Today I find myself wondering how anyone can ever stand before another, even a trusted spouse, naked and not ashamed. In our over-sexualized culture, images of perfection (not even real, but air-brushed) are everywhere. They mock those who save sex for marriage and consider self-control impossible.
Lingerie commercials use models who have bodies covered with little more than glittering makeup to brazenly strut across our television screens. They appear unashamed of their bodies, but stories of cutting and self-abuse filter out of their closely guarded world. New shows glamorize adultery and betrayal. Reality TV draws the viewer in with claims of competition and then baits them with underwear-clad, pencil-thin cast members who compete in physical challenges that often demand censors to blur body parts because they can’t keep their tiny cloth pieces held together by string in place.
Turn off the television and the billboards remind us. Move to the country and magazines in the doctor’s office remind us. Stop picking up the magazines and the catalog shows up in our mailbox. Throw the catalog away unopened and see your neighbor’s teenage daughter imitating what she’s seen on the latest awards show. Images of both desirable and undesirable bodies show up on the sides of our social media pages, our email screens, and even in newsletters from Christian celebrities. They tell us what is acceptable and unacceptable, training us to believe that beauty can only look one way.
How am I, a 37-year old pregnant mother, to manage my emotions as the condemnation comes at me from every angle – telling me I’m not thin enough, my hair isn’t long/curly/straight enough, my complexion isn’t creamy enough, my lips are full enough, my teeth aren’t white enough, and my legs aren’t smooth enough? God-forbid I have any cellulite, varicose veins, or body hair! It’s a full-time job to try to meet all these requirements.
In order to look like a supermodel, I need to spend hours each day in the gym; more hours planning and preparing perfectly balanced and healthy meals; even more hours removing body hair, smoothing and curling the hair on my head (adding hair pieces or extensions to make it thick and long enough); and even more hours getting facials, manicures, pedicures, and body scrubs. Let’s add to that time in the cosmetic surgeons office for Botox, lip fillers, a nose job, liposuction, a boob job, and a chin implant; then put makeup on my perfect complexion. Fake eyelashes make my dark lashes thicker and longer, contouring deceives the eye so I appear to have more distinct features, and expensive powders remove any hint of shine. After spending 16 hours a day on beauty treatments, where do we find time for a vocation, a family, or a social life?
I’m convinced that’s why the models on the runway look miserable. They’re furious about all the stuff they have to go through to have the privilege of representing the American woman to the world! But if you take the time to do all these things and try to be the perfect woman, then people question if you have an eating disorder or need to find a job to occupy your time better.
No wonder so many like me find it nearly impossible to stand before our spouse – naked and not ashamed.
A lovely young bride confides in me that her husband has never seen her without her shirt on because she can’t see the beauty other see in her and feels mortified by her figure. A mother of three cringes when her husband touches her in the dark, horrified that the skin on her stomach is loose and he will reject her. A handsome young man starves himself while lifting weights, gets his entire upper body waxed and goes to the tanning bed – in an effort to look chiseled and desirable. While he’s able to get dates, he cannot allow anyone to get close enough to see beneath his thin veneer of carefully cultivated masculinity and wonders why he’s always alone. A beautiful woman causes her body to shut down and stop functioning properly so she feels thin enough to find a husband. These are real people I know.
Imagine what it was like back in the days when those words were written. God made Adam and Eve naked and not ashamed. They lived in a garden. They were totally innocent and unaware of comparison. They didn’t know they were too hairy, their skin was too dark, or that they would be more appealing to Americans with blonde hair and blue eyes. They stood before one another as perfect beings, loved and accepted.
I struggle with these thoughts every day. Sometimes I wonder if it’s every waking hour of every single day. Sometimes I just give up because who could ever be perfect enough? And then at times I fight, walk the tightrope of perfectionism, and feel happy when I find myself somewhat closer to the elusive ideal. When I was a young teenager, 5’10” tall and weighing all of 135 pounds, I felt mortified by how overweight I was. If only I could reach the golden number of 125… But no matter how much I exercised and starved myself, my body simply refused me. If I wanted to weigh 125 pounds, I was going to have to stop eating all together, and somehow I just couldn’t bring myself to get to that extreme. I was a size 5 or 7, but my significantly shorter friends wore size 1 or 3.
