms. I tried to like running, because it seemed like it was supposed to make you feel good about yourself, but it never worked. I honestly didn’t care that much about being skinny, but having an honest dislike of myself, I subconsciously picked up the cultural expression of that dislike that I saw around me, even while consciously trying to fight it.
Fast forward almost a decade. I gained the freshman 15, turned it into muscle while in Mexico, lost it when I got back, gained another 10 lbs when I got married, and gained 5 lbs for every pregnancy I lost. By the time I got pregnant with Naomi, I was in the last little yellow box on the BMI chart at the doctor’s before getting into the angry red “overweight” boxes. I couldn’t pretend I was skinny anymore, but I still kinda fit into the same pants, I was proportional enough, and I just tried not to think about it.
Then I got pregnant. I loved it. I loved the fact that my little bit of tummy pudge had a purpose now – it was making a home for a new person! I wanted to make sure I was eating enough to keep her healthy, so I went a little crazy. I realized things were getting out of hand by around 5 months, but by then I had taught myself to comfort eat, I had a weird joint condition that kept me from exercising enough (and/or gave me an excuse not to). But I felt beautiful, I felt sexy, and I was sure nursing would make it all go away. By the time I was 8 months pregnant I had gained a shocking amount, and when Naomi was born only 20 lbs of it went away.
I didn’t feel guilty, and I wasn’t putting pressure on myself; I’ve matured to the point that I know instinctively that I don’t have to feel bad in that way. But that means I skip straight to ignoring, and in this case that meant ignoring my physical existence. Naomi was a couple months old before I realized I was wincing every time I walked past a mirror. I read this story that helped me see both what was in my head and what the consequences were. I read this story that showed me that many women who have babies struggle with this exact thing. (I do actually recommend you stop reading this and go read those two articles as part of the backdrop of what I’m going to go on to say.)
Here I was, telling Naomi every day that she was a beautiful little girl, earnestly believing it with all my heart, and wanting to her to believe it too. And at the same time, here I was, genuinely believing that I had no hope of being beautiful again until I lost about 50 lbs. I realized rather quickly that the latter belief would utterly trump the former hope. Naomi has no way of learning to love herself, and accept God’s love, in a way that I cannot love myself or accept God’s love.
I find few things as viscerally motivating as the well-being of my daughter. For neither the first nor the last time, Naomi is a gift from God to teach me how to walk in His love.
Since this realization, I have been trying to muddle through the morass that is in my head about beauty, bodies, vanity, health, weight, perfectionism, laziness, self-love, self-acceptance, and obedience. I am very far from finished, but here is what I have come up with so far.
First, a brief word about the relationship between theology and culture. There is a sense in which Christian truth balances worldly truth, and a sense in which it completely replaces worldly truth, and it is easy to get these senses completely confused. The fact is, we were created to be embodied creatures, and that what is true and good matters alongside what is beautiful. So the fact that our culture cares about beauty isn’t a bad thing. The fact that it cares about what we do, that it has things to say about image and health, are not bad things. However, the system of beliefs the world puts forward about beauty and health and image is completely confused. So confused that only a complete re-wiring will get us out from under its sickening influence. However, we must be careful not to confuse a rejection of a worldly system with a rejection of embodiment. Too many Christians have done this and settled for a sort of gnosticism in which embodiment doesn’t matter, only abstract fleshless ideas about ourselves. This doesn’t work, so Christians end up coming up with unreflective, vaguely Christianized versions of self-help weight-loss self-improvement schemes that try to say “inner beauty is all that matters!” while sending you to aerobics classes set to pop Christian songs. (I have no problem with Body & Soul; I’m just pointing out the contradiction.) Neither of these things will do; we have to replace a false understanding of embodied existence with a true one, and adjust how we act accordingly. This is in reality a replacement of idea systems, but its outworking might look more “worldly” than more mainstream Christian approaches, because if your ideas are fixed, you are free to use the world’s tools in a Christian manner.
What I actually see in my [white, upper/middle class American] culture is an immensely complicated and contradictory system of perfectionism, gnosticism, and self-indulgence. Yes, we are set an impossible standard of female beauty; we all know that and talk about it all the time. You don’t have to be a Christian to know this is true. There is a myth that every woman out there spends her life trying to achieve that standard of beauty, and that what we need is to be unshackled from that goal. Well, that is sort of true. I think that is only true of the most successful of us, the skinny runners who sit around talking about how fat they are. My suspicion is, unless you have a marginal hope of being successful at achieving that impossible goal of beauty, you just can’t live under the psychological strain. You have to be pretty good at something, really, in order to be an effective perfectionist.
