Body image has become the focus of controversy and multiple social media campaigns in the last few years. The extensive use of Photoshop in magazines caught the attention of many people and caused a brief media firestorm. The effects of this revelation, however, are still rippling through American culture. Social media has been filled with pleas for people, especially women, to love their body. Snappy slogans and hatch tags such as “beauty is not a size” and “#loveyourself” have inundated digital news feeds and dashboards across multiple social media platforms.
Even as the social media legions worked to start a crusade all about how people should love their bodies exactly as they are, those same people post images of impossibly fit people with captions such as “#goal” or photos of themselves with snarky tags such as “do you even workout?” and “what’s your excuse?” People claim that a person’s exterior is irrelevant. Then, they make sure their profile picture is them in a skintight swimsuit in a sexually provocative pose.
In this confusing soup of contradictory messages, anyone would be baffled. Are they supposed to want to be thin and work toward being tan, lean and fit? Are they supposed to embrace their imperfections and show off flab, lumps, thinning hair and rolls with pride? What does “working toward a healthier you will make you a more beautiful version of the beauty you already are” even mean?
Lucky for Christians, they get to deal with another element and extra variable in this miasma of inconsistent and clashing imperatives. Christians get to try and identify the most Christ-like way to deal with the mess that is messages about body image. Is it vain or promiscuous for a Christian to try and make their body conform to their mental image of their ideal self? Is it lazy or slothful to neglect the strong form God gave them? Should they even care about body image in the first place?
Christians are aware that external beauty is not the most important thing in the world. God does not care about a person’s physical attributes. He cares about their heart and faith. Although external beauty is far from the most important thing for a Christian to worry about, the Bible does not call for Christians to be ascetics and abandon any care for their appearance. The text understands that human beings generally like to look nice and makes it a point to describe more than one person as “beautiful.” The Bible even states that when fasting, people should “put oil on [their] head and wash [their] face.” In short, they should look their best. If one needs further proof that the Bible allows for people to take some small amount of pride in their appearance, they need look no farther than the Song of Solomon. Half the text is spent describing the lovers’ appearances.
So, Christians can think about their physical appearance. The Bible is clear, however, that this awareness and interest in exterior beauty must not become all-consuming or distract a Christian from their faith. Beauty and personal care are perfectly acceptable. Vanity and arrogance are not.
What does this mean for a modern Christian? It means that Christians need to keep things in perspective. They know they are made in God’s image. Thus, they are beautiful. If they want to look more attractive to those around them as judged by secular, societal standards, they are allowed to do so as long as they remain humble and faithful.
When trying to meet secular, societal standards of beauty, a Christian needs to keep in mind what they are doing and why. Their body is a gift from God and is crafted in His image. Christians thus need to take care of their body. Dangerous diets to lose weight are right out and purely cosmetic plastic surgery can be seen as interfering with God’s design in addition to the myriad of dangers that a person opens themselves up to whenever they go under the knife. Surgery is an essential branch of medicine, and surgeons are very well trained, but there is always risk involved with opening up the body and adding, subtracting or moving around bits and pieces of it.
As Christians are charged with taking care of their bodies and recognizing that they are made in God’s image, they need to stick with what changes they can make naturally. The human body as God designed it is meant to be able to fluctuate in size and form. That is how early humans survived. There is nothing wrong with taking advantage of this natural ability to pack on muscle or shed fat as long as it is done in a healthy method and for the right reasons. Wanting to look nice is fine, but Christians should be careful when thoughts of sex appeal come sneaking into a person’s mind. Wanting to look sexy can be a slippery slope.
As a general rule, Christians should avoid putting too much emphasis on meeting societal body image standards. Societal body image standards are fickle and difficult to meet. The 1990’s, after all, preferred a skinny, waiflike appearance. Ten years later, large breast and butts were all the rage. Shifting from one to the other would take a ridiculous amount of time, energy and resources, if it were possible for a person at all. That time and energy could have been better spent on something else. As such, Christians worrying about body image should change their focus. Keeping the body healthy should be the first goal. Beauty should come second. When those two intersect, it is excellent, but Christians should not be overly concerned with meeting an ever shifting ideal. Society will be forever changing its mind on what counts as beautiful, but God will not. Christians know all people are beautiful in God’s eyes because He crafted each and every one of them individually in His own image. Society will say “you look this way, so you are beautiful.” God says, “you are beautiful because you are mine.”