Where Does Body Shame Come From?
For you formed my inward parts;
you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
my soul knows it very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
in your book were written, every one of them,
the days that were formed for me,
when as yet there was none of them. (Ps. 139:13–16)
In the spirit of bringing shame to light through community, I asked a small group of women to recall when they first felt ashamed of their bodies. Each woman recounted a memory, message, or defining event that contributed to a sense of body shame that she struggles with to this day. Patty described being an early bloomer, a feeling of shame at her developing breasts that makes her despise them even decades later. Lily said that even after losing significant weight, she still views herself as several sizes larger than she is and doesn’t connect someone discussing “a thin woman” as describing her. Lauren remembered an almost casual gesture, her mom pointing out a slight facial imperfection and then seeking to brush it away. For years she wrestled with feeling imperfect—and that imperfect is not OK. All talked about the way the message seeps into our culture that anything less than a perfect body is a body to be ashamed of.
It’s not only women who are haunted by body shame. Men, too, are increasingly pressured to achieve body perfection through well-developed physiques, and many men feel shame when they don’t have the ideal body.1 Today’s media cruelly display weight gain or muscle loss. They laud extreme weight loss. And too often our cultures and communities and families and churches simply mirror what the media proclaim.
Body shaming can happen in obvious ways, like direct criticisms to a child about his or her weight or appearance. But it can also occur through our commentary on those around us. A daughter who hears her mom constantly scrutinize others’ weight and appearance absorbs the message that acceptance and love and approval are tied to her weight. Imagine her struggle if she gains “the freshman fifteen” in college, or does not lose her baby weight postpartum. Even if her mom never says a word to her directly, the damage is done, and she may feel increased shame with her added pounds. A son who sees his father obsessively work out and praise those who are muscular and thin will likewise learn to tie approval to his image. Most of us are guilty of perpetuating a culture that puts physical beauty on a pedestal. Despite professing that “it’s what inside that counts,” how often do our children, nieces, nephews, and students hear us praise others for their character?
Maybe you don’t struggle with your weight or body shape, but what about that least favorite physical characteristic of yours? You know, the one that you would pay good money to change if you could. Or perhaps you feel like you never know how to wear your hair, or do your makeup, or select clothes. All of these can attach to a broader definition of “body shame.”
Body shame can take on generational overtones as well. The daughter who notices that her mom exercises for hours daily, always skimps on eating, and never eats dessert will buy into the message that this is how she, too, should treat her body. Research says that girls as young as first grade begin to desire to be thinner, and that by age ten, 84 percent of all children are afraid of being fat.2 This is epidemic!
We grow up steeped in the cultural law that “thin/beautiful = good and loveable, and fat/unattractive = bad and rejected.” Body shame is the feeling that your body with its imperfections is something of which to be ashamed—something you wish you could hide or change. But the reality is that we can never get away from our bodies, and there’s really very little that can be changed about the bodies we are given. It’s how we live in this world, clothed in our bodies. And so it is imperative that we address what to do with body shame, and how Jesus wants to clothe our body shame with his honor. Remember our working definition of shame: It’s the feeling of “not good enough,” according to our own standard or our perception of someone else’s standard for us. It’s what keeps us from being honest about our struggles, sins, and less-than-perfect moments. Fear of shame drives us to perfectionism in all areas of our lives, so that there would be no imperfection for others to notice and judge.
Fear of shame drives us to perfectionism in all areas of our lives, so that there would be no imperfection for others to notice and judge.
True Beauty Comes from Within
God speaks most directly about beauty when addressing the early church in a letter written by one of the first disciples of Jesus, Peter. Peter describes beauty in this way: “Let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious” (1 Pet. 3:4). How intriguing to think of “adorning” (dressing) yourself as something that comes from within—“the hidden person of the heart”! It’s a beauty that never fades—imperishable—and it’s precious in God’s sight. It’s a beauty described as gentle (or kind) and quiet (or peaceful). When we are chasing after beauty in clothing, cosmetics, thinness, wrinkle-free smiles, and shapely muscles, we are missing the ultimate beauty that God sees: that of our hearts.
We chase after the wrong beauty, and it eventually fails. It cannot clothe our shame, for it was never meant to do so. We need to be clothed by the imperishable beauty of Christ. He is our ultimate secret weapon. It’s a beauty none of us can attain, but which we are given through faith in Jesus Christ. He was marred and physically disfigured, bearing our body shame to its full extent on the cross, so that we could be beautiful from the inside out. His is the gentle and quiet spirit that becomes ours through faith. It is the presence of the Holy Spirit within that we are to adorn ourselves with.
And so what are we to do with our longing for physical perfection? We must realize that it will come one day—but not through our futile striving. It will come when we are raised with Christ into the perfection of our resurrection bodies. All body shame will be eradicated as our bodies are raised in honor: “[The body] is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory” (1 Cor. 15:43).