What I really think is going on is that our culture idolizes two “virtues”: beauty and financial success. By “virtue” I mean they are things you achieve by hard work, and that you get to feel self-righteous if you achieve them. Success is quite parallel to beauty; the “heroes” of our public propaganda are rich as well as beautiful. I think men have these exact same struggles as women do, but with the success element more offsetting the beauty element. In other words, as a man, if you have an awesome career, you don’t need to be svelte in order to have “earned” self-respect. This is not quite true for women; although the pursuit of success on their part is more accepted, it’s also expected that women who achieve success will also achieve beauty. (I think this is probably increasingly true for men as well; Henry Kissinger seems anymore to be an image of the exception that proves the rule.) Anyway, all that to say, even though I’m going to keep talking mostly about women, and about “beauty” and “image,” I think the problems (and therefore the solutions) apply more broadly. Because again, it’s difficult to strive for something you can’t achieve, and it remains more difficult for most women to achieve independent financial success, so I think more women don’t struggle on the success plane quite as much.*
On the other side of these two virtues, our culture has another idol: comfort. Many of us just don’t learn to work hard anymore. I don’t say this as a frumpy old person who thinks young people are lazy; I say this as a lazy young person who never had to work hard at anything until I had a kid. I didn’t even know that’s what was going on, and I imagine other people learn to struggle and work hard at other things. And many of us work really hard our whole lives and never achieve what we had hoped for. So many of us give up on the hard work thing altogether, and instead say, if I can’t achieve what I want, I’m at least going to make sure I’m not too uncomfortable in accepting what I’ve got. (This is still a theory on my part; I’m trying to conjecture sensibly and not just project my inner tendencies on the world. If you disagree utterly, just bear with me.)
Let’s zoom in for a minute and talk about this American virtue of beauty: what is it, how is it true to what it means to be human, and how is it false and unhealthy?
It is disproportionately visual. I say visual and not external because there are loads of true things about external beauty that this cultural standard doesn’t value terribly much, but it is true that we spend a disproportionate amount of our time looking at the people who are supposed to be our standards. And I don’t mean any kind of visual, but particularly photographically visual. We spend hours every day on the internet or watching TV or reading magazines or whatever, and almost all of that involves some kind of visual representation of people. When you encounter someone in this fashion, you make a judgment about them – consciously or otherwise. You see how they are dressed, how they are portrayed, their features, their proportions, etc. You compare yourself to them. In this way, we have all one way or another become students of the human image. In a former age, you only saw the people you physically saw, people living and moving in front of you, and that way of evaluating someone’s beauty is different. Just think of someone you know who you think is beautiful but who isn’t terribly photogenic. Or of those very old pictures from Victorian times when no one smiled – because everyone’s teeth were bad. There’s nothing wrong with photographic depictions of people, but our disproportionate exposure to humans by media instead of personally has skewed our image of beauty.
Within this being photographically visual, there are certain traits of beauty which this culture puts a high value on. Every culture has traits they over-value – think of the old fashion of small feet in Chinese culture, or of the current predilection for light skin in some Global South cultures (like the newspaper a friend of mine saw in India that had a picture of Condaleeza Rice with skin touched up to look almost white!). In our culture, the overwhelmingly over-valued trait is thinness. Thinness, thinness, thinness. This isn’t universally so, but the exceptions tend to prove the rule by how much note is taken of their exceptionality. (I.e. “plus size” models – what?! They are like 6-12’s! Maybe! That is perfectly normal and healthy for most people!) There is a certain amount of health in this – Americans are also disproportionately overweight, so there are health reasons for many of us to be thinner. But our predilection for thinness, at least among white women, overwhelms other traits, like having a beautiful smile, or dressing well, or wearing makeup, or anything else. I found it easy to pooh-pooh this standard and see past it when I didn’t struggle with it. Now it’s another story all together.
Now, for Aristotle, the virtuous hero he described who had achieved balance in all the virtues he described, was right to take pride in his achievement. Pride was indeed the chief of virtues. When it comes to the American virtue of “beauty,” though, it’s a different story. If a woman is well-dressed and well-made-up, and especially if she is skinny, there is a proclivity of other women to assume she is shallow, or that she puts too much time into her image, or that she cares too much about what people think of her. Now, it is certainly true of some women that they put a great deal of effort into being thin and fashionable, and in so doing they have achieved all that is required to feel good about themselves. When this results in a neglect of the inner life and other virtues, this is very unfortunate. But I have had many friends comment to me that so-and-so must be shallow because they are fashionable, when I know for a fact that so-and-so is a very intelligent, reflective person. Sometimes this is pure jealousy, but sometimes such observations are encouraged by the conflicting message that “inner beauty is what matters!”
In other words, there is a double standard, coming at us from both angles. One must choose between Pelagian perfectionism on the one hand, spending oneself trying to reach a ridiculous and skewed standard with an inordinate and weird importance put on it by our over-exposure to photograhic media – or on the other hand, one can choose dualism, that inner beauty is what matters, so we can consume whatever we like and take care of ourselves however we want (as long as we’re comfortable), and if you do happen to be making an effort to look good, you must be a shallow jerk. We can’t win, so many of us live in a weird middle ground – trying to convince ourselves that beauty doesn’t matter while we flail about trying to get thinner, bouncing back and forth between perfectionism and despair, or trying not to care while we either go nuts or our bodies go to crap.
So what is the alternative?
