A couple of years ago I taught a unique course titled, “Weight Loss, Weight Gain, and Body Image.” I spent a lot of time scheduling guest speakers for the class. Some of the presenters included a plastic surgeon, a gastric bypass-surgery nurse, a registered dietitian for obese clients, and an editor for a women’s magazine.
The magazine editor, in fact, spoke to my class on the first session. She talked to the students about Photoshop, a common software program that most magazine editors use to manipulate just about everything found in a photo. For instance, they can remove a tree from a picnic scene, make a dress a brighter shade of red, or make the model look “better.” Her talk to my class, at my urging, focused on the latter.
She discussed in detail how editors, including herself, use this basic computer software to whiten teeth, remove veins from the white of the eye, improve imperfect skin, add muscle to a man, and decrease fat on a woman. She showed specific changes she made in the photos of her own magazine, as well as other magazines. Once she pointed it out, it was easy to see these magazines had countless other photos that were altered as well.
While models are naturally attractive, she explained, none — at least in the way they appear in magazines — are as perfect as they seem. Her point was that the very models readers desperately aspire to emulate don’t even exist.
The class was silent with awe throughout her presentation. I am sure the students had thoughts of everything from, “She can’t be serious;” to “How long have we been duped?” But after a few more comments from the editor on this subject, one of the female students, nearly in tears, said: “Why do they do that to us?”
With that, I almost cried myself.
The regular use of Photoshop can make us think we can be physically perfect. And this perception can generate a preoccupation with appearance. We all try to present a beautiful face and a proportioned, well-toned body, but because perfection is impossible, millions of young men and women suffer from some form of body distortion. And more importantly, they think their body lacks beauty or relevance unless they are found attractive, sexy, or lean — or all three.
That intense desire to “cure” body imperfections leads to results that are easy to see in our culture: eating disorders, the constant change in exercise trends, the prevalence of cosmetic surgery, and steroid use by non-athletes — most of which are common in early adulthood.
Directing a disproportionate amount of time and effort to seeking this perfection compromises our daily productivity and emotional and spiritual health. Excess worrying, spending vast amounts of money, and obsessively dieting or exercising will eventually harm every relationship in our lives, including the one with God.
Although not everyone experiences body dissatisfaction, nearly everyone knows someone who does, and probably all would welcome an improved understanding of the true purpose of the human body. Some wise words can help with that.
It can help to remember God’s plan for us — what we were created for. Each of us was created with both a body and a soul so that we can reflect God’s image in the world. Put simply, we are the pinnacle of creation — because we have a soul that seeks transcendence, our bodies are the perfection of creation, no matter their size or shape. What other part of creation can freely praise God?
So, it’s our duty to see our body as an inherently good thing created by God. In fact, our bodies are the ultimate sign by which we come to know and believe in God. If God is pure spirit, the only way God’s love is made visible is through our bodies, which are made in God’s image. And whenever we use our bodies for work or play or in love and service to one another, we glorify God who made us.
Our bodies hold the key to understanding what it means to be human, and how we can live in a way that brings true happiness and fulfillment. But certain advertisements, immodest fashion, television shows, and countless other images have distorted the meaning of this gift. The body has become so objectified (reducing the body to an object for sexual gratification) that from the time we are very young, sometimes before the age of 10, we succumb to what society wants for our bodies, not what God wants.