FOR THE DAY YOU HATE YOUR BODY
Next Letter: FOR WHEN YOU ARE READY TO FACE YOUR DEMONS, REJECT IDOLS, AND TURN AWAY FROM FALSE GODS
“Not as man sees does God see, because man sees the appearance but the LORD looks into the heart.”
- 1 Samuel 16: 7 B
“Now you are Christ’s body, and individually parts of it.”
- 1 Corinthians 12: 27
Dear Brother, Dear Sister, Dear Friend,
The world is full of messages that tell us we are not good enough. We are taught that we need to lose weight, build muscle, get ride of acne, change our hair, or alter the shapes of our noses. Words and images from media, peers, family, and our own heads warp the way we see ourselves. We lose sight of the beauty God gives us and the thrilling miracle that it is to be alive. We become paralyzed with hate for the shape of our bodies, the bumps and colors of our skin, the positioning of our eyes and noses, the measurements of our waists, or the curves underneath our shirts and pants. Sometimes there is little room left to love ourselves or others because our hearts and minds are crushed by overwhelming and exhausting self-loathing.
Negative self-esteem related to how we look often has devastating emotional consequences. When we hate our bodies and our faces, we often feel as if no one will ever want us. Sometimes we feel ugly and unlovable, and to protect ourselves from rejection, we close our hearts to others and the world. We live like hermits. We might maintain casual relationships on the outside, but we always run away from true intimacy and hide the depths of what we feel, think, want, and believe. Or we do the opposite. We become so desperate to prove that we can be wanted that we throw ourselves into empty sexual experiences with strangers, people we barely know, or people we do not actually like. We want, just for a moment, to feel attractive, beautiful, and desired. But when the rush is over and we lie alone in bed, we are left feeling empty. Or worse, the person we were using wants us to actually care about them, and when we find ourselves unable to do so, we hurt them deeply. Sometimes, out of desperation, we form relationships with people who hurt, betray, use, or control us. We do not want to be alone and, on some level, we think we deserve abuse.
Learning to love our faces, our bodies, our spirits, and ourselves is a journey. The way we see ourselves is built up over years by a variety of forces including messages from family, peers, media, popular culture, religious institutions, and politics, just to name a few. It takes time to discover where self-image comes from, reflect upon it, and ultimately choose what we want to believe about who we are. The work of doing this can be difficult and painful, but it is worth it in the end. We are made to love God, our neighbors, and ourselves. If we do not love ourselves, we are hindered from building healthy and caring relationships with others. In other words, to love God and others well, we must love ourselves. As is written in Ephesians 2: 10, “For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should live in them.”
Sometimes we are discouraged from loving ourselves by certain beauty ideals upheld by the media and other social institutions. These norms define what it means to be attractive or desirable. They vary across cultures and across time, and they often spring from complicated social and historical roots. Yet consistently, pressure to confirm to a certain body type or facial characteristic is usually a subtle attempt to exert power and control over certain classes of people. Thinness is presented as an ideal in modern Western society in order to sell various products and control people, particularly women, by making them so obsessed with their weight that they have little energy to expend on other matters of empowerment, creativity, or social progress. Muscles are hailed as attractive for men in order to reinforce a culture of men being powerful, dominant, and controlling. This male beauty ideal makes male-dominance in social realms and personal relationships seem enticing rather than oppressive and wrong. Clear skin, and usually light-colored skin, is set as an ideal to sell facial products and make-up while attempting to spread the lie that there is an inborn superiority to people of European descent. Likewise, certain facial features are deemed beautiful in ways that subtly grant favor to groups that typically have them.
Most of us will never fit what the mainstream says is beautiful. Very few of us are genetically programmed to look like models or celebrities. In fact, many models and celebrities who fit society’s beauty ideals still suffer from body-related issues such as low self-esteem, chemical dependency, and eating disorders. Many beauty norms are racially and ethnically based so that some people are taught to hate themselves simply for not being white.
We are taught to waste so much energy fixated on ourselves and how we look, and oftentimes we grow envious or resentful of people who seem more beautiful than ourselves. This means we have less energy to gather together in solidarity to make the world a better place. Imagine what would happen if half the money we spent on clothes, make-up, exercise equipment, gym memberships, and beauty products was diverted to ending world hunger. Envision what the world would look like if all the time we spent looking in the mirror and critiquing our looks was spent thinking through strategies for ending modern day slavery, racism, and war. I want to live in a world where people care more about justice than about physical beauty.