I’m not really qualified to answer that question. I haven’t read Theology of the Body or any of the other books out there that try to provide an alternative theological framework about physicality or beauty. I don’t have time to read thousands of pages; I have a kid to raise. I have to start figuring out how to live more sanely today. Here’s what I’ve found so far:
1). Thinking helps. For me, at least, understanding the problem is half the battle. If I can see what is going on in my head, if I can pick out the bits and say, “okay that’s jealousy, that’s perfectionism, that’s self-loathing; this is wrong this way, this is wrong that way, this is sin, that is deceived, that’s half-right but skewed” then just knowing that and keeping it in my head can cause me to redirect. The first time that happened in a big way was when I found that I really believed I wouldn’t be pretty again until I was thinner, and I really believed that I could be skinny again one day like I was when I was 17. I knew that was silly, but I felt myself clinging to it. I prayed about it, I tried to acknowledge the truth, but I felt almost literal fingers in my heart grasping onto that stupid hope that I could get thin again, and that then things would be okay. (Whether or not I can get skinny again is not the point; the problem is believing that that will fix my self-image). I kept confronting it, and being disappointed when I realized I just couldn’t let it go. Then one day I woke up, and I found out that I had let it go. I imagine this doesn’t always work, or if it does, it often takes much longer.
2). Inaction doesn’t help. At least not much. I avoid feelings I don’t like, and if I don’t start doing something about my problems, at least in a small way, I’m not going to get anywhere. So a 15 minute walk has started making its way into my life. Slightly better posture. It’s not regular, it’s not particularly good. But it’s making me face the issue and keep it in front of me and not let myself forget it for another month.
3). Inasmuch as I am able, stop hating my body. This is easier said than done, of course, and I am in an awfully fortunate place in that I don’t have decades of body-hating ingrained in my brain, and I didn’t grow up around women and men who were constantly criticizing themselves and each other’s bodies. And frankly, some of how I look right now is not just “how God made me,” or an innate result of the good work that is childbearing, but is the result of laziness and misfortune. So to some extent, I’m not supposed to like where I’m at. But I’m never going to make progress if I make some future state a contingency for accepting myself. So I’m going to try to look at myself in the mirror without wincing. I’m not going to be fussy about what pictures of myself end up on facebook. I’m not going to try to make myself feel guilty for how I feel, but just try to remind myself of the truth every time I feel that way. (Caveat – it’s taken me a lot of inner work over a long period of time to get to the point that I love myself enough already to be able to do this.)
4). Thinking about beauty in terms of action, not ontology. Jared told me about a study (I wish I could reference it but we both heard it second hand, probably through facebook) in which a bunch of kids were given a test, then offered the chance to take it again. But before they got the offer, half of them were told “You’re really smart!” and half of them were told “If you work really hard at something, you’ll do well.” Unsurprisingly, more of the group given the latter message elected to take the test again. I’ve been thinking about that: if it’s about what you are, what you’ve achieved in yourself, you’re under threat. But if it’s just about what you do, where you’re going, there’s always potential and less to be afraid of. How might that apply to beauty? It means that any day that I choose to, I can get up and look my best. Not in a fake way, but in a taking-care-of-myself-so-i-feel-good way. I can straighten my hair, put on earrings and a little makeup. For you it might be something different.
But in a much deeper way, this means embracing the fact that no matter what they wear, a virtuous person is beautiful. Externally. When I was in high school, working at the local mall, I wasn’t paying too much attention one day when pulling out of the parking garage, because I apparently cut this lady off. I couldn’t hear her through both of our closed windows, but she looked at me with a face full of anger and animosity, and it was not difficult to read the profanities she very enunciated in my direction. My immediate thought was, “wow, she looked really ugly when she did that.” The way she was cursing at me, with her face full of hate, made her look ugly. In the same way, I’ve had jobs that involved photography a couple of times, and I have been stumped by a couple of women who I’ve always thought were perfectly beautiful, but who I could not for the life of me capture a good picture of. That might just speak poorly of my photography skills, but I think it also means that being actually beautiful – and not just in some gnostic “internal” sense, but in a way that is external and touches people – is very thoroughly possible without having that particular kind of beauty that is easily captured in pictures and film, but is communicated in person.
I think Naomi is the most beautiful when she smiles. Her smile fills me with joy and makes me so happy. I’m not saying that you have to be happy and smiley in order to be pretty, and faking positive feelings is the new makeup. (That lady in the parking lot was probably just having a bad day, and that’s allowed.) I’m just saying that I want to teach Naomi that the way to be beautiful isn’t primarily by wearing nice clothes or doing your hair just so – that’s just making the most of a good thing. The truest way to be beautiful is by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. That’s a little much to communicate to a baby, so I’m just trying to replace some of the times I say “you’re so pretty!” with “Your pretty smile makes me so happy!” It’s rather subtle, but perhaps you get what I mean.
I’m not trying to fix anybody – not even myself. I know that even if I am a perfect mum to Naomi (which I won’t be), she’ll go out into the world and be affected by it too. I’m not trying to come up with some new positive thinking thing to fix everyone’s problems. I just want to stop ignoring the elephant in the room of my brain.
If you feel like sharing, tell me in the comments – where are you at with all this?
*I have also been informed that this may only be an accurate presentation of white culture. There are other virtues for minority women that are more substantial, like strength. And other ideas of beauty might not be quite so strapped to thinness.