Body Beautiful

I struggle with the notion of embodied faith, not because I don’t like the idea, but because I don’t like my body. My body is a place of deep imperfection and frustration. It’s never thin enough, perky enough, cute enough, strong enough, or beautiful enough.

As the chaplain to a small women’s college my misperceptions of my own body rise to the surface on a regular basis. My day-to-day actions set an example for the women around me. The amount of rest I get, my fitness level, my stress level, and my eating habits are of as much interest to the students as my theological knowledge or spiritual well being. We often imagine that the minds of small children are like little sponges, absorbing everything around them, and assume that by college age this formation is done. But college students are much the same, soaking up the adult world around them, trying on identities to determine which ones might fit. I know that just as they try on the personas of the other students, they will also try on my identity to see if it mirrors what they would like to be themselves. I would hate to find out that my body issues reinforced or supported the same self-loathing behavior in anyone else.

You see, that’s just the problem. These ideas about my body didn’t just arise out of thin air. They are part and parcel of the persona I tried on and then accepted for myself. The media, conversations with family, and interactions friends all reinforce these ideals. I watch the women and men who are made over by “What Not To Wear,” analyze the characters on “LA Ink,” and laugh at the strange perfectionism of the women who grace the screen in episodes of “Dr. 90210.” In conversations with my family we talk about what we are eating, our size, our weight, and inevitably how we aren’t pleased with any of it. For years I have struggled to find a mental space where I would love my body no matter what size it may be. I purchase clothes that are flattering, diet, or exercise only to be briefly pleased with the results. I find that I return to the same place of self loathing in short order, regardless of what I do. Not that long ago I purchased People magazine just to read an article about Jennifer Love Hewitt’s response to appalling tabloid photos displaying her minimal cellulite so that I would have a visual reminder that we are all beautifully, perfectly, imperfect.

Now, I realize that these images and conversations might not affect others the way that they affect me. I still think that those diet advertisements and skinny little fourteen year old models dictating what a grown woman (or man) should look like seep into our unconscious. When I look in the mirror, I don’t first consider God’s spectacular creation. I look for what might be considered a physical flaw when held up against impossible standards, and my inner battle continues.

I don’t really believe that I will ever be completely free of this struggle with my body image, but I am always looking for a little divine inspiration to keep me focused on the important stuff, this embodied faith that tells me that God’s gifts are great and the body that carries me from place to place is a talented wonderful vessel.

Over the past few months examples of women who love their bodies, like the article about Ms. Love Hewitt in People Magazine, have brought some wonderful perspective to my life. These pieces of grace have continued to encourage me to love what I have been given.  I am pleased to now share them with you.

The Shape of a Mother – www.theshapeofamother.com

Mothers are fantastic, magical beings whose bodies have nourished and sustained all of us. Yet they often feel compelled to cover up the changes that take place in their bodies as a result of motherhood. The Shape of a Mother is a website that lays bare these changes in the body and opens the door for women to explore and celebrate their bodies. Note – this website may not be considered “work safe”. I suggest exploring it first at home and then sharing it with friends and colleagues as appropriate.

The “I Love My Body” pledge - http://harrietbrown.com/Spread-the-love.pdf

Harriet Brown, writer and author of a fantastic NY Times article on her daughter’s struggle with anorexia, “One Spoonful at a Time,” has written a delightful pledge reminding us of the importance of speaking kindly to and about our bodies.

007: Breasts - http://www.007b.com/breast_gallery.php

Do you know what normal breasts look like? This website aims to expose the truth; variety is natural! Breasts come in a large variety of shapes and sizes all of which are normal, natural, and as they were intended to be. Plastic surgery has allowed us to buy into a vision of what breasts should be that is entirely unnatural. Give yourself the opportunity for a little re-education. Again, this website may not be considered “work safe” by your place of employment. Please surf this site at home and share it with those friends and colleagues who will see its value.

How to Look Good Naked - http://www.mylifetime.com/on-tv/shows/how-look-good-naked

This is a new television program, found on the Lifetime network. I happened upon it one day when I was feeling spectacularly cruddy. By the end of the episode I was ready to take on the world one unhappy woman at a time. What I love about this program is that it shows the participants and viewers how skewed our perspective can be by asking the participants to place themselves in a group of women based on a measurement - so far I have seen this done based on waist size and hip size.  Each time the woman is convinced that they are much larger than they actually are. I find it extremely affirming to know that I am not the only person out there who really has no idea how they “measure up” and that as we begin to believe in our own beauty that beauty shows in unexpected ways.

So, one of my resolutions for 2008 is this: for the sake of my students, my family, and myself, I am throwing out the magazines that tell me that I should edit, alter, undo, and perfect my body. I am making a resolution to ignore the messages which tell me that what I have isn’t good enough. Because, friends, my body isn’t just okay. I’m darn cute, and I’ll be just as cute when I’m eighty! I will feed myself that which nourishes my body, I will exercise to strengthen this gift, and I will continue on this journey of loving myself the way I love others.

 

Kate Smanik Moyes is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA). She serves as a college chaplain in Pennsylvania where she is thrilled to have the coolest job in the world. Who wouldn't want to get paid to encourage and support delightful, intelligent, capable, engaged, strong young women every single day?

Comments

Very well-said, Kate. I have recently realized the effect of my own dissatisfaction with my body, also, suddenly hearing clearly all the horrible things I say to myself. These are things I would never said to another person, even if I was really angry with them! I have vowed this year to learn to love myself as God loves me, looking at all my imperfections and accepting them as part of myself. I have also been trying to listen to the voice of those who tell me I am beautiful (my husband and good friends, mainly) and trying to trust their voices above my own in this arena. I recently read "Plan B" by Anne Lamott and she has some wonderful things to say about loving your body.

Thanks. I needed this today.

I just spent a weekend with junior highs, and there was the inevitable "I'm fat" conversation...tiny little 12 years olds talking about how fat they are. How sad. I'm not sure how to respond when this conversation begins.

I think you're tight, though--to a large extent, we get to embody bodies for people so what we do and say and eat, and how we treat ourselves maybe says more than telling a 12 year old she's not fat.

I admire and appreciate your honesty, Kate. Brava.

Two books that really helped me think and speak pastorally on body-image were actually by a social historian, Joan Jacobs Brumberg, called Fasting Girls and The Body Project. I got re-appointed (Methodists!) in the midst of doing a discussion group at my last church with girls and their moms around The Body Project, but until then it was going well. I'd recommend it to anyone who works with young women.

Also: aren't the body's imperfections and vulnerabilities what make the incarnation so miraculous?

Wow. This is a really great article, Kate. I struggle with this stuff, too, as I'm sure we all do to some level. Those websites are really inspiring, as are your thoughts. Thanks for being brave!

One of the best sermons I've ever preached talked about my health (body) struggles as the analogy for the body of Christ which also does not always work perfectly. I (still) love it because it will always be true for me (and the Church).

This is good stuff. I'm not fond of my body, either. Partially because of its size, partially because of the frequent pain I am in due to back issues and myofacial pain. It's helpful to hear how someone else frames their struggle. And, working on a university campus as well, I appreciate your reflections on working with students. (And, on a personal note, I look forward to seeing you in Portland very soon!)

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