Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The False Idol of Body Image

( Cross-posted to emBody - a blog about loving our bodies )

I have worshiped plenty of false idols in my lifetime. Some of my favorites have been the false idols of Netflix, cell phone (iPhone kicked up my worship a few notches), Old Navy (don't judge me!), computer (facebook anyone?), and back in my teenage years - boys. My false idols are not unlike the false idols you worship on occasion.

I know the leaders of the LDS Church and sometimes even our parents have been pretty good steering us away from false idols, but the biggest, ugliest, and most tempting idol worship is one I'm sure at least 99% of us are guilty of worshipping over and over at some point in life. I have had little to no help from anyone in quitting this most fatal idol I worship.

It's body image.

My visiting teachers came over yesterday. I love getting visit taught. I love being in a ward where I am involved in visiting teaching. Mostly right now, I love one thing that one of my visiting teachers said regarding body image. Paraphrasing advice from her Women's Health teacher:

Look in the mirror and think about yourself all you want in the morning. Make yourself pretty, do your makeup and whatever it is that you need to do. But once you get out the door you stop thinking of yourself: you think of everyone else.

Rewind, let me get you up to speed so you understand where I'm coming from.

I was reading a talk given by David A. Bednar at a CES fireside in May of 2009 for my Religion class up here at BYU-Idaho. It's called Things as They Really Are, and the talk took its title from Jacob 4:13, "The Spirit speaketh the truth and lieth not. Wherefore, it speaketh of things as they really are, and of things as they really will be; wherefore, these things are manifested unto us plainly, for the salvation of our souls."

Okay, so we know this is heavy stuff, right? The Spirit tells us the way things truly are so that we have a chance at salvation. Kind of a big deal.

Neal A. Maxwell gave a talk based on the same scripture back in 1979 and I'm going to use both talks because they both make great points. Maxwell emphasizes Jacob's text by quoting Christ, "And truth is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come." (D&C 93:24) He goes on to say, "No therapy or counsel will be lastingly successful which does not turn upon the truth or which does not recognize reality..." (emphasis added).

Bednar pulls the conversation in a complementary direction, saying, "A truth that really is and always will be is that the body and the spirit constitute our reality and identity... when they are separated, we cannot receive a fulness of joy." (I'm beginning to feel like these two talks were intended to be studied together...)

Maxwell says, "A society not based upon key values like loving our neighbor will inevitably subsidize selfishness; it will also place a premium upon an apostate form of individualism at the expense of community." (Emphasis added.) Sound like any societies you know? Individualism in and of itself isn't bad; it's the selfish individualism where we forget about our surroundings and our neighbors in need that dump community and create a bad society and a worse situation. Continuing, "If we do not see ourselves as more than temporary, biological brothers [and sisters], our behavior changes... Once society loses its capacity to declare that some things are wrong per se, then it finds itself forever building temporary defenses... but forever falling back and losing its nerve."

Trying to remember now that we are not temporary, Bednar gives a warning, "The adversary attempts to influence us both to misuse our physical bodies and to minimize the importance of [them]... Heavenly Father's children misuse their physical tabernacles by violating the laws of chastity, by using drugs, by... defacing themselves, or by worshipping the false idol of body image, whether their own or that of others... [this is] a denial of our true identity as sons and daughters of God." In case you got lost in some jargon there, Bednar puts worshipping body image (either our own or of others) on the same sinful level as premarital sex and drug abuse. This is no small thing.

We are not temporary beings. If you think you are temporary and that nothing matters in this life, then you should reevaluate the way you live your life. If you think of yourself as an eternal being waiting for blessings and glory, you will think of yourself in a completely different way. Counsel takes root, changes take place. If you think of yourself as a temporary being floating through life, then who cares? "Nothing really matters."

