You’ll never be thin enough. She’s definitely prettier than you. Is that the best outfit you could put together? For many years, sentiments like these were my natural reaction to seeing myself in a mirror. I have wrestled with my body image on and off since adolescence. Prior to following Jesus, I cared so much about my appearance I willingly nurtured harmful habits to become “beautiful”. I was bulimic, worked out too much, ate too little, followed trendy diets, spent countless hours on beauty tutorials, wore lots of gaudy makeup, and even went so far as to steal when I wanted the coolest clothing brands I couldn’t afford.
When I began following Jesus in my late teen years, I assumed my body image struggles would disappear. After all, a Christian knows that God doesn’t care about outward appearances, so I shouldn’t care about them either, right?
I continued to wrestle with finding worth in my appearance. I felt secure when praised for my physical beauty but then deflated when another’s looks rivaled mine. And so, I did what I didn’t want to do (Romans 7:15) and continued to strive after an unachievable standard, finding value in my perishing body.
Now, to make matters even more confusing, there’s a conflicting message coming from the world. It tells us to ignore the standards, embrace our imperfections, and even flaunt them. We are being encouraged on the one side to be flawless and on the other to boast in those flaws. However, both are just different sides of the same self-preoccupied issue.
By God’s grace, I have seen growth in this area since conversion, but the struggle remains. Most recently, as a new mom to my fourth child, my postpartum body has resurrected many of the same struggles all over again, taking a slightly different, more stretch-marked covered, form.
But why does the same issue keep rearing its ugly head? I know God loves me no matter what (Jeremiah 31:3). I know He doesn’t care about outward appearances (1 Samuel 16:7). I know I’ve been fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14). I know I shouldn’t adorn myself merely with external adornment but rather with a gentle and humble spirit (1 Peter 3:3-4). So why do I keep struggling?
Because I’ve been fighting the wrong battle. Trying to attain the perfect physical standard didn’t work, and telling myself to stop caring hasn’t worked either. The problem is deeper than some unresolved self-esteem issues – it’s actually a sin issue, rooted in my heart of misplaced loves. And sin issues are not cast out with motivational verses, trendy diets, or anti-aging creams.
Sin issues are only cast out with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
There are a few ways in which biblical truth can be applied to this issue. However, for the sake of this short article, I’ve chosen to break it down according to the Great Commandment: You shall love the Lord your God and your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:36-40)
1.) Love the Lord Your God
When Jesus was asked what the great commandment in the law was, he replied, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.’” (Matthew 22:37-38)
Simply put, our greatest purpose in this life is to love God with all of our being. Every part of our lives are to be consumed with loving God and ushering others to worship Him. Anything that rivals this love is idolatry—that is craving, loving, or being satisfied with something other than God.
When viewed in light of this first command, my preoccupation with body image shifts from being a “self-esteem” issue to being rightly identified as idolatry and pride.
Let’s be honest, we don’t usually care about our appearances as an overflow of our love for God, but rather as an overflow of love for ourselves and what others think of us. We spend time dieting, checking the mirror, and researching beauty products not as a way of leading others into the presence of God, but as a way to convince others to worship us.
To be clear, beauty is not the enemy. God created beauty and it brings him great glory when we enjoy and create beautiful things. In fact, the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden was a “delight to the eyes”, sinful only when Eve desired it more than the beauty of God. The problem is when we worship the creation (aka our physical bodies) over the Creator (Romans 1:25).
2.) You shall love your neighbor as yourself
After the first command, Jesus continues with, “And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
In conjunction to loving God with all of our being, we are also called to love our neighbors as ourselves.
“Ah, but see, the command tells us to love others as we love ourselves. Loving myself and my body is an essential part of the equation,” some may say.
But that is flawed thinking. Jesus is not telling us to love others and ourselves, he is instead assuming our innate love (sometimes obsession) with ourselves and telling us to love others with that same energy.
How can I love those around me when I’m constantly thinking of myself?
When we care so much about our body images it’s like we are walking around with a mirror always held in front of our faces. Instead of seeing the needs of the people around us, we only see ourselves and how others make us look.
“I’m definitely prettier than her. Phew.”
“Dang, that person looks way better postpartum than I do. What’s wrong with me?”
“They just looked at me funny. Are they checking out the size of my nose? Or maybe my hair doesn’t look quite right?”
What is worse is that the mirrors we hold out in front of us don’t even reflect us clearly because they’re constructed of ever-evolving, unattainable, worldly standards and self-worship. They’re more like carnival mirrors, warping what we look like into distorted, disfigured images.
These figurative mirrors block us from being able to love others selflessly. Our obsession with our own image causes us to overlook others made in God’s image. We replace one image for another.
The Good News
So what is the solution? At the heart of change is worship. When we worship ourselves or the opinions of others instead of God, of course the overflow will be a fragile identity, prone to dissolving just like the dust from which we are made. But when we are entranced with the goodness and beauty of our God, then a new love expels our sinful love of self.
We can finally view our bodies rightly, not as ornamental vases meant merely to be admired by their onlookers, but as the fragile, ordinary, clay pots they are, meant to showcase the extraordinary treasure we hold within—namely, God’s power (2 Corinthians 4:7).
And when we don’t worship God perfectly or love others well, there is hope.
“Jesus, though he was God, did not think of his equality with God as something to hold onto. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges and took the humble position of a bondservant and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross.” (Phillipians 2:6-8)
Did you catch that? Jesus, God of the universe, did not come to flaunt his physical features (Isaiah 53:2). Instead, he came in the weakness of human flesh in order to love God the Father and to love others. He was willing to have his body mangled on the cross to purchase the salvation of sinners. And in so doing, he did what we could never do, he fulfilled the greatest commandment!
Because of Jesus, you can know you are worth infinitely more than your looks because he died to prove it.
Because of Jesus’ perfect obedience to God, you can finally find freedom from self-idolatry and instead delight in the worship of your Maker.
Because of Jesus’s love for all humanity, we can have eyes to see past our own appearances and see the needs of those around us.
Because of Jesus, there is abundant forgiveness, even when we don’t view our bodies rightly (for the hundredth time).
So whether you’re a teenager comparing yourself to your peers on Instagram, a mom mourning the loss of your pre-baby body, an aging woman beginning to see lines on your forehead, or anywhere in between, there is freedom in the gospel to put off the obsession with our looks and put on an obsession with God and loving others. All because of Jesus.