I was eleven years old and my cousin was the ripe old age of eight years old when she told me that she was going on a diet because she was fat. (She wasn’t a bit overweight, but that’s beside the point.) She didn’t come to the conclusion that she needed to diet all on her own, nor does any other woman I know. She heard the message about body shame that is echoed in our culture. As women today, we are bombarded with explicit and implicit messages about our bodies and beauty that often sound like the following:
Thin is beautiful, and thin is at least ten pounds less than you weigh right now.
Acceptance comes through your physical appearance, so keep it up at all costs.
It’s not feminine to enjoy food, exude self-confidence, or ignore the current fashions.
You’ll only be attractive to men if you conform to the cultural standard of beauty.
Your mom skimps on food, complains about her appearance, and obsessively works out. This is your destiny, too, as her daughter.
We live in a culture where body shaming is on the rise. In “Body Shaming: What It Is & Why We Do It?” eating-disorder clinician Erika Vargas describes three ways body shaming manifests itself: “1) Criticizing your own appearance, through a judgment or comparison to another person; 2) Criticizing another’s appearance in front of them; and 3) Criticizing another’s appearance without their knowledge.” Their summary provides a helpful definition of body shame: “No matter how this manifests, it often leads to comparison and shame, and perpetuates the idea that people should be judged mainly for their physical features.”
Shame Sneaks In
When have you experienced body shame? Was it something a family member said to or about you, or the way a man looked at you—seeing only your body and judging you accordingly? While writing the chapter on body shame in my book Unashamed, I asked a small group of women this same question. See if you identify with some of the examples they shared (pseudonyms have been used to protect their identities):
Patty described being an early bloomer, a feeling of shame at her developing breasts that makes her despise them even decades later. Lily said that even after losing significant weight, she still views herself as several sizes larger than she is and doesn’t connect someone discussing “a thin woman” as describing her. Lauren remembers an almost casual gesture, her mom pointing out a facial imperfection and then seeking to brush it away.
I remember feeling ashamed in middle and high school because I was too skinny—and let me tell you that “skinny” has a very different connotation than “thin.” Body shame catches you on either end of a culturally-defined, ever-elusive, “perfect” weight and shape.
Body shame can take on generational overtones as well. Consider as an example the unspoken food rules that can develop in a family. Because mom never eats dessert and only eats small salads, her daughters are expected to do the same. When those daughters grow up, they’re likely to exert similar unspoken yet potent influence on their own daughters. What might have begun as a good desire to eat healthy and exercise can morph into destructive eating disorders or obsessive exercise when left unchecked.
What’s your family’s story about eating, exercise, and beauty? Who is praised and who is criticized? Can you define the line between “healthy” and “unhealthy”? Who has influenced your own dietary and exercise habits? How much time do you spend in front of the mirror—and does what you see cause you to feel good or bad about yourself?
If We Know the Truth, Why Do We Still Believe the Lies?
As Christian women, we are not immune to body shaming. In fact, we often simultaneously perpetuate it and are victimized by it. The problem isn’t only external to us, coming at us through a culture of body shaming or our families' false stories of worth connected to physical perfection. We often fall prey to body shaming because we are desperately seeking worth and identity outside of what’s been given to us twice over as Christians: We’re created in God’s image and we are given a redeemed, perfect beauty through a new identity in Christ. Yet we repeatedly reject our true identity that’s fulfilled as we rest our gaze on the beauty of our God, choosing instead to chase after an image we see reflected in mirrors of our own making. Our deepest problem is a worship exchange. We feel empty and victimized by body shaming because we have exchanged our true glory for false images.
To overcome body shame, we need more than messages of “throw out your beauty magazines, makeup, and scales.” We need rescue. Body shame has emotional and spiritual consequences. It’s one way that we forfeit the freedom that is our birthright as beloved daughters of God. Emotionally we may have a hard time believing that God loves us and that he has created us “fearfully and wonderfully” (Psalm 139:14, ESV). We then experience difficulty loving and being loved by others with whom we’re in relationship in our families, churches, and neighborhoods. Body shame wreaks havoc not only on our bodies, but on our souls, too.
Our hope is that just as Christ saves our souls from sin, he is also working to set us completely free of all shame. He sends his Spirit to remind us of who we are. We have a powerful antidote to the body-shame poison we ingest from the time we are young girls. We have a Redeemer who took on physical flesh and whose appearance Scripture describes as far from physically perfect: “There was nothing beautiful or majestic about his appearance, nothing to attract us to him” (Isaiah 53:2b, NLT). In God’s upside-down kingdom, the deepest problem underpinning our body shame was decisively dealt with through an unattractive man who willingly exchanged his divine majesty for humble humanity so that we could receive forever beauty.
Your Real Body, Your True Worship
Instead of joining in our culture’s obsession with appearance (of which body shaming is a consequence), we can use our bodies in a way that fits with their divine design. Our bodies are not created to be objects of worship, but to be means of worshiping our Creator. The apostle Paul calls us to this in Romans 12:1: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship” (NIV).
Is there a qualification for what kind of body is holy and pleasing to God? Of course not! Whatever kind of body you have—whether you feel ashamed of it or proud of it—you are to offer it to God in worship. This feels impossible—and it is—without the Spirit’s indwelling presence. The Spirit moves us in the direction of freedom, reminding us of who we are and how much we are loved.
As the Spirit empowers us to worship God with our bodies, there are a thousand applications of what being a living sacrifice can look like in our lives. It means loving others with our whole physical selves, which will be costly. It may mean something as radical as leaving behind a well-paying job to give your life in service to people in another country. It could be as “ordinary” and common as giving birth to babies and raising your children. My stretch marks, extra pounds, and physical exhaustion at the end of each day remind me that it is costly to raise children, but God reminds me through his Spirit that this is part of laying down my life in worship which brings true freedom.
Choosing to say “enough” to excessive exercise and to be healthy but not obsessive when eating is a sacrifice of worship. Refocusing our hearts with the question, “Who can I love today as an act of worship to God?” instead of “How do I look and what can I do to achieve physical perfection?” brings us freedom from body shame one day at a time. Through the Spirit’s power, we begin to fight against the lies of body shaming and to write a new story which can impact generations to come.
Heather Davis Nelson is the author of the newly released book Unashamed: Healing Our Brokenness and Finding Freedom from Shame (Crossway). A writer, counselor, and speaker, Heather has degrees in biblical counseling from the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation and Westminster Theological Seminary, and she practices as a counselor in her church and community. Nelson has been a featured writer at the Gospel Coalition as well as a contributing author to the Journal of Biblical Counseling.