I’m 14 and it’s the day of my best friend’s birthday party. It’s late September and the afternoon air is warm. I slip on my new singlet. It’s ocean blue with white vines wrapping the hem, cropped just below the belly button. I love it. I look in the mirror and my singlet doesn’t sit flat. I tug at it, trying to make it sit right. Hot tears start to sting my eyes and I can feel the lump in my throat start to grow and take up my airways. I need to fix this.
I walk down the hallway and into the kitchen. Opening the medicine cabinet, I find bandages and quickly stuff them into my pockets before running back to my room. Taking my singlet off, I wrap the bandages, starting at my ribs. I pull them as tight as I can, round and round. Tighter and tighter. Thinner. Thinner. Thinner. I tape it off and slip my singlet back on. Better. Skinnier. I slip a hoodie over the top. Now I can go to the party.
At the party, the bandages start to hurt. I feel them cutting into my skin. I keep my jumper on and pretend I’m happy. We talk about the previous weekend. The one where we all bought singlets. “I’m wearing mine!” I say, before I realise the implication. “Oh cool, let’s see,” a friend asks. My face flushes as I think about the bandages under my singlet. I pull the edge of my singlet out to show him. “That’s basically it,” I say. “I have to pee.”
Somehow every woman I know has compartmentalised their faith from their body.
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In the bathroom I start to peel away the bandages. Relief washes over my body. My skin is red and raw from where the bandages have rubbed and pinched my skin. I breathe deeply, savouring the sweetness of an ordinary breath. I grit my teeth against the pain and bury the hollowness I feel, and I wrap myself back up to look like the other girls.
I was 14 when I started wrapping my stomach in compression bandages, embarrassed and disgusted that my stomach wasn’t flat. One year later, I started counting calories. I was 18 when I was first praised for losing weight before my Year 12 formal. I was 19 when I bought diet pills online. I was 21 when I started restricting, binging, purging and exercising excessively. I have never been praised more or received more compliments than I did when I was seeking to destroy my body. Never has anyone in my faith community questioned my intentions or my faith when they saw these changes in me. Never have I received counsel about what God thinks about my body when I have waged war against it year after year. When it came to my body and how I treated it, God was outside the bathroom.
What has been most confusing for me, as a woman who holds firmly to the Christian faith, is the acceptance and praise of my shrinking body within the Christian community and the inherent acceptance of society’s ideal. Somehow every woman I know has compartmentalised their faith from their body.
For a community that is told to reject the culture around us, we’re just as caught up in the dieting and body ideals, the fat shaming and body judgement, the pride of appearance.
Every now and again we get hints of how we should be thinking about our bodies. The Psalms talk about how we are fearfully and wonderfully made. That God loves and knows our bodies intimately, down to the very number of hairs on our head. The lovers in Song of Songs speak poetically and adoringly of each other’s physicality. Genesis talks about the creation of man as the pinnacle of everything God has made. Made in the very image of God himself. In her book Wanting to Be Her: Body Image Secrets Victoria Won’t Tell You, Michelle Graham writes that “God drew on his own splendour to create your body.”
The apostle Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit.
Yet despite these seemingly clear messages in the Bible, body image is a subject buried in the church. We talk about the body in reference to the things it does – the way it gives us physicality, that we are called to give in service to God. The physical body also has a lot to answer for, but only really as an extension of the heart … “the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts — murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander” (Matthew 15: 18-19).
God cares what we do with our bodies, but does he care how we think about them?
In the 30 years I’ve been a part of the church, I’ve never heard anyone explain to me the theology of body image. I spoke with other women, who like me, felt there was a significant divide between their faith and the way they thought about their bodies.
So I went searching and thought I had found the answer when I came across the growing body image movement. An answer I very quickly found myself evangelising with zealousness. This is the good news. Repent of diet culture and believe! Body positivity, body acceptance, body neutrality, radical love of the body. This movement is all about opening up the conversation about body diversity. The problem is with society, not with our bodies. Body-positive activists rally against the prevailing messages that fat is bad and skinny or fit is good. They point out that this message of a body ideal has harmed a large proportion of the population by constantly telling them that their bodies are wrong and bad; that they are wrong and bad.
I have been deeply invested in this cultural shift because I am sick of hating my body and myself. I jumped at the opportunity to get out of the self-hate game and leapt excitedly into a world that seemed to align more with my Christian values. A world where all bodies are worthy, good and celebrated. I wanted desperately to learn to love my physicality because it’s what moves me through this world. My working legs mean I can walk my dog. My hands help me to play guitar and write. My lungs help me breathe. My arms and voice I can raise in worship to the God I love. Yes, the body is magnificent.
But has embracing this movement caused me to still be polarising, just with the opposing view? Have I exchanged one moralism for another, rather than looking to my own faith and worldview for answers? I find myself on Instagram and Facebook disagreeing with the underlying message that body positivity is promoting. As it champions your right to be proud, to claim your identity in being fat, curvy and big, this seems to be promoting the same thing as diet culture – it’s just disguised differently. However, it’s still an identity and self-worth built on pride.
A pride which can never satisfy or rest from comparison.
How do I reconcile all these concepts with my faith? I want to do away with the current trend and land on the eternal and divine perspective of the body.
Diet books are rife in the Christian world too, but where’s the Christian version of body positivity?