Deep down, we must believe that true beauty does not come from how we look, but rather from who we are and how we live. In Mathew 5: 8, we read, “Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God.” Far more important than shaping our bodies is opening our hearts to God’s love so that He may transform us into members of His Body. As we read in 1 Corinthians 12: 27, “Now you are Christ’s body, and individually parts of it.” Our beauty comes from being united with Christ while maintaining our dignity as individual human beings made and loved by God. We do not grow in beauty by making ourselves conform to an empty social ideal of “looking good.” Our inherent beauty is a gift from God. We become even more beautiful when we live with integrity, serve our neighbors, forgive our enemies, spread the good news of God’s redeeming love, build justice, and bask in the joy of loving relationships with God and other people.
But feeling ugly and, therefore, unlovable, is a true struggle that cannot be flippantly discarded. The root causes run deep, and therefore the healing must also run deep. Hating the way we look is often connected with the more painful reality of hating our entire selves. When you reflect on who you are, do you only see mistakes and imperfections? Where does this come from? As gay Christians, sometimes we carry deeply internalized shame around our sexual identities. Unfortunately, many religious institutions teach that there is something wrong with loving someone of the same sex, and these messages often sink in even if we fight against them. Self-hatred can also stem from experiences of rejection or bullying. When others hurt us, we sometimes mistakenly believe they do this because we are inherently bad. On some level, we think that we deserve abandonment or abuse. These feelings spiral until we feel as if we are no good and do not belong anywhere. Instead of digging into our pain to figure out what is real and what is deception, it becomes much easier to hate ourselves and our bodies, to blame our unhappiness on the way we look and leave it at that.
But we need to always look for the truth. God made us as and loves us as we are. No one deserves abuse or rejection. God Himself chose to give us love and salvation rather than punishment. As is written in Romans 8: 1, “Hence, now there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Our beauty and our value comes not from how we look or how others treat us. Rather, our beauty and our value comes from our dignity as children of the Most High God. We are created in His image and likeness. As it says in 1 John 3: 1, “See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God. Yet so we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.” Thus when others fail to see our beauty or our dignity, we can grow deeper in our connection with Jesus, our Lord, who was also rejected by the world.
In her brilliant work, The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women, author Naomi Wolf (2002) outlines the social construct of beauty and then explains that people can affirm their own worth by loving themselves as full human beings and saying, “I look like myself.” Wolf (2002, p. 291) writes, “A woman-loving [Author’s note: and also a person-loving] definition of beauty supplants desperation with play, narcissism with self-love, dismemberment with wholeness, absence with presence, stillness with animation. It admits radiance: light coming out of the face and body, rather than a spotlight on the body, dimming the self. It is sexual, various, and surprising. We will be able to see it in others and not be frightened, and able at last to see it in ourselves.” We need to look in the mirror and say, My stomach is precious and beautiful because it is mine. It is a part of me and I love it. My arms are mine, and they allow me to swim and climb and write. My nose is mine and it allows me to smell roses and taste good food. My body is mine, it is part of me, and I love who I am.
Sometimes we face disabilities or developmental differences that impact how our bodies work. These characteristics and the structure of the spaces around us can pose challenges with moving and navigating the world. But having a disability or a developmental difference also opens opportunities to experience life in unique ways, build new capacities, discover original strengths, and appreciate senses that go underdeveloped in others. There is great power in being different from the mainstream.
Helen Keller, who was herself deaf and blind, is well known as a writer and social justice advocate. For Keller, blindness and deafness were pathways into deeper communion with God and ultimate truth. She wrote, “Our blindness changes not a whit the course of inner realities… If you wish to be something that you are not,— something fine, noble, good,— you shut your eyes and, for one dreamy moment, you are that which you long to be” (Keller, 2003, p. 60). She also wrote, “Men have not heard with their physical sense the tumult of sweet voices above the hills of Judea nor seen the heavenly vision; but millions have listened to that spiritual message through many ages” (Keller, 2003, p. 60).
I do not intend to minimize the suffering or injustice experienced by many people with disabilities. Rather, I want to join the multitude of advocates whose voices point to the intrinsic human dignity of each person. Having a disability does not take away one’s capacity or responsibility to learn, grow, believe, build relationships, and work for the common good. At the end of the day, people without disabilities have much to learn from people who have them. Regardless of how our bodies move or work, we are all human, we are all beautiful, and we are all responsible for building a world where everyone is wanted, everyone is valued, and everyone belongs.
