Getting To Grips With The Body image

Getting To Grips With The Body

Andy Crouch’s recent post about sex without bodies provides a clarifying reminder that we Christians are not only awaiting ‘the salvation of our souls’ (1 Pet 1:9) but ‘the redemption of our bodies’ (Rom 8:23). Crouch observes that, "behind the dismissal of bodies is ultimately a gnostic distaste for embodiment in general." This is an astute observation, and one that has significant implications for understanding a wide range of social ills in western society.

With nearly two square meters of temperature-detecting, sensation-reading skin, a pair of eyes, ears, and a tongue, all keeping us in contact with our immediate environment, processed via a supercomputer mass of brain, we are acutely and permanently body-conscious. Bodies are wonderful, but they are also the source of many of our problems, and it is our bodily failings that often most occupy us. Our bodies let us down. Consistently.

We are a bundle of bodily desires, some of which are considered socially legitimate, while others are not. To express our desires can result in social approval, but also embarrassment, or sanction. To repress our desires can lead to mental anguish. Our bodies demand food. We eat and are satisfied, but are then hungry again. We want to be energetic and alert, but get tired. We look in the mirror and are not happy with what we see. We age. We hurt. We get sick. We die. Our control over our bodies is sadly limited. We cannot prevent the onset of cancer by the power of positive thinking. We cannot change the colour of our eyes, or add an inch to our height.

Our problems are bodily ones and we can react in hatred towards the body. Ironically, this hatred often manifests itself in the form of idolatry or narcissism – things which look like delight in the body but on closer inspection prove to be bodily despair. The hospitalized anorexic and the primped high-maintenance beauty queen might look very different, but both are fighting their bodies. The body has let them down, it is not what they want it to be – and it has to be confronted and mastered. It is unlikely that a society in which most people were at peace with their bodies would spend $8 billion on cosmetics each year, as is the case in the USA.

We are caught in a bizarre 21st century gnostic trap in which our bodily disdain is reflected in body obsession. Our bodies have let us down, and no end of cosmetic surgery or trips to the gym or new clothes can fix the problem. We want to escape, but are unable. So it is no surprise that, as Crouch expresses it, “the created givenness of bodies must give way to the achievement of ascertaining, announcing, and fulfilling one’s own internally discerned desires, with no normative reference to the body one happens to inhabit.” In this world, our bodies are seen as just tubes of DNA – they are not who we really are, and what we choose to do with them is a matter of indifference.

Sexually, which was the focus of Crouch’s article, this means that we believe we have the moral right (obligation even) to define and categorize ourselves not in relation to our bodies but in response to our feelings. The body is regarded as plastic; the emotions as fixed. Odd. (It seems remarkably inconsistent to me that ‘gender reassignment surgery’ is available at tax payer expense in the UK, but counselling gay people in a way that suggests they might change their sexual orientation is criminalized.) The body itself becomes little more than a canvas on which to display our real, inner, selves – not only in the clothes we wear and hairstyles we adopt, but in the tattoos and piercings we sport.

Yet despite this gnosticism, we also know that we don’t really want to escape our bodies. One of the highest compliments we can pay someone is to say that they are comfortable in their own skin. This kind of comfort seems increasingly rare, but we know that we want to be at home in the body – more than that, we know that we want to be at home in a perfected body. What is the appeal of Stephenie Meyer’s vampires to a teenage girl? or the Man of Steel to a teenage boy? Surely it is that image of a perfected body, one that looks beautiful and displays no weakness. We could all be comfortable in that kind of skin.

All of which means that the very un-gnostic gospel of Jesus Christ has immediate relevance for us. The story of a resurrected Christ and the hope of redeemed bodies is powerful. The promise that, “Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven” (1 Cor 15:49) offers us a wonderful embodiment – one in which our bodies are not our enemy, nor a matter of indifference, but the very thing that makes us like God.

As Crouch says, this gospel message teaches us that matter matters, and this must have a profound effect on how we understand the value of men and women, and their bodies, in the here and now. It has often been observed that Christianity is the most embodied, the most earthy, of all religions. Because we embrace the body in this way, we believe that what the body embraces matters. Matter is not indifferent. Jesus, the embodied God-man, has not let us down, and through him we can discover the dignity that our bodies demand. Our bodies are not distasteful. They are destined for eternal glory!

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