At the end of Bohemian Rhapsody Freddie Mercury sings that great line: "Nothing really matters, anyone can see..." How does it make you feel the way he sings it? Freddie may not have had much of an eternal perspective (but who am I to know?) but when I listen to that song, after all the powerful movements and solos, I can't help but feel like he is lamenting how little he has to live for. It doesn't matter because life is temporary (and in the case of the song, life is soon to be expunged). So the solution to the temporary quandary isn't just learning to like the temporary, it is appreciating the immortality within ourselves. Maxwell said, "If we could but get it through our heads and our hearts that God loves us perfectly, then we would have ultimate security and recognition and could ride out the proximate snubs and the mortal slights." In layman's terms: If you work to realize that God loves you unconditionally, you will have an easier time of loving yourself.

I recently posted a status on facebook about how all the thinspiration and fitspiration on Pinterest has been driving me crazy. What's okay about staring down a dehumanized feminine pack of abs? Just because it has an inspirational quote attached to it? Because it gives you something to work towards? I don't think it's okay. I don't think that pack of abs makes me feel better about myself--I highly doubt it makes you feel better about yourself. I'd be willing to bet it makes you feel like you're not good enough. I'll bet it makes you feel like you haven't done enough. I'll bet it makes you feel just a little worthless. I'll bet that quote that says you should run until you don't "jiggle" anymore makes you feel like any movement makes you jiggle. Makes you feel like you haven't tried hard enough yet. I'll bet there are girls driven to the edge if not the heart of eating disorders by this drivel.

These images are presented to us as desirable. Images of women that somehow lose tons of weight while gaining tons of muscle (physically impossible), who can have their cake and eat it too, are unattainable. Impossible. Without a lot of money and disfiguring surgeries, it's not going to happen. If we can somehow pull out of the downward spiral we're in and forget these ridiculous ideals then just maybe, we can be happy.

The only fitspiration I want to see is the type that just says, "Do it!" "Get out there!" "Have fun while you're at it!" I don't want to encourage unhealthy habits one way or the other. I'm not saying it's okay to eat all you want until you have diabetes. I'm saying be healthy. I'm saying be happy. I'm saying love who you are. Don't hate yourself because you've "put on a little weight since high school." Don't bash your own body because having a baby was hard on it. Love those scars, those new marks on your sides, the love handles, the jiggly parts, everything.

Worshiping the false idol of body image is a terrible thing. It's not just something sweet and innocent we do, looking in the mirror, pinching our fat and thinking, "I'd look soooo much better if that part would just disappear!" It's not okay. It's not loving yourself, it's not appreciating the body God gave you, and it's definitely not part of a healthy lifestyle.

Maxwell delivered this anti-selfishness inspiration: "I cannot see selfishness in myself or others without thinking of Satan who is truly swollen selfishness."

I am repenting of my addiction to body image. I am working to overcome that sin. Who's with me?


  1. Great post. I'm taking a psych class right now where we read a couple of articles in a similar vein, talking about how the rise of self-esteem as a concept in the past 50 years has actually made people more anxious and more depressed, and that it has shifted people away from prosocial activities like seeking to serve other people and toward being served themselves. Likewise, "thinspiration" quotes--which are supposed to inspire people to work out so that they have better self-esteem--turn one's attention inward and ignore interpersonal relationships. Interesting stuff.

    1. Thanks Brett. If you have links to any of those articles I'd love to read them. Between thinsipration, social media, and the selfishness we live in it's hard to imagine how on earth I'm supposed to help my kids be happy in the future, you know?

      Especially social media--it's the ultimate anti-prosocial activity, we act like we check it just to keep up with friends, but we go back every day to see who commented on or liked our statuses. It all turns us to look in at ourselves instead of outwards towards the people that need a hand or a real friend.

  2. I wanted to share some ideas about Mormonism's roots in Romanticism and American Transcendentalism especially in relation to notions of reality and falseness, but I couldn't come up with anything which would actually contribute to this conversation so how about a different train of thought?