People face a deep and often painful struggle when they feel that aspects of their bodies do not correspond with their true gender identities. Sometimes we see people in the mirror we do not recognize. We wish our chests were flat instead of curvy or curvy instead of flat. We wish for internal or external genitalia. We wish for our facial features to grow in either delicacy or boldness. It sometimes feels wrong to sit with our own flesh, and we wish to live in a body that feels like home. And when we take steps to make our bodies look or feel right, sometimes the people around us do not understand. Out of fear or ignorance, they might sometimes belittle, mock, reject, or hurt us.
If this is your struggle, I want you to know that you are not alone. You may not see them every day, but many people hold gender identities that do not match what they were assigned at birth, and many of these people feel like certain parts of their bodies do not fit right. Wherever you are in the process of discovering who you are and how you feel about your body, God is with you. As is written in Joshua 1: 9, “I command you: be firm and steadfast! Do not fear nor be dismayed, for the Lord, your God, is with you wherever you go.” Open up to God, and He will help you understand who you are and where to go from here. Maybe in time you will be interested and able to make changes to your body through hormones or surgery. Maybe someday you will find ways to live out your true gender and make peace with your body as it is.
In the throes of the struggle, I encourage you to pray from your heart and reach out to others who are understanding and supportive. Find community groups with other people who live outside of the cisgender binary. Read books and articles that advocate for body love, free gender expression, truth, and justice. Volunteer for educational and activist projects that build gender equality, inclusivity, understanding, and peace. Try to hold onto the things you like about your body. Even though there parts that feel wrong, are there still things you can do with your body that bring you joy? Does it make you happy to jump, to walk in the rain, to roll down a grassy hill? Do you enjoy the feeling of a hot shower or the sun on your skin? Do you cherish the taste of ice cream or the smell of lilacs? Are you thankful for eyes that let you gaze upon art, meadows, and the sunset? What aspects of your body bring goodness to your life?
I do not want to minimize anyone’s challenges or tell anyone to ignore their suffering. Rather, I simply hope we can all find moments of peace to help carry us through the path ahead. Once again, you need not be alone on the journey. Even if you are at a stage of life when no one around you understands, God is with you. He will help you learn who you are and how to love yourself by the power of His great love for you. As we read in Zephaniah 3: 17, “The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a mighty savior; he will rejoice over you with gladness, and renew you in his love, he will sing joyfully because of you.”
As you take steps to live out and love your gender identity, your abilities, your racial and ethnic background, and the shape of your unique body, people of the world may sometimes react with judgement, hatred, or violence. Such is often the response to courage and truth. As Jesus says in John 15: 18, “If the world hates you, realize that it hated me first.” Once again we read in 2 Timothy 4: 12, “In fact, all who want to live religiously in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” Notice that this text does not state that all people who claim to be Christians will be persecuted, but rather those who live religiously in Christ Jesus. If we want to, we can be Christians who live miserable lives of petty conformity. We can study all the social norms and rigidly control how we act, what we say, and what we believe. We can hide the truth of who we are and make all our choices out of the desire to be safe, comfortable, and relatively well-liked.
But this is not the path opened to us by Christ. In his time on earth, Jesus was a revolutionary who boldly walked in righteousness and truth, yet he did so with a spirit of absolute peace, love, and humility. This is the mind-blowing revelation of Christ, that true power is not found in war and dominance, but in love and self-sacrifice. When people hurt and reject us, we need to persist in mercy and truth, for this is our Christian duty, this is the way of the cross, and this is how we witness to God’s infinite and redeeming love. As we read in 1 Peter 3: 14-17:
But even if you should suffer because of righteousness, blessed are you. Do not be afraid
or terrified with fear of them, but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts. Always be ready
to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with
gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned,
those who defame your good conduct in Christ may themselves be put to shame. For it is
better to suffer for doing good, if that be the will of God, than for doing evil.
I am not advising you to accept abuse. Rather, we need to protect ourselves, set healthy boundaries, and hold people accountable for their unjust actions while still holding the love of Christ supreme in our hearts. If someone says something cruel, we can respond by removing ourselves from the situation, speaking up to them, or asking others for help. We can do all these things while praying for the person who spoke cruelly, Dear God, show them the error of their thinking and their ways. Help them to know your truth and your love more deeply.
