The Body as Battleground: Eating Disorders, Yo-Yo Diets, and the Survival of the Thinnest by A. David Wall & Caleb Mitchell & Travis Stewart
The entire article appears at TheOtherJournal.com; an Intersection of Theology and Culture and was originally published in December of 2007. The following excerpt is my contribution to the article.
ObjectificationRecently, on a cross-country flight, my seat-mate and I struck up a conversation about our culture’s infatuation with youth and beauty. As an eating disorders specialist, I was pleasantly surprised by her healthy views of the body. As the conversation ended, however, she said, “And if you don’t like your body, you can always change it.” She is right. For the first time in history, we can change our physical selves dramatically through braces, rhinoplasty, colored contact lenses, liposuction, extreme plastic surgery, and, of course, diet, exercise, and eating disorder behaviors.
There are human benefits from some of these medical advances. Thousands of women benefit from reconstructive plastic surgery following breast cancer, retaining a sense of normalcy and femininity. Plastic surgery has benefited countless trauma victims and cleft palate patients. Yet, biblically, the belief that if we do not like our body we should change it suggests a flawed and broken view of what is good and right about the human body.
Channel surfing reveals TV shows such as Dr. 90210, Extreme Makeover Home Edition, and The Swan. These are built upon the premise that if you do not like the current state of your house, car, or body, the right people and enough money can dramatically change your life. The flaw in our culture is not that we love to renovate and recreate, for our God is a restorative God. One day, he will execute the most extreme makeover of all when he brings about the New Heavens and New Earth. Rather, our problem stems from seeing the human body in the same way that we view a computer, car, or house. Our bodies have become objects, rather than essential parts of our person.
Bodies as Objects of DisplayThe objectification of the body goes far beyond women’s bodies being treated as a sexual objects, but does not exclude it. In our culture, the human body is something to be sculpted, shaped, improved, and reduced. It is an object that is regarded as separate from the person. Men fantasize about sex with a woman’s body, but not about relational intimacy with the person inside. Adolescent girls admire the thin bodies of Paris and Lindsay, but give little regard to their unhappy lives. A “hot” body is seen as a possession to display, much like one shows off a new car or iPhone. It is meant to impress, attract, and even intimidate those around you.
Bodies as Objects of WorkWe see our bodies as something to work for or to neglect. When a fit young woman displays herself in a bikini, we may hear, “She should be proud to show it off. She’s worked hard for that body.” And for the obese we may say, “He’s really let himself go.” Rather than commenting that someone’s “kind eyes,” exude compassion, we talk about cleavage and six-packs. Rather than being thankful for our legs that carry us throughout the day, we complain about varicose veins and cellulite.
Bodies as Objects of DominionIn previous generations, one of life’s greatest joys was ownership of land. To cultivate and harvest a crop from one’s own land was the dream of many. Even if you did not own land, you were likely engaged in the cultivation of the earth to provide for the needs of your family and community. But now, in post-industrial civilization, most people are engaged in technological and service industries, and direct contact with the earth is diminished. The place most people call their own is the square footage of their home. So over what do they exercise dominion? What can they cultivate, improve, or impact? For many, the answer is the body. Tattoos, piercings, dieting, and eating disorders take on an element of exercising dominion over one’s body. Toning muscles, tongue piercings, and refusals to eat red meat even take on a spiritual dimension. An advertisement I recently saw at a fitness club demonstrates this: “Your Body is a Temple. Train Accordingly.”
Bodies as Objects of PleasureIn our culture, bodies are treated as something that should experience pleasure nearly constantly. From dining out to maximizing sexual pleasure using tips from Cosmopolitan, the message is the same: Do what it takes to feel good. Although one cannot deny the pleasure of a good massage, heated car seats on a cold morning, or the sweetness of sexual intimacy, Christians need to see beyond the cultural belief that we should experience physical pleasure throughout the day. In fact, this belief contributes to many of our pathologies. Those who compulsively practice unhealthy behaviors often claim they do so because, “it feels good.” Athletes who push themselves to their physical limits describe the high of the burn, and those with anorexia describe how food restriction feels better than eating. Even some who self-harm do so because it feels good to them. Although physical pleasure may not be the only aspect of these addictions, it provides a compelling reason to continue.
Correcting the Church’s ErrorSecular culture is not the only source of our impoverished view of the human body. Influenced by ancient Greek thought, many in the church believe the dualistic teaching that the spirit is good and the material world is evil. In an attempt to steer believers away from sin, some teachers have muddied the waters about the nature of the body and sin. Christians who hear that they should avoid the sins of the flesh, without having a more substantive discussion on the nature of man and sin, can come to believe that any urge or instinct of the physical body is sinful. The literal flagellation of the flesh by some Christians, and the denial of pleasure by others, is the spiritual legacy of this belief. In fact, those with anorexia who are addicted to exercise often mirror ascetic beliefs and behaviors, believing they must conquer the mortal needs of the flesh like hunger and thirst in hopes of becoming better persons. The overweight are then condemned for their lack of spiritual discipline.
To treat our bodies as objects, products, or property degrades who we are, and leads to hopelessness through endless comparisons with the young, fit, and computer-enhanced. To try to make ourselves happy only by changing our bodies ignores the importance of the interior life. This leads to an identity crisis that intensifies every time a pound is gained or wrinkle appears.
To make humanity, God first created the details of Adam’s body, and then breathed life into him. As such, the physical is quite significant to who we are. We carry in our bodies the Imago Dei. God placed a physical man and woman into a physical place. This was not a temporary state, but rather a model for how people were to live out eternity. We will forever have bodies and live in a physical world. God calls this good. Therefore we must see our bodies as essential parts of who we are meant to be, not just objects to manipulate for a particular end.
Balanced exercise and diet can be a part of the stewardship of my flesh, and sexual purity an honoring of the temple of my body. Yet I am much more than a consumer of food and sex. Learning to appreciate the beauty and complexity of the body is part of learning to live out our identity in our bodies. We interact with the world everyday through our bodies. With our faces we smile or frown; with our arms we console a child who has fallen; with our hands we serve food to the hungry; with our legs we walk beside a friend in need; and with our ears we listen to his woes. Our bodies are not objects, but are intimately interwoven aspects of our most personal identity.
A colleague at Remuda Programs for Eating Disorders tells a story that beautifully illustrates a biblical view of the body as intrinsic to a person’s identity. A husband was spending a weekend with his wife, who was in treatment for anorexia. During their free time, she found herself standing in front of a full-length mirror. Aware that she had gained weight while in treatment and experiencing the paralyzing thoughts of anorexia, she asked him, “Do you think I’m fat?” Gently, the husband walked up behind her, put his hands on her arms, and said, “I love your arms, because with your arms you hold me at night. I love your legs, because with your legs we go for walks in the park. I love your belly, because inside it you carried our children. You are perfect for me.”
We must gain a proper sense that we are whole people—body, soul, and spirit—who can develop and mature both physically and spiritually, and that these aspects of our identity are intimately intertwined. We must change our errant beliefs about the body, seeking to honor God through our whole lives—our beliefs and thoughts, actions and feelings, and our bodies. As we embrace this biblical understanding of ourselves, a growing peace and grasp of reality will allow us to offer our whole selves to God and others.
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