As a PhD student in early Christian theology, I describe, analyze, and evaluate ancient texts. I have also been, I think, a relatively thoughtful Christian for most of my life, so the texts I study inevitably intersect with my own experiences and beliefs. Remarkably, this intersection has often proved most edifying on the subject of body image—an issue I have long wrestled with and about which the contemporary church has largely remained silent.
I am twenty-eight-years old. For as long as I can remember I have had severe anxiety about my appearance. But I didn’t entirely understand the extent to which that anxiety affected me until I met the man who is now my husband. The first time he kissed me, I trembled, and I cried. But it was not from any abundance of romantic feeling. It was because he was so close to my face, close enough, I imagined, to see every flaw.
I also wept the first time I let him touch my bare, clean face, knowing that beneath his gentle fingers lay scars and scabs that were left from a recent round of my obsessive skin-picking. It was a habit I had fallen into as a teenager, one that started as an attempt to deal with acne but quickly evolved into a form of self-punishment. My sense of worth was bound up in how I felt about my appearance. And if I felt ugly, I had a sense that my ugliness ought to be further displayed. So I created more blemishes. I was also convinced that I was too short, my breasts were too small, and my figure too girlish and skinny.
I know I am not alone in my struggle. Research shows that the majority of women, including adolescents and even young girls, feel dissatisfied with their bodies. But the heart of the problem is not merely dissatisfaction with bodies but their objectification. Art critic and writer John Berger perceptively observed that the experience of “being looked at” leads women to see themselves as “an object of vision: a sight.” Psychologist Rachel Calogero argues “that the sexually objectifying experiences encountered by girls and women in their day-to-day environments lead them to internalize this objectifying gaze and to turn it on themselves.” In other words, women and girls begin to view their own bodies as objects distinct from themselves—objects that, importantly, must be sexually attractive to be valuable. Women receive these objectifying messages not only through social interaction but through the nearly inescapable exposure to media. Such was certainly my own experience: the images of flawless actresses in advertisements and television shows, the photo-shopped models on billboards and magazine covers, and the frequent comments from those around me regarding my appearance or that of other women pressed home the message of my own deficiency.
Because the female body that the culture upholds as ideal consists of generally unattainable and even incompatible physical characteristics, the majority of women will always fall short. Consequently, it is hardly surprising that self-objectification is associated with depression, sexual dysfunction, and eating disorders.
I’ve never heard this issue addressed from the pulpit. Certainly some churches affirm women in their “inner beauty” (though others tell women that “sometimes the barn needs a fresh coat of paint”), but mostly these concerns with body image go unnoticed or unmentioned.