If we are physically or sexually assaulted, we must seek help and ask God to heal our bodies, hearts, and souls. Trauma like this changes us, and we need support from loved ones, medical providers, and community members to make it through. Sometimes we blame ourselves when we are hurt so brutally, but we must remember that absolutely no one deserves to be assaulted. Whether we press legal charges or not, we can eventually make meaning of our experiences by reaching out to others who suffer in similar ways or working to stop these atrocities from happening again. In time, we can open our hearts in prayer: God, please heal whatever anger, pain, or brokenness moved this person to hurt me. Stop them from hurting others, and let the cycle of violence stop with me. Please take the anger, fear, powerlessness, and self-loathing that I feel in this moment and fill me with mercy, love, peace, and a righteous zeal for justice. I believe that You will prevail in all things. Through this experience, transform me into an advocate for healing and goodness in Your world.
Once again, if we do not love ourselves, it will be nearly impossible to live out love for our neighbors and enemies. Ultimately, we must open our eyes to see that life is a gift from God. We must rejoice in all the good things we can do with our bodies, our minds, and our hearts. We need to let God heal whatever causes us hurt and shame. We need to let God see us, know us, and love us. In God’s love, we learn that we are good and lovable. As we read in Psalm 147: 2-3, “The LORD rebuilds Jerusalem, gathers the dispersed of Israel, heals the brokenhearted, binds up their wounds.” He makes us whole again so that we can be fountains of love for others, for God’s love will always flow into the world through us. Thus we must turn to God and pray the words of Jeremiah 17: 14: “Heal me, LORD, that I may be healed; save me, that I may be saved, for it is you whom I praise.”
We need to seek healing not only for our own good, but also for the good of others. Self-loathing often devolves into hating others. Growing up, I was fatter than my peers, I had an effeminate voice, and I loved My Little Ponies decades before it was popular for boys to do such a thing. Naturally, I was bullied by certain peers, called names, excluded from some group activities, and generally perceived as being strange and different. Many of the people who were cruel to me were boys who the world considered to be handsome, popular, and likeable. They were physically attractive, athletic, charismatic, and funny. I survived those years with the loving support of family, the friendship of wonderful teachers, and the grace of God.
As I grew up, I harbored a great deal of anger toward men who were traditionally attractive or popular. In time, I realized that I had learned to associate beauty with cruelty, popularity with meanness, and charisma with abusive power. I wanted to protect myself from beautiful people because I automatically feared them. Deep down, I also envied their beauty and their easy-going social grace. Whenever I saw a beautiful, respected man, my initial reaction was fear and dislike. I did not see the person in front of me, but rather some phantom I created in my own head.
Once I realized what was going on for me, I came to understand that I was not seeing as God sees. As is written in 1 Samuel 16: 7 B, “Not as man sees does God see, because man sees the appearance but the LORD looks into the heart.” God helped me overcome my harsh, shallow judgements so that I could perceive people as full human beings who were made, saved, and loved by God. I learned that everyone, pretty or ugly, short or tall, fat or thin or somewhere in between, absolutely everyone has a deep need for love and for God. God gave me the grace to see that the people who hurt me in childhood must have been broken by some pain in their own lives. I was merely a target for their frustration, their anger, their need to experience some sort of power. God helped me see that Jesus came to earth, died, and rose for all of us, no matter what we look like, what we have done, or what we plan to do. Hating or judging only takes us away from the peace that can only be found in God’s love.
When we let go of the heavy burdens of self-hate and judgment, we are able to open our hearts more deeply and honestly to others. We no longer need to push people away out of fear of rejection, and we no longer need to hold onto the pain of the past. We are set free to pray for those who hurt us and let the rest go. Each day becomes an opportunity to receive God’s love and share it ever more widely and deeply with the world. Rather than obsessing about ourselves and fearing our neighbors, we can channel our energy into serving our friends, families, and communities. And we can open our hearts to romantic love when it comes our way with an honest courage about who we are, what we feel, who we want, and how we expect to be treated.
The truth is that however you look, you are beautiful because you are a child of God. As is written in Galatians 3: 26, “For through faith you are all children of God in Christ Jesus.” Is there any beauty greater than belonging to the family of God and the Body of Christ? God gave us hearts that yearn for love. There will be opportunities to live out love in our lives. We just need to be open and ready when they come along, and we can start by loving God and loving ourselves today.