Diet books are rife in the Christian world too, but where’s the Christian version of body positivity?
I often scour the internet looking for books that seem at least vaguely theologically sound and helpful. But it’s much easier to find books like The Ten Commandments of Ultimate Health, The Makers Diet and my personal favourite, The Daniel Fast. Daniel was a prophet in the Old Testament, who asked for a diet of vegetables and water, rather than defile himself with the rich food and wine from the king’s table. The chief eunuch was concerned Daniel would become weak and their king would behead the eunuch for Daniel’s diet. Yet, after ten days, the chief eunuch found Daniel and his friends stronger and healthier than the young men who had eaten the king’s food. Application? It’s obvious – eat like Daniel and you too can look youthful and healthy!
So diet books are rife in the Christian world too, but where’s the Christian version of body positivity?
In all my searching for the Christian answer, I never considered looking at the Bible. It seemed too obvious and, in all honesty, like it wouldn’t provide a very satisfying answer. I talked to my minister who, you guessed it, encouraged me to look at the Bible and pursue the question of identity and to beware of moralism.
Even though I was brought up in a world wrapped up in the Bible and in Jesus’ mercy and grace, the world still seeped in. My mum was critical of her body and weight. My dad was critical of my appearance: too fat, too skinny, too many pimples. I became critical of my body and weight. My family looked at society and we found ourselves lacking, when we should have looked to Jesus and seen that we were fully loved and fully known.
I used to wish I was one of those people who found Jesus later in life; sometimes, I still do. That I would have this life-changing moment where the veil was lifted and I saw the world anew. But I grew up in a Bible-believing, church-every-week household. Where grace was said around the dinner table and I would often wake up to find my mum reading her Bible in the kitchen. I was given the freedom to question reality, and I did, renouncing my faith on a number of occasions. Yet when I looked critically at the world and at the Bible, I kept coming back to it and deciding this is the truth, whether I like it or not.
I long for the fresh perspective that Anna McGahan woke up with after ruminating on words from the book of 1 Corinthians. Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received as a gift from God? (see 1 Corinthians 6:19). After years of tormenting and beating her body into submission, she awoke to truly see her body as a temple, a gift given to her to cherish and grow.
As she writes up about in her memoir Metanoia: A Memoir of a Body, Born Again, she became a servant to her body instead of a slave driver. McGahan perceived something that I think many of us lose when we look to society for answers about body image. As she examined her body in light of her newfound faith and trust in Jesus, she saw her body as God saw it. She saw it as a home for his Spirit, a place he himself created, and saw that it was good.
You don’t need to change, and you are worthy as you are because God says so.
From my endless Googling, Metanoia is only one of three books I found that, in part, talk about body image from a Christian perspective. The other two were Graham’s Wanting to Be Her and Tim Keller’s The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness: The Path to True Christian Joy.
Three books that say, “You don’t need to change and you are worthy as you are because God says so.” Books that don’t actually have the message I was hoping for. Instead, they have something better.
A new, renewed view on the body, such as McGahan has, is referred to as “self-forgetfulness” in Keller’s book. A self-forgetful person is filled up by Jesus. Being loved and known by him means these people are not puffed up by others, nor are they deflated by them. They are people who see their reflection in a shop window and don’t admire or cringe at it. Idealistic much? Yes it is, but it’s possible. This of course goes deeper than an issue of liking our physical bodies – this goes right to our very identity.
It’s the same for McGahan. In becoming a Christian, her whole perception of who she was changed in a very real way. Her newfound relationship with her body is an outworking of that change.
In the book of 1 Chronicles, King Solomon built a temple in which the ark of the covenant could be placed. The ark held the Ten Commandments etched into stone, which God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai. The temple was ornate, priceless and incredibly breathtaking. A temple for God himself to dwell in. Now, we are that temple. God has chosen to dwell in us. He does not place demands on us to change in order for the Spirit to reside. He does not require us to fulfil a societal standard. He requires us simply to be willing.
Have I handed my body, my pride, over to God? Do I view my body as a sacred place he has chosen for his Spirit to dwell, and does that fulfil me? Can I look in the mirror and be satisfied with who I am, knowing I was created with an intention and purpose beyond my physicality?
So it turns out my minister was right when he said to look into identity. Smart guy.
I wanted to yell and shake people out of their diets and their obsession with this ideal of how bodies should look, but my alternative to diets and the thin ideal was just another form of moralism and had the same prideful identity.
Reading McGahan’s book was like the opening of the floodgates that led me back to the Bible. She speaks so poetically of how the Bible led her to a true understanding of her body for the first time. Yes, God does care how I think about my body. He has always cared. He cares that I understand that I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
When I look into the Bible, I see God declare that my body isn’t just good, it’s very good. When I am struggling to accept my body, when I wish it were different, I remember that I was handcrafted by God. I see in the Psalms that I am made of the same splendour as that of the mountains. Who am I to say the creator of the world got it wrong?
I haven’t had an McGahan-esque moment, where God has healed me of body image issues overnight. I still sway violently between taking pride in the way I control my body and taking in pride in letting it go. But in between those moments, I can hear God calling me to a more wonderful way.
Jenny Denny is a musician and writer based in Sydney. You can find her songs anywhere you listen to music. She splits her weeks working for Emu Music and hanging out with her toddler.
This article was first published on Eternity in 2020.