    There's something striking about the visitation, the spiritual and corporeal presence of visiting teachers sharing their testimonies, experience, knowledge, time, and selves versus the world of "thinspiration" and "fitspiration" that you locate in the realm of the internet, new media, and social media. I don't want to contribute to sophomoric perspectives of the Internet as a virtual or false world; I think there is a reality to it that is more than just artificial recreations. Much like books acted as a cultural force that created new realities and new possibilities, the Internet is now doing the same for society. Not all the "worlds" created by the Internet need be described as "inauthentic" or "unreal." A Skype conversation might not be like a "live" or "in person" conversation; however, the lack of physical presence does not necessarily mean that there is a depreciation in the experience. It might be experienced differently, but that does not make it necessarily better or worse.

    That large caveat aside, it is interesting how these two spaces interact differently as framed by your discussion. The immediate and intimate conversation expresses a type of individualized ritual whereas the Internet distributes mass-produced slogans of commodification. There is the shared moment of love where two or three are literally gathered in Christ's name verses a moment of isolation amidst a social media crowd--a moment where you are simultaneously looking at something countless others are at the exact same moment while at the same time looking at it all by yourself. I think social and new media can effect a type of community similar to the visiting teaching appointment which is valid and helpful as I think spending time with people in person can be empty, shallow, meaningless, and a waste of time. But I think reflecting on how each type of interaction comments and creates our experience with the other can be fruitful.

    How can social and new media offer a relationship of bodies akin to the presence of bodies in a visiting teaching appointment? Is the false idol of body image perhaps best exorcised from a community by interaction with a multiplicity of bodies? Or is there something about the space of the Internet, which reconfigures the importance and use of the body, that can open new possibilities of what we understand as the "reality" of the relationship between our spirits and our bodies?

    1. Thank you for sharing your insights on the internet world vs. the corporeal world. You make a good point that each can be useful and wasteful.

      I don't think ridding ourselves of the false idol of body image is limited to one world or the other. We keep it going on the internet with thinspiration and in the corporeal world by greeting friends with phrases such as, "Have you lost weight?!" There's an excellent and very long quote by JK Rowling on the subject - I heavily paraphrase - 'Is there no greater accomplishment to be discussed than the size of my waistline? Nevermind I've produced my third child and sixth novel since we last saw each other, but hallelujah I lost weight.'

      In both worlds, the importance of physical appearance is number one. Friends exclaim how good we look since we last met and online our profile pictures are carefully taken and selected to show our "best side." Shouldn't the best side be charity rather than the right from a high angle?

  3. Very well-written. I know that when I brush my hair and I wonder if the hairline has gotten just a little higher than last year that I'm succumbing to a form of body-image worship, and it's not cool. And even though I try to be aware of and sensitive to whatever body image issues others might be having, I still find myself sometimes inclined to crack a joke about, say, an overweight person wearing clothes that I don't find flattering, or a ridiculously skinny person who for all I know may be suffering from an eating disorder. That kind of attitude is equally bad because it reduces people to their bodies -- and not even that, but to parts, as though they're less than fully human because of their clothing, or that the only purpose for their body is to be aesthetically pleasing to me. The same goes for someone (as a heterosexual dude I'll assume a girl) dressed provocatively or scantily: even if they have succumbed to harmful body image ideals (and frankly I have no right to judge whether that's the case), it's my responsibility to see them as people rather than parts. Otherwise I'm not much better off than, say, creepers at BYU who leave anonymous notes warning girls that their hemline is inappropriate! Not to mention that my wife is unquestionably the most beautiful woman in the world anyway, so she's all I need ;)

    1. Parts. That's the worst of all the fit/thinspiration. The accompanying pictures (if there are any) are generally pictures of abs or butts. I don't want to stare at a dehumanized butt as a separate entity from its owner. If I see a butt, I'd like it to be attached to someone and I generally won't be inclined to stare.

      I try not to crack jokes either. The sad thing is, it wasn't until recent years that I felt inclined to crack terrible jokes about an ill-fitting sweater or pair of shorts. Back in high school when I was a jerk in lots of other ways, I think I was pretty nice about others' body image. At least I hope I was.