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Why Body Image Is a Spiritual Issue

Why Body Image Is a Spiritual Issue

I’m grateful you’re here. I believe healing is available for us. I believe our culture is ripe for revival as it pertains to seeing our bodies in light of God’s kingdom. I’m literally praying for you. Let’s get started.

I was riding in the back of one of my parents’ cars; I can’t quite remember which one.

It was the early ‘90s, and seatbelts felt more negotiable then, so I was lying down on my left side, facing the floorboard, which was littered with kids’ road trip materials — coloring books, crayons, a few small plastic toys. The warm southern sun was beating down on the parts of my body that weren’t tucked into the cloth seats, warming my skin, my cotton t-shirt, and shorts. I was about to turn nine years old.

We’d just come from a family member’s wedding, and it had been fun. So fun. I drank virgin strawberry daiquiris and danced the Electric Slide and swam in the hotel pool. My mom let me change into comfy clothes midway through the reception, and I danced for what felt like hours while laughing with my long-lost second or third or fourth cousins. Now, we were headed home, where safety and rhythm lived — the only two things I loved more than virgin strawberry daiquiris and hotel pools.

In the midst of the fun, however, I had made some observations. I had seen the way the other cousins danced in their wedding attire, and I, for some unknown reason, seemed to have been adorned with 10–15 percent more of the skin, of the flesh, than they had.

I don’t know why, and I don’t know how, but I know it felt wrong.

So while I was safe in the cocoon of the back seat, I took my hand and held it, flexed and straight, like a knife, straining as if it contained the power of prayer, petition, and perfection. I positioned it somewhere between my chest and my right armpit, where the sun was warming the exposed half of my body, and I began deliberately drawing a line down my body.

The line didn’t go down the middle, it didn’t dissect me in half, but it sliced off the outer ten percent — the extra on the sides of my upper torso, then the soft space on the far end of my stomach, and down my thighs, where there seemed to be a troublesome amount of “leftovers.” My hand, an imaginary knife, moved precisely, like a surgeon’s tool, down the curviest parts of my body — not with self-harm in mind, but rather as a prayer.

God — all-powerful and all-able, would you remove this part from me? It seems like extra. It seems not to fit.

I knew He could do it — I just didn’t know if He wanted to.

But I promised God that if He’d remove the unwanted from me, I wouldn’t tell anyone — it could be our secret.

I moved my hand slowly down, tracing the track that marked off the areas I’d like to no longer linger and I squeezed my eyes tight, aware of His ability. I was pretty sure if I just looked away and pretended I didn’t notice, He would fix me. I promised Him once more that I wouldn’t even tell anyone; I’d act like it had never happened.

Afterward, I sat with my eyes still closed, giving Him a moment to move, before I fluttered open my lids and saw… I was still me. I was still in my body, which was unchanged. And the car drove on.

It’s been almost thirty years since that day, and I have great compassion for that girl who wished she could carve part of her body away. I want to scoop her up and tell her that all of her body is good, that society is into scarcity but God is the giver of abundance. I want to tell her that the best parts of her are her tenacity, her strength, her words, her worship, her motherhood, her sacrifice, her capacity to serve when no one sees. I want to tell her that it’s because her heavenly Father loves her so much that He denied her request.

I want to tell her that the desire to keep her prayer a secret is the seed of shame that will grow like a weed in her life. I want to tell her that the disappointment she feels over who she is, is a much bigger problem than the extra skin and flesh. I want to tell her that her body is good.

And yet.

There is a part of me that knows if I could turn my hand into a knife-shaped prayer of precision and slice off 10 percent of my body today, I’d be tempted to do it. Even now, my secret disappointment and disbelief in the goodness of my own body weighs heavier on me than any extra pounds ever could. I am still that girl. I still need to hear the truth.

And I don’t think I’m the only one. I wonder what this story brings to mind for you. Maybe you’re questioning your body’s goodness as you walk through postpartum recovery, or as you scroll through Instagram, looking at fitness influencers and thinking about the kettle bells gathering dust in your closet. Maybe you work crazy hard at taking care of your body because you have to, because your health is on the line, and you still feel the aches and pains of a body fighting disease. Perhaps you go weeks without thinking positively about the skin that you live in, or maybe it’s been years.

I have found that my story, though probably not identical to yours, is not far from the collective story many of us carry. Our story is that at some point we believed our bodies weren’t good, and we don’t know what that has to do with God. Does He care? Does He know? Does He agree? Will He help? What’s the plan?

Somewhere along the way, shame became a lens through which we experienced our bodies.

