Image crafter or image bearer?
Year after year, my students fixate on certain, predictable essay topics. It has led me to a full-out censorship campaign that goes like this: “I will die if I read another essay about . . . ” and then follows a litany of year-specific topics like the legalization of marijuana, violence in hockey, alternate energy sources, etc. But one topic that remains persistent, that sneaks under the wire in all kinds of topically-related disguises and haunts the work of my female students in particular who almost seem to need to write about it, is body image/self-esteem.
This year, one such essay caught my attention. A student wrote about the breakdown of face-to-face relationships because of the cultivation of “online personas.” She described her apprehension of getting to know certain people in real life because of their carefully crafted, “perfect” online profiles.
It hardly needs to be said that image-crafting has gone rogue in our culture, and I am not innocent of contributing to the epidemic. From choosing clothes in the morning, to putting on make-up, to orchestrating Facebook posts, even to creating lectures – how much of me is really me? There has always been a divide between the content of our hearts and what we reveal, but never has that divide been so hermetically sealed, isolated as we are in our porch-less homes and accountability-free online lives. As I battle to distinguish between what is real about myself and what is contrived, I am often reminded of Kjirsten Gruy’s impressive project, described in her book, Mirror, Mirror, Off the Wall: How I Learned to Love My Body by Not Looking at It for a Year. As the title suggests, Gruy committed to an entire year without looking at her reflection, and that year even happened to span her wedding day. How admirable. How reluctant I’d be to even try.
But then I think about wave after wave of female students, each year struggling, in the strangled voice of a research essay, to express the overwhelming pressure to be what they are not. I think of the growing number of voices trying to push against the tide of perfection standards, from product campaigns like Dove and Special K, to celebrity bloggers like Glennon Doyle Melton, to movements like feminism. I think of my tender daughters about to enter the heartless fray, of my five-year-old who already wants to check out her outfits in the mirror. And I want more, so much more, for the women of the world.
Theology of the Body
As believers, how can we be light in this area? First of all, we need to ask what is happening within the capital “B” Body. An article published last year by Christianity Today (“This is my body”) discusses the relationship between body image and theology. While studies show that theology is correlated to body image, the type of correlation depends on the type of theology. A theology of embodied-ness, that is, one that emphasizes the sacredness of the body and focuses on the belief that our bodies are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139) and “temples of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor.) relates to positive body image. Traditional teachings that the body is sinful and must be subdued like the rest of fallen creation correlate to poor body image. Conversations and teachings within the church may need to change, and the problem may need to be addressed internally before outreach is possible.
Individually, we need to be aware of our own image-construction practices. What things do we hide our selves behind, and which need to be sacrificed so we can better reflect Jesus? In what way, today, can I lighten the load for a person crushed by culture’s standards? Whether it is inviting someone in in the midst of mess, refusing to voice inner criticisms, changing or dropping a social media presence, or even just putting on that bathing suit and playing with the kids, small choices can and do create pockets of safety and change. As we reveal what is real in ourselves, bit by painstaking bit, we offer a new mirror in which our daughters and granddaughters, students and friends can see themselves.