How the Beauty Culture Blasphemes Our Bodies

this is the kind of beach image i'm okay with
this is the kind of beach image i’m okay with

In her memoir Bossypants, Tina Fey claims that everyone knows Photoshopped images aren’t real, but she also acknowledges that the culture of beauty has changed significantly since she was a girl. Back then, “you were either blessed with a beautiful body or not. And if you were not, you could just chill out and learn a trade.”

Today, however, “if you’re not ‘hot’ you are expected to work on it until you are… If you don’t have a good body, you’d better starve the body you have down to a neutral shape, then bolt on some breast implants, replace your teeth, dye your skin orange, inject your lips, sew on some hair, and call yourself Playmate of the year.”

I understand this implicit cultural expectation so well; for years, I struggled to remake what I was in the image of all I thought I should be. As I’ve written in my new book, Eat With Joy: Redeeming God’s Gift of Food, for years,

I absorbed magazines, TV, and movies uncritically and prescriptively […] everything about my appearance seemed wrong. But in America, the possibilities of individual determination are endless—you can become as rich and as thin as you determine to be!—and so I sought to change my body through all the ways that advertisements teach us is possible: the chromium picolinate supplements, the protein shakes, the NordicTrack, the chirpy aerobics videos, the Velcro-fastened ankle weights.

All that effort toward getting a certain look adds up to big business—more than $20 billion annually in the U.S. on cosmetics alone. It comes at a high price in terms of mental health, as numerous psychological studies have suggested what discerning parents have known for a long time: the more media images of stylized, retouched models a woman views, the more likely she is to become depressed and disordered in her eating.

That was me.

{Read this piece in its entirety at Christianity Today, where it originally appeared on Feb. 19}

What Was Missing From Youth Group Body Image Pep Talks

Julia Bluhm, center, has raised a stink about doctored images. (photo: guardian.co.uk)

Julia Bluhm, a 14 year old from Maine created a petition asking Seventeen magazine to commit to running one unaltered–“real”–photo spread in each issue. She brought a copy of the magazine to school, where, at lunch, she showed it to people and asked them to sign if they agreed.

She has gathered over 45,000 signatures.

Julia told the New York Times:

“I look at the girls, and a lot of them, like, they don’t have freckles, or moles, anywhere on their bodies,” she said. “You can’t, like, see the pores in their face, they’re perfectly smooth. Their skin is shiny. They don’t have any tan lines or cuts and bruises or anything like that.”

These ordinary features of human flesh, she said, can be disguised with makeup and lights. “At the same time, they can’t cover up everything,” Julia said. That leaves only digital retouching.

Editor-in-chief at Seventeen, Ann Shoket, admires Julia even as she’s understandably annoyed to have her magazine singled out among all the glossies that celebrate unreality.

There have been no promises about publishing an unretouched photo spread.

When I was 14, I read magazines uncritically and prescriptively. What’s worse–

“…the church had nothing to say that helped; by my lights, there was little difference between Christians and non-Christians in attitude toward food, bodies, and dieting. I never heard the ‘make your body perfect!’ message that screamed from every billboard and every TV commercial soundly refuted by some good theology, which it could have been.

Yes, there were Bible verses hinting at the “fleeting” and “deceitful” nature of “external” beauty, and Brio magazine was certainly better than Seventeen, but something was still missing. I’m still not sure what that ‘something’ was.

PoweredByGirl.org has this great thing where people can deface magazine covers. I am helpless to resist posting this one.

But when I read about Julia Bluhm, I feel like there is that ‘something’: she is taking a stand against the machines that manufacture discontent.

Maybe that was happening, too, when I was 14, but I don’t seem to remember it. I remember being told that condoms didn’t really prevent HIV. I remember being told that my body was a source of temptation to be covered. I remember being told that what was ‘inside’ was more important than what was ‘outside.’

But that it was good by virtue of being made by God? That it was not the enemy (or at least the opposite) of my soul/spirit? That it was not to be feared?

That I don’t remember.

What do you remember?

What is the ‘something’ that has been missing from Christian (esp. evangelical) body image pep talks?

For Children, “Fat” is the new “Ugly”

CNN has an excellent series on perceptions of beauty in contemporary US culture. This week’s was on how the age for body anxiety to set in is getting younger and younger:

“Fat is the new ugly on the school playground. Children as young as 3 worry about being fat. Four- and 5-year-olds know “skinny” is good and “fat” is bad. Children in elementary school are calling each other fat as a put-down.”

The message that “thin” = good and “fat” = bad is everywhere, and kids are pretty good at picking up on it. Children hear their parents talking trash about their bodies, obsessing over exercise, moaning about the pants that no longer fit, and chatting about whether they’ve been “good” and had a salad or whether they’ve been “bad” and had some cake.

And they hear adults saying unkind things about other people’s bodies. They learn from TV, from movies, from toys, from T-shirts, and from God-only-knows what else, too. I don’t exactly know what the answer is. I just know it has to stop.

The stakes are high–very, very high:

“People who diet a lot — and therefore regularly spend a lot of attention and self-control on what they eat — often don’t have enough focus for math problems or other exercises, says Jennifer Thomas, a psychology professor at Harvard Medical School. 

Even worse, Dr. Thomas goes on to say, is that people who severely limit their food intake for prolonged periods actually SHRINK THEIR BRAINS.

But hey, in a culture that worships the external appearance, maybe that’s a small price to pay for being skinny?

Seriously, though–and I’ll keep beating on this drum as long as it needs to be beaten–we’ve got to fight back.

It’s an insult to the Creator God to speak of anybody’s body with anything less than respect.

It’s an insult to a human being to be judged as if he or she were only a body.

I have cried actual tears over the time I wasted worrying about my body. No one goes to their deathbed thinking that things would’ve been better if they’d just made time to work out more and lose those last 10 pounds.

We just don’t have time for this nonsense.

What can we do?