The other day I read an article written by a hospice chaplain from South Carolina entitled “What the dying really regret.” The author interviewed an elderly woman who was dying of cancer, who said:
“I know I’m supposed to hate my body…Everyone told me — my family, my school, my church. When I got older, magazines and salesgirls and boyfriends (told me), even if they didn’t say so out loud. The world’s been telling me for 75 years that my body is bad. First for being female, then for being fat and then for being sick…But the one thing I never did understand is, why does everyone else want me to hate my body? What does it matter to them?” Kerry Egan, CNN, 17 Oct 2014
The author concluded that the dying regret losing their bodies, and that makes the fact that society teaches us to hate our bodies all the sadder. Bodies decay over time; my grandmother memorably said that she felt like an 18 year old girl in an 80 year old body, but they are still the only thing that connects us to the material world.
Do people hate their bodies? Sometimes, yes. As a sports medicine physician I take care of anorexic athletes, thus far all female, in their teens and twenties, who perceive themselves as fat though they are wasting away. As a family medicine physician I have treated obesity in thousands of patients, including counseling them on how not to hate themselves for their weight. As a preventive medicine physician I have dealt with the larger problem of populations, whole groups of people, abusing their bodies and living unhealthy lifestyles in part to compensate for self-dissatisfaction. As a Christian minister I have counseled people who struggled with terrible feelings of inferiority, in part because of the look of their bodies.
Are people taught by society to hate their bodies? Often, yes. Advertisers use all of the formidable tools of psychology and manipulation to convince people that they are inadequate so that those people will buy their product in the (ultimately vain) hope of becoming adequate. The messages are compelling;
- You won’t find love in the world because you teeth aren’t white enough, so buy this product.
- You can’t be happy because your hair is too gray so buy this product
- Your will never be healthy and will die young because your body is too fat so buy this product.
- Look at the phenomenally beautiful woman (who is a genetic rarity, eats nearly nothing, works out constantly, and has an army of people to help with her hair, makeup and clothes) in this picture (which has been airbrushed and edited to eliminate any flaw)! Why can’t you look like her?
In the past this drum beat came to us through radio, television and print media but since we did not have these with us constantly, we had a respite from the message. Now with smart phones and other portable devices, we have no relief from hearing all that is wrong with us, physically and in every other way.
Other people, often trying to make themselves feel better about their bodies, denigrate ours. The interviewee referred to men and women alike telling her, with and without words, and even with and without meaning to, that her body was bad. From trade in jade and silk between Europe and China in 2000 BC to modern body shaping underwear, fortunes have been made selling people things to try to make them more beautiful.
Sometimes even the church teaches people to hate their bodies. In Romans 7, Paul anguished about the sin in his own life, discussing the fact that sin is present in his flesh. He concluded with the statement “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death (V24)?” The obvious conclusion is that the physical body is wicked and the spirit is good. Since we should hate sin, we should hate our bodies.
However obvious, this conclusion is absolutely wrong, rooted more in Platonic dualism and in Gnostic hatred of the material world than in Christianity. Furthermore it is not at all what Paul meant. The Hebrews recognized that God created the universe, including our bodies, and that His creation was good. They had a healthy respect for the body and had no concept of a disembodied life after death as the later Greeks did. Beginning around the time of Daniel, Jewish thought included bodily resurrection from the dead, not ghosts floating around the universe forever.
As heir to this heritage, Paul had the highest regard for the human body. He called it the temple of the Holy Spirit and taught his students to honor it (1 Corinthians 6:18-20). Paul told his disciple Timothy that though not as valuable as godliness, physical exercise was profitable (1 Timothy 4:8). His statements in Romans 7 were not that the material body was wicked, because the body was as much a victim of sin as was all creation (Romans 8:19-23). Rather, Paul wanted to be delivered from sin. If the body was the source of sin, the most effective (and macabre) way to deal with sin in life was to eliminate the body. The Bible never teaches this.
Another common misconception is that Christianity teaches women to be ashamed of their bodies because sexuality is wicked and their body might cause someone else to sin. First, sexuality was created by God and nothing that He made is evil. Second, the entire Biblical book of Song of Solomon is devoted to romantic love, the courtship and married life of a young couple. The book glorifies human love in the context of a man and woman married for life. Only outside this context does Scripture discourage sexuality. Third, when a man looks at a woman and lusts after her, that sin is his, not hers. However if the woman dresses immodestly because she wants to provoke envious or lustful thoughts in others, that sin is hers. The key is for men and women to dress in a way that pleases themselves while being more concerned with others’ needs than with his/her own, and being more interested in personal character than in physical appearance.
The body is our connection to the natural world, the place where we laugh, love, and live. It enables us to feel cool breezes on hot days, embrace our families and friends, taste delicious foods, and smell fragrant flowers. The body allows us to think, to speak, to work, and to serve God and others in the world; doing His work so that others may know Him. God made creation for His glory, for our care and for our enjoyment, and He gave us bodies to be a part of it. Someday we will lose our earthly bodies, and then regain them, clothed in glory and incorruptible, in the new earth.
Though advertisers will continue to tell us that we are never good enough, and some other people will forever try to build themselves up at our expense, our Creator tells us that He loves us infinitely as we are, regardless of how we look and what we can or cannot do. The Church can never teach its members to hate the body, and each pastor, leader and teacher must have the right understanding. If we are to love the Lord and love our neighbor, we can do no less.