Surviving Our Image Obsessed Culture: How Body Shaming Affects Us All

by Dr. Carla Cornelius , Christian Examiner Contributor |

(PHOTO: DARIUS BASHAR/UNSPLASH)

Accusations or self-appraisals of having the wrong body type or shape are becoming an increasing feature of life in the western media. In the relatively liberal western democracies, it is now the norm to display all or large areas of the human body as an expression of being confident or fashion forward. Because of this the human body is seen as our greatest asset to be flaunted, and unsolicited body commentary is on the increase. If one happens to pick up a tabloid newspaper, it will predominantly focus on a public figure's physical appearance. It seems that all body types are susceptible to shaming but it is still an overwhelmingly female experience. Whether it happens to a male or female is beside the point because it is still potentially harmful.

In our body-obsessed society, it seems the most offensive thing we can do is not conform to physical stereotypes. Last month, the Plus Size model, Tess Holliday, defended her right to be the size she is in the wake of criticism from Piers Morgan that she is setting a bad example by being dangerously obese. What would not have been apparent to the viewer is the trauma and abuse Holliday has suffered from a very young age—testament to how much she has had to overcome to arrive at the heights of the modeling industry. In a world where image is everything, it is often forgotten that we are spiritual beings in physical bodies with sensitive souls.

Instagram has once again come under the spotlight with the shockwaves caused by Anna Faris' recent deletion of a photo which invited merciless criticism from fans.

When it comes to body shapes, sizes, and fashion styles, I'm sure that we would all agree that one size doesn't fit all. Not only do onlookers overlook the DNA component—that some people are genetically predisposed to being fatter than others, they also fail to take into account someone's medical and general life history. Indeed, we all have one, and in all cases, it is nobody's business unless we choose to reveal it. Yet we have been so conditioned with body norms from the fashion and advertising industry that it's easy to react when we see an image that doesn't sync with those norms. The question arises, is it right that our bodies should be open for public comment? Should people be made to feel less than adequate because media scrutiny has induced a sense of shame that they don't measure up to culturally accepted norms?

A ricochet effect of our collective obsession with images has been the rise in plastic surgery. It was reported this week that a second British woman has tragically lost her life while undergoing a Brazilian butt lift. This is thought to be the riskiest of cosmetic procedures, and involves fat being sucked out of one part of the body and re-injected back into the buttocks. This report is a stark reminder of the too-high price we often pay to be picture perfect. Before we rush to judgment, there is no denying that we all have at least one part of our bodies which we dislike, and if given the opportunity, would probably willingly succumb to the knife and anaesthesia to change it, just as these women did.

Although some of those who have gone under the knife suffer from body dysmorphia, a psychiatric condition whereby people see their bodies not as they really are but in a distorted way, others may well have been shamed into it.

Picture perfect

The modern trend is to use pictures as tools of communication, even though they often have little or no connection with how we truly are on the inside. We are of inestimable value to God regardless of how we look to others. Furthermore, we must allow ourselves to be human—to have our "off days," and allow others to have theirs as well. We often spend an inordinate amount of time seeking the perfect "selfie" whilst neglecting other areas of our lives which will stand the test of time. As physically-focused beings, rather than trading on our "erotic" capital, we can condition ourselves to value other more substantial attributes such as kindness and intelligence (both intellectual and emotional). There is nothing inherently wrong with being attractive, but in God's economy it counts for nothing. In Proverbs 31:30 we are faced with the resounding truth that "charm is deceitful and beauty is passing...."

Paradigm shift

The sobering truth is that not everyone will appreciate the way you look, but this can free you up to focus on other lasting values such as how to use your body to make a positive difference in this world. Although in human terms the body is often seen as our greatest asset, we need to embrace a paradigm shift, and begin to view it in terms of doing good or bestowing service. So no longer do we limit the value of our hands to eye-catching manicures but rather, value hands that feed the hungry; no longer do we judge our eyes solely in terms of whether they are made up to perfection, but, by whether they glisten with the tears of compassion; and instead of our mouths being solely seen as instruments to voice our opinions, we examine whether they utter words of encouragement.

To overcome this trend of body shaming and the compulsive need for plastic surgery, we need to move beyond viewing the body's purpose as primarily for posing and approval-seeking, and begin to celebrate it, and indeed any body for its functionality. The Psalmist declares his gratitude to God—"You formed my innermost parts; You knit me [together] in my mother's womb. I will give thanks and praise to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made" (Psalm 139:13-14, AMP). Perhaps, at the end of the day, this is the only opinion that truly matters.

—Dr. Carla Cornelius, is a Director and Editor at Jesus Joy Publishing. Her Ph.D. in Biblical Counselling has equipped her to trace humanity's problems back to faulty thinking and values which fly in the face of the Maker's instructions. She has a passion for exposing the distortions of truth spun by the media and popular culture which leave sick souls in their wake, souls desperately in need of spiritual detoxification. She is the author of five books including "Culture Detox: Cleansing our minds from toxic thinking," "Captive Daughters: Breaking the chains" and "No Way Out: Keys to avoiding suicide."