Infirmity is not the only problem we encounter with our body. It is possible to experience minimal health problems and yet still find that our body causes us deep and lasting grief. Bodies are not just subject to infirmity; they can cause us shame.
For some, the shame comes from appearance. We might feel as though there is something deeply wrong with some aspect of how we look, convinced that in certain key ways we do not measure up. Some can even feel disgust with the entirety of their body.
These feelings seem to be on the rise in the West. In 2014, 54 percent of women described themselves as “unhappy with their body,” and 80 percent said that looking in the mirror “made them feel bad.” These numbers are significantly higher than in previous years. I am sure there are many contributing factors, but one is surely that, more and more, we are being presented with unrealistic standards of beauty. Models and actors are subjected to training and dietary regimens that are often unsustainable, hugely expensive, and extreme. And even then, images are cropped, airbrushed, and recolored so that the final image we end up seeing on a giant poster may not actually be anyone’s actual body but a weird hybrid of one or more people and a whole lot of digital editing.
The trouble is, the end result is presented to us as representing the bodily perfection to which we should all aspire. It may not be how the actual model or actor looks, or at least how he or she looked for long, but we’re left thinking that the model is what human beings are meant to look like. Author Matthew Lee Anderson notes that earlier generations were not exposed to such outlandish standards of beauty.3 The best-looking person you’d see back then was likely in a newspaper or magazine, or someone you knew in real life. But it was a real person. Today we all collude in upholding an expectation of beauty that is virtually fantastical. No wonder we view our bodies as increasingly flawed. We’re not comparing them to the best of our species but to the best of our species’ imagination.
Whatever the cause, body shame is a serious issue for all of us, men and women alike. The impact around us is more and more evident. Over the past couple of years or so, as it’s come up in conversation that I’m thinking through what the Bible says about our bodies, many people have opened up about their own experiences of body shame. I’d always known that body shame isn’t uncommon, but I hadn’t anticipated just how widespread it is. It may actually be abnormal not to struggle with it in some way.
Shelby, a good buddy of mine, is in his mid-thirties, married, and has a great job where he can use his creative skills as a writer and speaker. I’d always assumed Shelby is a confident guy. He is good at what he does and really likable. But then he told me how he struggles:
Here’s the thing—I’m short. I’ve always been that way, and from a very early age, I can remember being made fun of for being below average when it came to height. Naturally, I joked about this on a regular basis to get laughs and protect myself from getting injured by the cruelty of people’s words, should they be inclined to get laughs themselves at my expense. I would just try to beat them to the punch.
On one occasion, as a student, Shelby was hanging out with some friends. Two of the girls said they were about to take off and asked if any of the guys wanted to walk them back to campus:
I quickly volunteered to walk them both back, and after doing so in what I could only assume was an attempt to be funny, my friend Anne looked at Kirsten and said, “Does he count?”
And because I was regularly willing to shell out short jokes about myself, Anne probably felt comfortable that night doing so, thinking it would be funny and really no big deal. What Anne didn’t know, however, is that I would carry that little three-word question with me for years to come. It would deeply wound me and define the heart of my struggle in life as a person, a man, a friend, a romantic option for a girl, a missionary, and even a child of God.
Sharing the incident with me even decades later, Shelby choked up. These words had truly haunted him ever since, hanging over his life as a constant charge against him. Those words made him believe his height was forever proof that he is diminished as a man, as a person, and even as a Christian. But then words do that. And words about people’s bodies can particularly do that, because our bodies are so often things we have little control over. When we pass a verdict on someone’s body, we are passing a verdict on something about who that person is that he didn’t necessarily choose and can’t necessarily change. No wonder Shelby was so deeply scarred by what they said. Such wounds can easily stay with us for the rest of our lives.
One of the curious features of body shame is how varied it can be. Someone struggling with one kind can be baffled that someone else would struggle with another kind. I’ve known some guys who don’t ever want to take their shirts off at the beach or the pool because they’re overweight. I’ve known others who won’t do the same thing because they’re skinny. Those in the former category can sometimes wonder how someone could feel shamed about being thin. But that’s how these things work. One thin friend shared that when he was growing up, he was always told men were meant to be powerfully built. Being scrawny was a sign you weren’t a real man.
The nature of body shame is that there’s no one variety. We all seem vulnerable, especially in our formative years, to hearing or seeing things that trigger a deep sense of shame about the way we look.
The Bible speaks to bodily shame. When Adam and Eve turned against God in the garden of Eden, it wasn’t just their relationship with God that was spoiled. Their relationship to each other and to themselves was also affected. The first thing to happen when they each sinned against God was that they became physically self-conscious:
Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths. (Gen. 3:7)
Previously they had been naked and unashamed (Gen. 2:25). It would never have occurred to them that nakedness was anything to be ashamed about. Afterward, in Genesis 3, everything had changed. They were still together as a couple and would remain so. They would continue their one-flesh relationship (Gen. 4:1). But they no longer felt completely safe around each other. A deep instinct had arisen in each of them that they needed to cover up, to self-protect. Exposure had become something to fear.
We’re now, it seems, hardwired to feel a sense of vulnerability when it comes to our body. We fear not just literal nakedness but a more general sense of being uncovered. We don’t want to be seen. We fear the shame it could bring. This being so, we need to be careful not to make our own words the cause of someone else’s physical shame. In the case of my friend Shelby, it was just three syllables: “Does he count?” That can be all it takes.
A few years ago I was flying to Sydney, and the plane flew high above a vast bushfire. The scale could only really be appreciated from the height of 40,000 feet. Horizon to horizon was scorched. I couldn’t begin to calculate how many thousands of acres were affected, and yet all this havoc was likely started by a single spark. Just like what can happen with our words:
How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life and set on fire by hell. (James 3:5–6)
There is another reason why these sorts of comments are so serious. When we disparage people because of the way they are physically, we are not just disparaging them; we are disparaging the God in whose image they have been carefully made. A person may be the intended target of a cruel joke or comment, but God is the one who is ultimately insulted. We are asserting that he has made something substandard. We insult not only what he has made but also him for making it.
I think of another friend who has struggled with an eating disorder over the years. At its worst he had been dangerously thin. He explained that part of what had been going on was that, because of some earlier abuse he had experienced, he had come to view his body as shameful and so felt a compulsion to make it as thin as possible. Food became not something to enjoy but merely calories and micro-nutrients to quantify. Thankfully he has begun to think about himself differently and to achieve a much healthier weight.
These are obviously highly complex issues. The examples I’ve given happen to be men. Most of my pastoral encounters are with men rather than women. And given that many people today still think body shame is predominantly an issue for women, it might be helpful to consider these male examples. The effects of the fall touch all of us in varying ways. All of us experience something of the shame of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3. All of us feel the need for covering. All of us have some degree of self-consciousness. In many cases, the brokenness is not so much the body itself, but how our experience has taught us to view the body. The brokenness of our culture, our family, our friendship circle, our own distorted view of who we are meant to be and what we are meant to look like—all these things interact and contribute to our sense of shame.
Underlying all of it is our collective and individual turning away from God. Whatever relief and help we may be able to find from other places, we ultimately need to come back to God.