Breaking Free

How we can love our own identities

"Interestingly, in a day when diversity is celebrated, the cultural prescription for beauty is a narrow, one-size-fits-all mentality. And that one size is a skinny size few women ever achieve," says Dr. Linda Mintle, a licensed family therapist who specializes in weight and body issues. Since the desire for beauty comes with such huge consequences, we asked Dr. Mintle for insights on weight and self-esteem.

Measuring Up to Our Culture

Kyria: Why is obesity increasing in America while the culture keeps promoting ultra thinness?

Dr. Linda Mintle: We're repeatedly exposed to unrealistic cultural images that affect our thinking, so many of us give up and overeat, feeling we can't measure up no matter what we do.

Then why do we still compare ourselves?

Because we're uncertain of our identities. Comparisons are our attempt to feel better about ourselves and bolster our esteem. The real issue is, where do you find your esteem?

And the answer is?

Take the self out of self-esteem and replace it with God-esteem and you have a different picture. If you try to love yourself apart from God, you'll fail. Esteem doesn't come from your appearance, your work, your family, or other people. You're highly esteemed simply because God created and chose you. God doesn't say, "If only she'd lose five pounds, I could love her more."

So is focusing on physical appearance wrong?

Not at all. You don't have to ignore your outward appearance to develop inner beauty. It isn't wrong to look as nice as you can with what you have. And the better self-care you exercise, the better witness of a balanced life you are to unbelievers.

How can we practice self-care in moderation?

"Just five more pounds" is most women's mantra. But you shouldn't try to lose weight unless you're mentally, spiritually, and physically ready to change your lifestyle. Diets don't work. A study by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the University of Washington showed the yo-yo dieting many women practice negatively impacts the immune system. And we're all familiar with the frustration of losing and gaining weight. So it takes a mental toll, too.

Then should we fight or accept those pounds?

If you need to lose a few pounds, do it sensibly. Cut back on portion sizes; walk more; drink plenty of water. And be sure to check with your physician—especially if you need to lose a larger amount of weight. But if it's just an extra 10 or 15 pounds just won't go away, then maybe it's time just to accept them. Get off the scales and on with your life!

Taking Control of Our Thoughts

How can we overcome the propensity toward obsessing about our appearance?

The key is to be aware of our thoughts and stop those that don't align with God's.

That sounds easy, but it isn't always. How exactly can we control our rogue thoughts?

We need to make a conscious, daily effort to renew our minds with the truth of God's Word. I love to read the Psalms because God speaks so personally to our distress. And I like to insert my name in Ephesians 1:4: "Long before he laid down the earth's foundations, he had Linda in mind, had settled on Linda as the focus of his love, to be made whole and holy by his love" (The Message). If I don't stay grounded in Scripture, I can easily start to feel inadequate based on what I see in the culture around me.

So you've struggled with beauty issues?

Yes. In addition to being a redhead with pale skin, freckles, and crooked teeth, I have bumps on my thighs.

Growing up in a beach town by Lake Michigan was difficult. I didn't tan, and those bumpy thighs were obvious in my bathing suit. I always felt unattractive, comparing myself to the tan, blond, blue-eyed popular girls. So I focused on school and grades, and hoped my body dislike would disappear.

When did your insecurities finally diminish?

In my early 40s, when I was worshiping God during a church service, I heard the Holy Spirit speak my name. Linda. That name means beautiful in Spanish, and that's how I see you—beautiful. No matter how many times others had told me I was beautiful, I had to hear it from God.

Something clicked, and I felt the burden of my negative body image leave. Then God reminded me of his words in Isaiah 43:1: "'I have redeemed you; I have called you by your name; You are Mine" (NKJV). That was such a freeing experience. When I realized I was God's good idea and my design wasn't a mistake, I accepted my body.

Covering Up Our Struggles

Are appearance issues more difficult for Christian women?

Using food to cope with loss or change seems to be a more acceptable than using drugs or alcohol to numb our feelings. Food is an acceptable addiction in the church.

Why don't Christians usually condemn the misuse of food?

Because sharing meals is biblical. Jesus "broke bread" with his disciples, performed miracles with food, and gathered with friends to eat. Food is also one way the church community expresses care and love. When someone is ill, we take her a meal. The church fellowship time on Sunday morning often includes pastries and coffee. Many large churches have cafés and food courts.

But when food takes on meaning it was never intended to have, it becomes a problem.

How is using food as a coping mechanism harmful?

Focusing on what we think we can control—eating and dieting—can be easier than dealing with issues we feel are out of our control. But working on the outside without addressing the inside doesn't work long term.

Too many of us allow the physical to distract us from the emotional, relational, and spiritual aspects of our lives. We can easily assess and correct appearance in the mirror. But we tend to avoid working on invisible emotional pain because we fear we won't be able to resolve it. So we let our outer beauty cover up inner struggles.

What are the signs of a cover-up?

You might change your hairstyle rather than work through a difficult parent relationship. Or you might diet to get a false sense of control over your life when your marriage is falling apart.

One of my clients, a single woman in her mid-30s who couldn't sustain a dating relationship because of her unresolved family baggage, had plastic surgery after every breakup. She felt she had to perfect the physical in order to hold onto a man. After six major procedures, she finally agreed to tackle her past so she could approach her relationships more healthfully.

When we read God's Word, listen to his voice, and pray, he changes us. Altering the physical doesn't fix the internal. Only Jesus can set us free from our insecurities.

For more information on Dr. Linda Mintle, visit www.DrLindaHelps.com.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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