Words are powerful creatures. Sometimes sleek and smooth, sometimes coarse and rough. Once they’re out there, we can’t snatch them back, tame them, or change them. Of course, not all words are hurtful or intended to wound. But words that hurt can kill us slowly and painfully, like a torturer. They cut away at our confidence, they eat up our self-esteem. While we might be able to maintain outward façade of normality, we inwardly shrivel and die. In those hidden depths, we can look and feel like “The Scream,” by Edvard Munch.
One of the saddest times of my teen years was the utter helplessness of seeing one of my best friends waste away to a skeletal shadow of her real self. With a normal weight for her age and height, her 14-year-old world caved in when a teenage boy told her she was fat. Chalk up another victim of cruel words, as well as the evils of anorexia, one of the three major eating disorders, along with bulimia, and binge eating. She could have died. Thanks be to God that she didn’t. After months of medical intervention and loving care, she regained a healthy weight, but no doubt the psychological scars lingered like unwelcome specters, for a long time afterward.
Since my husband and I have been doing a fair amount of early-morning mall walking to get some exercise without fainting in the summer heat, I couldn’t help but notice the store mannequins serenely advertising their wares, lips sealed but seemingly smugly upturned behind the store windows. Each circuit left me feeling increasingly irritated by the evidently unrealistic body images being portrayed, and marketed to the naïve and vulnerable. With every passing step, I was left wondering how many more impressionable women will be unduly shaped and influenced by some improbable ideal of the “right” body image.
As Christians, we’re obviously part of the world, but our faith informs our choices, including where we shop, and how we understand our bodies in a healthy and faithful way. The fact that God sent His beloved Son, Jesus Christ, to live amongst us as the Word made flesh, tells us just how important our natural human form is to God. We are beautiful creatures of flesh and bone, blood and guts, hearts and minds. The fact that Jesus is resurrected in bodily form confirms that we’ll also have recognizable bodily forms in the resurrection. Our bodies will be healed, but our identities will remain intact. Since our bodies matter to God, in faith, we have good reason to take care of ourselves. It’s yet another aspect of being a good and faithful steward. It’s another way we can honor God with gratitude, and enjoy God’s gift of life in and through our beautiful bodies. Honoring God embraces a heartfelt desire to be as healthy in body, mind, and spirit as the constraints, or blessings, of our genetic makeup, and parentage will allow.
Our bodies are, after all, the means by which we love and serve God and our neighbors during our all-too-brief earthly sojourn. For many of us, it’s tough to love our neighbors, because we have a hard time loving ourselves. The only body image that’s worth our time and effort is having a clear and realistic picture of how we’re fulfilling our part in Christ’s body, as a mirror of God’s love and peace in the world. That is, how we’re using our bodies to share the good news of Jesus Christ, in word and deed. Live boldly and confidently, in the sure promise of God’s unconditional love. Whatever the world might say or do to shape our body image, God’s love is shaping and empowering us in much more important ways; the kind of ways that make an eternal difference. Fortunately, in the world of marketing, there’s a glimmer of hope emerging through advocacy and medical groups. Voices are speaking up, inviting stores to display a greater variety of mannequin sizes, with a more realistic range of body images. Eating disorders affect millions of God’s children of all ages in the U.S. and across the world. Eating disorders are serious, even life threatening. If you or a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder, I pray that you will seek medical help as well as spiritual counsel.
• The Rev. Susan E. Wilmot is priest-in-charge at St. James the Apostle Episcopal Church, 975 E. Warner Road, Tempe. Reach her at email@example.com or or at (480) 345-2686.