The key to cultivating a positive body image is recognizing that the true source of our beauty lies in the fact that we are temples of the Holy Spirit.
There is something unsettling about a magazine that pats itself on the back for “having the courage” to put a size-12 model on their cover. There is something wrong when highlighting the beauty of a healthy woman with real curves is seen as a bold move. There is something rotten about a culture that demands all “flaws” be Photoshopped out of existence.
Any woman who spends significant amounts of time in the checkout line of her neighborhood grocery store is well acquainted with the lies today’s magazines perpetuate. In theory I can see through modern day society’s rigid ideals of beauty, but the truth is that few of us are wholly immune to those destructive messages. Many stare at these magazines and think, “Am I somehow less of a woman than these cover models?”
The mainstream media would have you, me, and our beautiful daughters believe that unless we possess toned and tanned figures, flawless facial features, and perfectly coiffed hair our very worth as women is in question. Even though we know deep down that this is an ugly standard and a despicable lie, the objection to it bears repeating.
Why? Because the temptation to despair in the face of such ridiculous ideals is very real. And the consequences of this despair have the potential to cause damage that may ultimately negatively affect every area of a woman’s life.
A woman—especially a young woman—who feels that she is in any way deficient for not perfectly resembling the media’s airbrushed darlings is in danger of falling into two types of body image issues:
- In an attempt to meet society’s standards, she may develop an eating disorder born of self-loathing and/or an attempt to control that which is out of her control.
- On the other end of the spectrum is the risk that—in an act of self-defense—a woman may tell herself that the pursuit of physical health and loveliness doesn’t need to be a priority in her life. Why set yourself up to fail at attaining the unattainable?
No woman, young or old, deserves either of these fates.
As Catholics we are privileged to possess an understanding of the body/soul connection. We know that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit and that the health of our soul affects the body (and vice versa). And we must cultivate a healthy whole if we are to believe these words from the closing remarks at the Second Vatican Council:
“The hour is coming, in fact has come, when the vocation of women is being acknowledged in its fullness, the hour in which women acquire in the world an influence, an effect and a power never hitherto achieved. That is why, at this moment when the human race is undergoing so deep a transformation, women imbued with a spirit of the Gospel can do so much to aid humanity in not falling.”
Though the pursuit of a thriving soul must always be the priority for any woman, this in no way negates the importance of tending to the wellness of our physical selves. By finding ways to honor, celebrate, and acknowledge both the beauty that lies inside of us as well as our physical beauty, we create a healthier whole.
With the knowledge that God resides within us comes an obligation to care for our bodies. No, scratch that, we’re not simply called to care for our bodies—we are exhorted to honor them! But honoring something you loathe is no easy task.
Despite the increase in images of healthy women that have been popping up here and there in the media, we are not likely to win this war against unrealistic cultural standards of beauty anytime soon. What is in our hands is the power to establish habits that will render these insidious messages virtually impotent. We own the power to recognize societal lies about body image for what they are—manipulative attempts to sell products.
So, how do we do this? Experts in the area of body image issues are surely a wealth of valuable advice, but for my part, I’ve discovered a few things that have proven highly effective in fighting the damaging effects of unrealistic standards of beauty:
- Give thanks. When we take time to recognize and thank God for the many amazing things that our bodies can do, we naturally start to believe that which the media would deny—that all bodies, young and old, voluptuous and thin, and sick and healthy, have inherent value and possess a beauty all their own. What wonders they are with their ability to bring forth new life, endure suffering, heal from illness, achieve athletic goals, and delight our husbands!
- Nurture your body. Fueling your body with healthy food and strengthening it with exercise fosters appreciation. In much the same way that it is impossible to hate an enemy if you are praying for them, it is nearly impossible to hate a body into which you are pouring love.
- Pamper it, too! God gave us bodies not only so that they may serve us, others, and ultimately him, but also so that we could enjoy and revel in them. Treat yourself to bubble baths, massages, dips in the hot tub, or whatever brand of pampering delights you most. Learning to see your body as a source of pleasure is a very effective (and enjoyable!) way of learning to value it.
- Accept compliments with grace. It may feel awkward at first if you’re not in the habit of thanking people when they praise you, but it won’t take long for this habit to become second nature. Learning to accept praise from others will help you learn to love and praise yourself. Choose to trust in the sincerity of others and accept that they see beauty in you, even though you may initially have trouble spotting it yourself.
- Make love (assuming you are married, of course). Decide ahead of time to instantly silence any self-criticism that may pop into your mind. Just focus on loving and being loved. In doing so, you will give your husband the honor of introducing you to your beauty.
Dress joyously. Choosing to wear things that bring you joy is a lovely way to celebrate your body. The key to ensuring that this is truly of benefit to you is to refuse to be a slave to the latest trends. Embrace styles, colors, and materials that make you, and you alone, happy. Acknowledge the value of your body by adorning it in beautiful things that fill you with delight.