Labor or Love in the Concept of Body Image
We’ve had a pretty messy love life. Just when I thought we were almost happy; just when I thought we were beginning to understand each other, she betrayed me.
I tilted my head up to catch the shower spray, then lowered my chin to let the water run in rivulets down my cheeks and neck then spill down my waist to the floor. A few single drops pooled in my belly button. Dashing them away, I wrenched the water off, stepped from the shower and wrapped in a towel as quickly as possible. I didn’t want to see the mirror.
“Why do you do this to me?” I screamed at the reflection of my soggy self. “Why are you bloated today? Do you have any idea how fitted that dress is?” My helpless reflection stared back revealing a zit on my imperfect chin, milky skin that refuses to tan, knobby feet and a bloated belly, despite the towel.
A sticky note fluttered to the floor, wilted from the top corner of my mirror by the humidity in the bathroom. Some cheesy line about loving my body. Believe me, I’ve tried everything possible to make this relationship work. But it isn’t easy.
There are two schools of thought, both of which I have studied diligently. Ironically, they were birthed of the same principles but, after years of devoting myself to each of them I am convinced that neither works. And even if they did, I’m not sure that the end they are meant to achieve, namely loving my body, is what God desires.
First, there’s the idea that in making my body lovely, I will also make it lovable. This philosophy relies on specialized and often expensive workouts and diet programs based on everything from blood type to gender to skin color. A quick Google search reveals billions of “proven” ways to sculpt the dream body worthy of love and acceptance. Much like Cinderella’s painful, patient wait for Prince Charming, if I’m willing to put in the pain and wait for the pay off, I can have the body that everyone envies.
Second, there’s the mantra that every body is lovable just as it is. To believe this, I need to twist my mindset to accept and celebrate my body including all its bumps, irregularities, rebellious bulges and discolorations. That’s the other half of the more than 1 billion hits I got on my Google search for “love my body”. There are campaigns for this, marches, mantras and 30 day challenges. There are almost as many books on body acceptance as there are programs for body transformation.
The problem with both of these solutions to my estranged relationship with this body is that neither one works. I’m having trouble simply flipping a mental switch and deciding that my body is lovable even with its unlovely attributes. And I’m having trouble muscling those unlovely attributes into the idea image.
Frustrated, I flopped on my bed, still wrapped in a towel and prayed out loud. “God, please help me to love this body you gave me. I’m so tired of fighting with it.”
Then came the most unexpected answer, “Who says your supposed to love your body?”
“Well, everyone,” I blurted out.
“I didn’t create you to love your body. I created you to use it.”
Now that’s something I hadn’t considered before. In the long process of my recovery from anorexia, even good, Christian counselors encouraged me to love my body. Curious as to what God was implying, I wrote what the Holy Spirit whispered to my heart.
In human relationships, we’re often reminded that love isn’t a feeling, it’s an action. Love involves work. So how do we give credence to this philosophy of loving our bodies just because they are?
Love is always a result of work. You’re familiar with the phrase, “A labor of love”. This is obvious in the most iconic love relationships. God loves us because He created us. He loves us because of the work of His Son on our behalf. We love our children more with each passing year of laborious investment. Lasting marriages are the result of many years of work.
“I want you to use your body to forge the foundations of loving relationships,” God told me. Then He continued prompting my spirit.
In third world countries food and survival is achieved by the sweat of the brow. Can you imagine, a sturdy African mother lamenting the unloveliness of her body? Can you picture sticky notes full of positive affirmations lining her walls? No, she uses her body to express and to receive love. It is her tool, her means of consuming God’s gift of life and of pouring that love and life into her family.
God created physical bodies as tools, as our means to experience the delights of His creation, and as our means to express His love to others.
In Scripture, the only thing we know about Jesus’ appearance is that He was not lovely. “For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.” Is. 53:2
However, Jesus was the embodiment of our God who is love, and He certainly used His body to love us.
This focus on the use of our bodies as opposed to a life-long effort to love them does not enforce the lie that we must work harder to make our bodies lovable. Instead of changing the means by which I try to love my body, God is convincing me that my body was not designed to be the object of my love in the first place. This is not self-serving work to create loveliness, but a use of the body to internalize and conduct the love of God.
What if the means of satisfaction, of feeling real love, of expending real love, or being caught in the middle of it instead of trying to isolate it, contort it, create it, manage it, control or force it - What if the means to happiness in my body is the use of my body?
Have you ever noticed how a happy child is too busy using pudgy fingers to experience the word or depositing hugs and sticky kisses or seeking the comfort of a loving parent, to wonder how it feels about it’s body?
I was not created to have a relationship with my body. It is a pleasure receptacle and conduit. I’m so grateful that it exposes me to soft puppy tongues, eyes wet with tears, bloody knees and broken hearts. I’m thrilled that it amplifies my praise to Abba and allows me to reach up to Him, to walk to the weary and encourage the sad, to know my husband, to feel God’s creation.
I needn’t love my body to use it. Perhaps in the labor of loving I will someday give my body its due respect, but I will use it all the while.
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