This honor is retroactive, as we live in the days between Christ’s past resurrection and our future resurrection with him. We can expect both the physical imperfection, dishonor, and shame that we’ll carry until we die; and we can also expect the dispelling and redemption of body shame as we look forward in hope to the future honoring of our physical bodies. We will not return to the Edenic memory of “naked and unashamed” until we are resurrected anew in the new heavens and the new earth, clothed in our perfectly glorious bodies. And yet there are glimpses of physical glory even here—in the way we are all born into the world shameless and through redeemed sexuality in marriage. We see a small reflection of the physical reality of our unashamed destiny when watching a perfectly orchestrated ballet, or when a baby touches sand and sea for the first time, or when Olympic athletes compete in an event.
The next time you see a child dancing without shame, remember that this is where you began and where you are headed, through the hope of Jesus who was physically resurrected and in whose beauty we are even now clothed.
You may be asking at this point, But what does this really look like in my life? For me, with my shame-laden stories of physical and verbal abuse, which I hold catalogued in my mind and stamped as body memories I can’t seem to physically shake? For me, who never feels like I’m quite thin enough no matter how much I work out or how much weight I lose? For me, who cannot stand a certain part of my body—nose, arms, thighs, skin, hair? For me, who is battling disordered eating? For me, who overspends on clothes, cosmetics, and hair products? For me, whose confidence waxes and wanes depending on how good I feel like I look on any given day, for any given event?
What it really looks like is listening intently to God’s words of love for you, and praying that you will begin to believe them. It includes sharing your story of body shame and your struggle against its lies with a trusted, safe friend, counselor, or pastor. It means asking for this safe person to speak truth to you. Remember: safe people are those who have shown you over time that they are trustworthy. They will affirm you, not criticize you. And they won’t shy away from speaking the truth in gentle love to you either.
Not only do I need truthful reminders from friends about my situation (clothing, body image, beauty), but I need a call to confession from my God—a turning in repentance back toward him, an acknowledgment that yes, I have been chasing beauty in all the wrong places.3 And where has that gotten me? Emptier than ever, more insecure, jealously comparing and competing, and far from my Father.
But he doesn’t leave me there, and he hasn’t left you there either. The Father comes to heal your body shame by giving you a new heart (Ezek. 26:36). This may be the last thing you think you need, but it’s actually the first and most important thing. The new heart you’re given through faith in Jesus Christ is a heart that can’t be swayed by fashion trends and vacillating weight or body shape. This new heart gives you an unshakeable beauty, one that can never perish, spoil, or fade— an “imperishable beauty.” This heart knows love and speaks love to you constantly, comforting pained places inside of you. Christ died and rose again so that you would always know that you’re loved, and so that nothing could separate you from his love (Rom. 8:38–39). Not even your body shape or disordered eating or appearance obsession can keep you from God’s love. None of it holds a candle to the love you have through Christ with the Father.
So try it—hold up your false refuges to the light of this love and see how they compare. Which of these has sacrificed for you, or is it that they ask you to sacrifice for them? All of them promise love—but have any of them delivered on that promise? Isn’t it more likely that they made love feel more elusive than before?4 For even if you obtained the love you sought through their means—becoming your ideal weight, learning how to dress and wear your makeup and do your hair—doesn’t that leave you more insecure than before? And wouldn’t this heap pressure on you to keep up appearances to maintain the love you seek?
When you see the false refuges for what they are and what your heart goes after instead of Jesus, only one refuge from your body shame remains: arms stretched wide on the cross, inviting you into divine love at the cost of Christ’s broken and torn body. What God gives you is love with truth—a truth that is not adulterated by today’s “thin equals beautiful” culture. He restores the true definition of beauty as we are restored in his image. Just as Eve considered eating the forbidden fruit that was pleasing to the eye, we too buy into assigning value based on outer appearances, exchanging “beauty” for just “pretty.” But Jesus sees true beauty differently than fallen humanity sees it. Would you believe he sees you as more beautiful than the magazine photo? The magazine photo has been airbrushed and retouched—it is no longer “truth,” but made pleasing to the eye. You are who you are, flaws and all, and you need a Redeemer.
Marred by the fall as we may be, we are still created in God’s image and reflect his intrinsic value. What does he give you instead of your shame? Clothing and identity and unshakeable eternal confidence. This begins to change everything, and soon you’re walking with your head held high because you know you are loved and that you are beautiful.
This article is adapted from Unashamed: Healing Our Brokenness and Finding Freedom from Shame by Heather Davis Nelson.
1. Michael Brodeur, “Why Male Body Shaming Is on the Rise in the Media,” Boston Globe, March 8, 2015, https://www.bostonglobe.com/lifestyle/2015/03/08/manshaming/F4IOidjmYSzlbTvMGua0sJ/story.html#/.
2. National Eating Disorders Association, http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/get-facts-eating-disorders/.
3. For further reading, see my article “Chasing Beauty,” Journal of Biblical Counseling, no. 1 (winter 2006): 58–60.
4. I am indebted to my pastor, Rev. Jack Howell at Trinity Presbyterian Church (Norfolk, VA), who often includes in his sermons these heart-piercing questions contrasting idols of the heart with Jesus.
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