The world needs people of faith who courageously profess that we are all beautiful children of God. When we love ourselves as we are today, we take a stand for truth and justice. We become pioneers who lead the way for those around us. We denounce the lies that we need to look a certain way to be beautiful, handsome, attractive, or lovable.
Once again, learning to love yourself is a journey, and some people have more obstacles than others. There are many dangerous traps related to bodies, health, and eating. We might eat too much or too little, purge through vomiting or laxatives, exercise too much, hurt ourselves physically to control emotional pain, or think about suicide. If any of these things are happening in your life, please reach out for help. Talk to a family member, close friend, trusted teacher, mentor, or pastor. If the first person you tell does not react well, tell someone else. Connect with a counselor and, if you are seriously thinking about ending your life, go to a nearby hospital. You are precious and the world needs to hear the testimony of how you overcome what you are going through right now through the grace of God.
As you walk your journey, here are some other things you can do:
- Think positively about yourself. Write lists of ten things you love to do, ten things you want to try, ten things you like about yourself, and ten things you have accomplished. It is often easy to list negative things about ourselves and difficult to come up with positive things, but this exercise can be deeply healing! Write the lists. If you struggle to come up with ideas, pray about it and ask for suggestions from trusted family and friends.
- Replace negative thoughts about yourself with positive ones as they come up throughout the day. Talk back to yourself. If you think, I’m so fat, or, My nose is too big, or, When will these zits ever go away, quickly reply with, I look like myself, or, Look at this sexy beast in the mirror, or, I have beautiful eyes, or, I can’t wait to go dancing later, even if it’s just in the living room. You get to choose what you think. When it feels like your thoughts are stuck in the same rut, ask God to help you move your mind in a different direction. Also, try writing the negative thoughts down on one side of a piece of paper. Next, respond to each statement by writing positive thoughts on the other side of the page. Putting thoughts down in concrete writing takes them out of the murky depths of the mind.
-Learn new healthy coping skills. Sometimes we cling to negativity about how we look or control our eating in order to cope with the pain and stress of life. If we learn other skills, such as taking deep breaths, drawing, distracting ourselves with fun activities, taking walks, praying, reading, writing, or talking with others about our problems, this helps us cope in ways that are less harmful and more productive.
- Talk about your progress with trusted family members or friends. You are not alone in the struggle. Many of us do not like how we look and sometimes struggle with feeling unlovable. Talk with other people who accept you as you are. Support each other. Ask each other, Why do we struggle with seeing ourselves as not good enough? What is the root cause of this, and where do we go from here?
-Practice affirmations. Say short, positive statements about yourself and your dreams out loud over and over again until you believe them. For example, you could say, “I am beautiful and strong… God loves me… I am sexy… There is a person out there for me to love… God wants me and I want me… My life matters…” Words are powerful. Write your affirmations down on note cards. Hang them up by a mirror or place them on your desk so you remember to say them throughout the day.
-Meditate on Scripture. Repeat verses of scripture to yourself over and over, and let them fill you with strength and hope. God’s word transforms us and enables us to see the world through God’s eyes. Scripture draws our hearts, minds, and wills closer to God, who is love.
Furthermore, it is sometimes helpful to remember that looks are just one piece of romantic chemistry, and different people are attracted to different qualities. Some people like guys with six pack abs and some people like guys with cuddly, teddy bear tummies. Some people like girls with willowy figures and some people like girls with soft, generous curves. Some people like blue eyes, some people like brown eyes, and most people care more about the passion in a person’s eyes than the color of the irises. Looks are often a factor in feelings of love and lust, but there are so many other elements to consider. Healthy, loving relationships are built on compatible senses of humor, lifestyles, personalities, values, goals, and beliefs. We fall in love with entire human beings, not soulless bodies. As we shift focus away from how we look, we pay more attention to living with integrity as disciples of Jesus. To see others deeply, we need to see ourselves deeply; and to love others deeply, we need to love ourselves deeply. We need to love our bodies and our lives. God will help us get there if we let Him.
Keller, H. (2003). The world I live in. R. Shattuck (Ed.). New York, NY: New York Review Books.
Wolf, N. (2002). The beauty myth: How images of beauty are used against women. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.