Body Image and Standards of Beauty

“Mirror mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?”
This quote from an age-old fairy tale strikes the most common notion of beauty at its core. In this question, the antagonist, the witch, defines beauty in her comparison to others. As in the fairy tale, the question in real life isn’t “Am I beautiful?” It’s almost always “Am I beautiful compared to others?” or “Am I more attractive/desirable than others?” In other words, beauty/attractiveness is most often defined by our culture and sustained by envy or covetousness of others. Think about it, why are advertisements for various products so effective? They almost always appeal to an image that is held by our culture as ideal. We covet after an image; we want to be like that “beautiful” girl or that “manly” guy. If we purchase the product they are selling or wear the clothes they are wearing, perhaps we will be as desirable as they are.

The same is true for physical ideals of beauty and body image. We can instantly imagine the stereotypically beautiful people of our culture. If not, look no further than the toys children are given to play with, like Barbie and Ken. Yet, the standards of physical beauty implied by these images are not universal standards, nor are there any. Over time and across cultures, people have established various standards of beauty: small feet, plump women, tall skinny men, medium height muscular men, pointy teeth, large noses, the list goes on. Many people go to great lengths to conform to the culture’s standards of beauty, from unhealthy dieting to plastic surgery (this is becoming wide scale on a global level), yet doing so is vanity. It is primarily motivated by envy of others, rather than out of contentedness and thankfulness for how God made us, or out of any true standards of beauty.

The standards of our culture are unhealthy and over sexualized, and trying to obtain them can be part of a vicious cycle. There is freedom in caring more about what God thinks than what other people think. True beauty comes from inward confidence. Confidence is related to knowing who you are in Christ and being content with who you are; godliness with contentment is great gain. Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean that its not important to take care of yourself, to eat healthy, to exercise, and to get sunshine, but don’t do these things to conform to an ideal image — do these things to be healthy, then look however you will. One of the biggest health focuses for many is losing weight. Yet, while losing weight can be an important part of good health, beware of extremes or impure motives that can put a damper on your joy. Research has shown that it’s possible to weigh far more than the standards established by our culture and yet have an athletic level of health. Let the pursuit of physical health be for the sake of living a full life, not for the sake of vanity or out of insecurity and envy. Focus on modesty and establish an inward beauty or attractiveness, rather than superficial outward beauty. Have freedom by not conforming to the standards of this world but by being transformed by the renewing of your mind, by changing the way you think about beauty.

Originally posted 2012-02-27 16:30:00.

Does Fitness Improve Self-Image?

The pursuit of health and fitness is enjoying tremendous popularity these days, which makes sense since so many people in our society are extremely unhealthy. At a second glance, however, it becomes apparent that “health” is only part of the reason so many of us are trying to eat healthier and get more exercise. One of the main driving forces of the current health movement is image. We want to look good and feel better about ourselves, and having better health promises to help us accomplish that.

At surface level, improving one’s self-image through better health is innocent and easy enough, but there are several underlying factors that make this a dangerous pursuit. For one there are two highly effective mass media campaigns that take advantage of our basic human desires but pull us in two opposite directions. On the one hand, the multi-billion dollar food industry spends millions of dollars every year on marketing campaigns and making foods that are optimal designed for human palatability (but not for health). We are hard-wired to love the taste of sweets and fats, because in creation these nutrients are almost always found in healthy forms. Corporate food companies understand the fundamentals of human taste, but take advantage of it in the cheapest and most effective ways possible; the result is cheap, attractive, and DELICIOUS food that we can’t get enough of but ends up clogging our arteries and fattening us up.

On the other hand, almost every form of media we look at uses sexual images or plays on human covetousness to sell consumer goods. We are simultaneously targeted by marketing campaigns that tell us to eat foods that satisfy our cravings (that are ultimately making us fat) and that successful women should look like Barbie and successful men like Fabio. An internal battle ensues, a war between the desires of human nature! We order our fast food, but we drink diet soda. We binge on ice cream, but we make up for it by spending three hours at the gym the next day. We submit ourselves to vicious cycles of high and lows, New Year’s resolutions and feelings of failure, bingeing and “fasting.”

In order to arrive at a balanced perspective of health, the first thing we have to do is throw off the lies of our culture and the constant temptations to compare ourselves to others. The truth is, even people who represent the “perfect” image of fitness often still struggle with self-esteem and positive self-image. Why? Because when we compare ourselves to others or the ideals of our culture we are never good enough. We are always left seeking to be like someone else, to out-do someone else, to be the most original, the most fit, etc. If a person who struggles with obesity looses excess weight, he may or may not feel better about himself when he compares himself to others.

The best way we can improve our self-image is to have a firm understanding of who we really are. At this point, things can still get messy, as most people don’t have an accurate understanding of who they are; they’ve been too busy comparing themselves to others or some random ideal. Most of us tend to underestimate ourselves, and we choose to believe something about ourselves that’s often based on misconceptions. The reality is that you are an amazing human being, intricately complex, fearfully and wonderfully made with unlimited potential. You are unique and have sometime to bring to the world that nobody else has. It is belief in these truths that should form the foundation of your self-image.

While the pursuit of fitness is important for a number of obvious reasons, improving self-image isn’t one of them. A self-image rooted in the truth about who God says we are can free us from the lies and false images of our culture and set us on a path of true health, spiritually and physically.

Originally posted 2013-03-15 04:19:00.