Maybe we felt shame for how they were perceived by others negatively — maybe we felt shame and embarrassment for how our bodies were praised. It could be that shame became part of the equation when we couldn’t conquer our bodies, when the “problem” of our bodies seemed insurmountable. Many of us might feel like we should be over this, like spiritual and emotional maturity should have enabled us to move past this place by now. And yet we’re still out here, all of us, overly exposed to a light that is not warm with grace, but rather judging what is not “right” about us.

Our story is not finished because our flesh is still failing to be all that the physical world expects. Our story is not finished because we are multitudes, and we can believe so many things at once. We can believe the best parts of us are unseen and eternal and still deeply desire for the visible portions of us to be signed off on by the world as OK.

Here’s where I’m at today: I live in the now-and-not-yet wrestling match of skin and soul. I know that who I am is loved by God and who I am is still a body, subject to the pain and brokenness and imperfections of a fallen world.

I know that the best stories are not always the most simple stories, and there are those who’d like to write off this story, this struggle, as silly or secular. There are those who’d say you can fix this body problem with moving more and eating less, and there are those who’d say the remedy is to stop thinking about our bodies and start thinking about heaven.

And yet here I sit. It’s been quite a journey since I prayed in the car at age nine. I have moved much and eaten less. I have read the books and tried the things. I have worn holes in my literal and figurative prayer rugs and dug divots of fervent request in the floors of each home I’ve lived in since Jesus has been alive in me. I’ve been shamed and I’ve been shushed when I speak about my body. I’ve been praised for how it looks, and I’ve been pleaded with to stop acknowledging its presence. I’ve moved, and I’ve sat still. I’ve run marathons, and I’ve watched Netflix marathons accompanied by copious amounts of popcorn. I’ve gone to conferences, and I’ve been coached.

I have attacked this sense of my body’s not-enough-ness with a secular strategy and with my spirituality, and I am still here, in this body, longing for words that weave a true path to freedom. Not just for myself, but for those fighting alongside me, the genuine warriors of our generation who are asking God,

Is this a good body? Do You care? Do You agree? Can You help? What’s the plan?

Let’s take the opportunity to agree right here and right now: The way we view our bodies is not a shallow, surface issue for the immature or the vain. The way we view our bodies is a deeply spiritual issue because our bodies are made by God, in the image of God, and they are where we encounter God for now. What’s more, the belief that body image is just a shallow concern is a lie from the enemy that’s wildly effective at making women believe they can disconnect with their bodies to the point of engaging in starvation, harm, and abuse—all because we have agreed that our bodies aren’t spiritual. This is a lie we unconsciously use to justify our behavior, and it is so very far from the vision God has for us. Amen?

Perhaps the most essential move we can make in breaking free from body shame is to agree that God cares and wants to walk with us as we learn to love these bodies He made with intention.

Maybe the most effective way we can begin this fight against the enemy is to say, “This matters. This is important. This is holy. This is worth talking about.”

It’s been twenty-eight years and six months since I slid onto my side in the back seat of a sun-warmed secondhand car and wondered if God could or would instantly make me more like the girls around me. As I write this today, it’s a dark and slightly chilly night, and I’m on an airplane, with the glow of my laptop warming my eyes rather than the sun on my thighs. But those same particular parts of my legs spread just beneath the armrest because they are still not standard in size. And just above the keyboard, where culture says I’m supposed to cave in, I curve out. And where my head dips down with defiance to type the passionate last few words before the flight attendant says no more, my neck makes an additional chin. Still, I know for sure…

This is a good body. This is a body that can live free from shame.

You are in a good body. You were not meant to live in shame.

The truest thing about you is that you are made and loved by God. And the truest thing about God is that He cannot make bad things. All of this sounds simple until we own up to the fact that we often want to stifle the very vessels He’s placed us in for His glory and for the good of others. If these things are true, why do we struggle to believe them? Why can’t we trust the goodness and the holiness of the way we have been uniquely made?

This disconnect is what reveals to us that the way we see and experience our bodies is a spiritual issue.

We agree, agree, agree with the premises about His character and the promises of His creation until we bump up against the brokenness we feel about our own bodies.

So while I think it’s absolutely permissible and potentially beneficial to ask God the questions you read above, I also believe it’s brave to allow Him to ask the following questions of our hearts:

Do we believe God makes good things?
Do we know what our bodies are for?
Do we know what makes a body good?
How do we agree with that truth in our daily lives? Do we want to live free from shame?

That’s what this book is dedicated to finding out.

Excerpted with permission from Breaking Free from Body Shame by Jess Connolly, copyright Jessica Ashleigh Connolly.

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Your Turn

Do you also live in the now-and-not-yet wrestling match of skin and soul. Our bodies are good. We are loved by God… including our bodies. Even when it doesn’t feel that way! In this fallen world we’re told otherwise, but if we want to live free from shame, we have to live in the truth, right? ~ Devotionals Daily