Healthy Body Image

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It is easy to see a physically healthy person and assume they have everything together. However, health exists on a spectrum; neither extreme is healthy, so it is our job to find balance between the two: control and carelessness, fasting and feasting, legalism and complacency. If a person who is overweight looks at a person who struggles with anorexia and wants to look like them, both the means and the end of that effort are going to be destructive. Our culture knows that comfort and laziness are guilty pleasures (read: sin), but the behaviors and outcomes at the other end of the well-being spectrum are valued as healthy, moral, and desirable, and are therefore much harder to pinpoint when they are actually destructive.

1 Corinthians 6:19-20 says, “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” If you were raised in the church, you might have heard this verse a lot in relation to body image discussions; it is sometimes even used to justify obsessive attention to physique. However, if we focus on “your body is a temple” without “to the Holy Spirit within you,” we will find permission to justify all kinds of things. Who or what is your body-temple currently worshipping? Comfort? Netflix? Your Creator? Or yourself?

Exercise is a celebration
of what your body can do,
not a punishment for what you ate.
— unknown

Did you know that the pursuit of physical health can become an addiction? Exercise addiction is a real thing, and orthorexia is a fancy name for being obsessed with healthy eating. I sat down recently to interview Julia Stephenson, a Licensed Professional Counselor at Christian Changes Counseling and Recovery Center here in Starkville. When asked about the root cause of these and other body image disorders, Julia pondered that they potentially come from several sources: “fear of weight gain, [the] belief that a certain weight makes someone more deserving of love [or] happiness, or a comparison to underweight people in the media.” She continued that obsessive behavior in any direction boils down to a “desire for certainty” (read: control), and having body weight under control is directly related to that need for control. It is important to remember, says Julia, that “a specific weight or body shape rarely objectively relates to health status and tends to be overvalued,” and people’s overall health could be improved if they “could have the courage to seek wellness and happiness rather than a rigid way of living.” This screams that the pursuit of physical health is largely not physical at all, but in a world that says your value is based on how you look and what your measurements are, how do we redirect our hearts to be in line with how God wants us to think about ourselves? 

Julia suggests “finding clarity about what you want and if your behavior leads to the outcome you want.” In case you don’t feel like doing much soul searching to answer that question, the Bible handily answers it for us: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Colossians 5:1). Jesus did not die so that you could tie your worth and your attention to what your scale says about you, what your Fitbit says you should be doing, or how many ounces of water you drink in a day. You have been set free by your Creator, you are not a slave to your food, whether you serve it by feasting gluttonously or fasting legalistically; you were designed to be more than the sum of your consumed calories or macro and micronutrients. 

With so many young families in our church, I know that there are a lot of new moms who no longer recognize their bodies, and I want to share some specific encouragement from Julia (the quotations) and myself with you:
Dear post-partum mom,
From your little one who can’t say it yet, thank you for the incredible gift you gave them of a safe place to grow and develop. Thank you for sacrificing your body so that God could bless the world and your growing family with the gift of a new life. “Allow yourself to feel discomfort with your new body, and don’t expect yourself to go back to your old clothes and activities right away,” if at all, because that “doesn’t acknowledge how incredible this change is.” Allow yourself to be broken because our God makes all things new. “Patience is vital, and this time of life is unlike any other.” Take the time to “pamper yourself and focus on bonding” with your new baby and your husband and other children, if you have any. God wants to use your brokenness for growth and beauty, so don’t let it become self-loathing. You are strong. You are beautiful. You are a useful, treasured daughter of the King, wife to a new daddy, and mother to a new life. Claim your identity as those things, not the lies Satan tries to slip into your heart. You can do this.
With love, Kathryn

Pursuing physical health in a way that doesn’t completely wreck our spiritual and emotional health can be an incredible challenge, whether you view yourself as physically healthy already or you think you need to lose a little weight. Start by praying Psalm 139:23-24 over the process: “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” Julia says that “loving your body is… letting go and surrendering, which can create a feeling of vulnerability and can open a person up to the experience of many different emotions, some positive and some negative,” and just like any form of true love, loving your body is a choice that requires daily grace. Expecting perfection from a broken body is like expecting perfection from a broken human; the result of our sinful humanity is separation from our perfect God, bound by imperfect bodies. When you are frustrated by your lack of physical perfection, remember your sin: not your perceived sin against yourself by skipping a workout or eating those French fries, but the sin of daily choosing this world rather than your God. Then remember that you are both body and spirit, not just one or the other; discipline both with grace as you pursue stewardship rather than punishing both with legalism in the pursuit of perfection. 

Practically, here are some tips from Julia to help you get there:

  • Be aware of comparing yourself to others and how much time you spend doing it
  • Keep a journal of thoughts and feelings throughout the day
  • Reach out to the people you trust and ask them if you think you might have an obsession
  • Value your body: it’s a friend, not an enemy
  • View nutrition and exercise from several steps back: monthly vs. meal by meal
  • Recognize what feels good more than what looks good
  • Listen less to impossible standards
  • Don’t be all or nothing: strive for balance
  • Use healthy metrics: your body is a tool, the scale is a tool, your food is a tool
  • Don’t be afraid to seek professional help

The last tip Julia gave me was incredible. She said that people recovering from eating disorders are encouraged to view food as morally neutral—not good or bad, not healthy or unhealthy—some foods are for every day, some are “sometimes foods,” and some are just for special occasions. The thought process behind this advice is that we tend to internalize the categories and judgments we place on the foods we eat rather than viewing food simply as fuel for the things we do. I challenge you to try that for a day and see how it changes your perspective. 

Food is not a resolution—
it’s fuel for your resolutions.
— Special K

Here are some questions to help you evaluate how you think about health and your body:

  • Have I ever avoided a social function because the food served didn’t fit into my health guidelines or because it would mean I might miss a workout?
  • Do I take pride in the fact that I eat really healthy foods in a really disciplined way?
  • Do I frequently bring up my imperfections in conversations with friends or family?
  • Can I say and believe that I love my body for what it is?

Finally, understand that life change and body change go together, whether it’s puberty, the freshman fifteen, newlywed weight gain, pregnancy and post-partum changes, or menopause and aging. Julia advises that you “meet yourself where you are: don’t hold yourself to a standard that was only appropriate in the past.” In different phases, different internal and external factors will impact what your body needs and what your body is capable of, and Julia encourages that “people need to be patient with themselves as they make [those] transitions.” 

For Parents

As a parent, an important thing you can do for your kids when it comes to body image is to “identify and come to terms with your own body image struggles, or you may impose distorted values on your kids,” explains Julia. “Value activity, energy, joy, comfort with oneself, and confidence” in yourself first, because your children will learn a lot from how you act as well as what you say, even if you think they are not watching. “If your child says, ‘These jeans make me look fat,’” Julia continues, “don’t immediately correct or dismiss them, rather, be a facilitative listener. Ask something like, ‘You don’t like the way you look in those jeans?’,” even if it makes you uncomfortable. You don’t want to “miss [an] opportunity for them to explore their body image. De-emphasize body shape and size, rather than caring so much about it,” and know that boys and girls, men and women, all experience pressure in that area. 

“For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Colossians 5:1)