Fifteen years later I hired a Christian personal trainer/nutritionist to help me meet my goals. The goal he set for me was to weigh 125 pounds. When I laughed and told him that was next to impossible, he confidently told me I could do it if I’d just follow his plan. Forget the fact that 125 is considered underweight for someone my height, but okay…. A month later I was injured due to over-exercise and cancelled my contract with him.
Lately I’ve been questioning myself. Why can’t I just find a healthy balance, cherish it, and be a good example to my children? Why must I either walk a tightrope of extreme measures or give up all control whatsoever? What is the healthy middle ground? And how can I find it? Am I too far gone to ever have a healthy body-image?
I never remember a day in my life when I wasn’t on some kind of a diet, someone scrutinizing my food choices and judging me for it. I don’t know many women who grew up differently than me. The way I looked was always a reflection on someone else. And it was important to meet or exceed the American standard of beauty. Whatever the cost. I tried hard to measure up. I even went so far as to take laxatives, throw up, and stop eating all together, but I couldn’t maintain the discipline. I hated the way I felt, even felt like I was sinning, and decided it wasn’t worth it. I would take responsibility for the food I put in my mouth, for the calories I consumed, and find a way to deal with the consequences.
When I look at my precious Eliana and her perfect little form, my heart cries out in agony at the thought that I will pass this self-hatred and comparison on to her. I want it to stop with me. I want to find a way to cut through the lies that our culture is already throwing at her every day and somehow teach her to love and cherish her body. I want her to feel grateful that she’s healthy, that she has a body that functions properly and is strong. I want her to look in the mirror and see that she is fearfully and wonderfully made.
And in her security with how she looks, I want her to know that she is so much more than the way she looks. Please God, let her know that she is valuable for who she is, for her gifts and talents, for her wit and kindness. I want her to be full of the gifts of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. I pray that she’ll be empty of comparison, self-loathing, and insecurity.
How do we teach our daughters to cherish and value themselves in a culture that demands perfection?
How do we teach ourselves to accept and love our imperfections and scars? How do we find a way to balance the instant gratification that’s available to us through processed foods and cosmetic surgery with the self-control that’s from the Holy Spirit?
I’ve searched my heart for answers and I’m still searching. I’ve begged God for clarity, divine wisdom, and grace. I’ve prayed for help to make wise and healthy choices, to use words that build up and do not tear down, and to show her through my example what a healthy and whole life looks like.
One day I hope to know what it means to be naked and not ashamed. One day I hope my daughter will know the freedom of standing before her husband naked and not ashamed. And I pray God will send her a husband who gives her no reason to feel shame but totally accepts and loves her the way she is. I hope she will confidently walk away from anyone who even suggests that she doesn’t measure up.
As I consider a solution to the problem, the one that comes to mind kind of shocks me.
What if I make a choice to embrace life to the fullest? To have so much life and love and joy that there’s no room for concern with self-image.
What if I fill my life up with so many good things – friends, love, laughter, children, fulfilling work, helping others, giving of myself – that I don’t have the energy to care about ridiculous things like cellulite (something even the thinnest, most athletic person can have)?
There are times when cultural norms will invade my joy-filled bubble and I’ll take some time to fancy things up a bit. I may even hire a personal trainer to get back in shape after the ravages of pregnancy are over. And if a facial is relaxing and I don’t have to go into debt to get one, I’ll enjoy it. It won’t be to meet some standard of perfection, but be a way to relax and be good to myself. Those things all have their place and we’re free to enjoy them, but when they become a measuring stick to guide our feelings of self-worth, they are tools to enslave us.
I’d love to know what are you doing to teach your daughters and sons to have a healthy self-image. What are you doing to have a healthier self-image and stay off the tightrope of perfectionism?