Body Neutral and the Bible

The Best Me

January is a very confused month. On the one hand, ‘time to treat yourself! Book a holiday! Schedule in time-out. Nurture, regroup, recover.’ On the other, ‘Time to discipline yourself. Rein in all the excess. Work harder, achieve more, be The Best You.’

So what is ‘The Best Me?’ Our culture traditionally offers two answers to this question. The first is to focus on physical change aka Getting A New Body (through fitness, diet, surgery or whatever).

The second answer is what’s known as body positivity or Loving the Body You’ve Got. This seems like a much healthier approach – but as we’ll see it raises as many issues as it addresses.

Into the mix we’re seeing the rise of a third approach called called ‘Body Neutrality’. Where body positivity is about loving your body; body neutrality is a starting point for appreciating what your body does rather than how it looks. Instead of either hating your body or loving it the idea is to just get on with living in it.

There’s a lot to be said for body neutrality – especially in terms of mental health. But as Christians, what do we make of it? Let’s start by thinking about what it was designed to replace.

Body positive?

Body positivity began as a way of validating those in marginalised bodies – especially fat, black, queer, and disabled bodies. However, it’s come to mean a more general sense of self-confidence and self-love. Critics say it’s been commercialised and taken over by pretty or small white women – excluding those it was meant to support (see this article on the switch from Body Positivity to Body Neutrality).

There are other issues with body positivity. Followers are encouraged to move from body hate to body love – but they’re still trapped in a system that measures their worth in terms of physicality. Whether large or small, able-bodied or disabled, body positivity still teaches us see our bodies as the measure of who we are.

This is especially hard for those who struggle with disabilities, chronic health problems, dysmorphia or eating disorders. Being told to move from hating your body to loving it feels impossible – like asking a toddler to run a marathon. And it reinforces the initial problem: that our body is our worth.

Into this situation comes the idea of body neutrality; that we think about what our body does and not how it appears. So, instead of criticising my wrinkles, I celebrate my marks of experience. Instead of poking my ‘mummy tummy,’ I’m thankful for the body that fed and nurtured a child. I’m challenged to renounce body hatred… but without a corresponding pressure to fall in love with it instead. It’s a worthy goal; to respect my body – but also to spend less time obsessing about it. But… how do we do it? And what takes its place? The Bible comes in with some ancient but profound wisdom.

2 Corinthians 5:1-10: For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. 2 Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, 3 because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. 4 For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 5 Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God, who has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.

6 Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. 7 For we live by faith, not by sight. 8 We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9 So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.

Right now we are burdened, naked and groaning. But somehow we can still have “confidence”. How? By focusing on what works with our bodies? Not first and foremost. First we focus on Christ’s risen body, because our “lowly bodies’ will be raised to be like “his glorious body” (Philippians 3:21). At that time we will be clothed, alive, home!

Carry on Camping

So, how do we see our bodies? The bible tells us, – as tents. Tents are functional more than ornamental! They’re useful more than comfortable and they’re temporary, rather than permanent. But our particular tents are still extraordinary. Like Moses’ tabernacle, they are dwellings for the very Presence of God! And like the tabernacle they can still be places of beauty and decoration. It’s just that they’re tents, not permanent dwellings. And we should treat them accordingly.

Imagine you were in charge of Moses’ tabernacle yet you knew that Solomon’s extraordinary temple was coming. You’d still look after the furnishings. You’d still keep up its appearances, after all this lowly tabernacle testifies to its future upgrade! And it’s a dwelling for the Holy Spirit himself. It matters. But – a more enduring house is coming, so you don’t worship the tabernacle itself or set your hopes on it. You let it serve its purpose, knowing something better is coming.

And notice verse 10 above. We can keep this perspective now because our focus is on the eternal. With eyes on the last day we don’t need to escape our bodies, or worship them. We seek to “do good” in and with them. (This is what body neutrality gets right – there is a usefulness to our bodies, even if they’re old, ill or disabled. No matter what, there will still be ways they can “do good”).

Body neutrality is a turn towards something healthier than body obsession and healthier than body denial. And with the eyes of faith we can begin to make this shift. Right now, I might not be taking up the space in the Ritz, but take heart — 5 star accommodation is coming. So for now, a tent will do. It’s approved by God; and that’s enough.

Image source: by Rosemary Vasquez-Brown (@glenn_rose)

6 thoughts on “Body Neutral and the Bible

  1. Thank you so much for this Emma.
    Have found it hard not to listen to all the voices telling me that January is the time to loose weight. And to not believe the lie that a diet/new fitness regime will give me everything I desire…
    This was such a helpful corrective ?
    Thank you!!

  2. Hi Cara – yes, it’s astonishing how much we’re sold this lie of a new body, new start – especially in January.

  3. Was just thinking about this earlier this week with a friend – she’d made a post on Instagram about how she’s battled with feeling chubby her whole life, & thus envied those with smaller frames or who could eat a lot without it actually showing, etc. She went on to share how people would comment things like “you’re not fat but because your face is chubby it makes you *seem* fat,” “your body is the type to collect fat easily,” etc – but losing weight would just earn her comments like, “you look sick ..” – & even when she started training to get fit it was “you look better bcos being too skinny (is) not good,” yadda yadda yadda.

    This has however helped her also be more intentional in compliments – specifics on qualities, not appearances (and she says that to me too! It’s very sweet but a bit atypical. Haha – she’ll tell me I’m considerate and thoughtful and my first thought will be how literally NO ONE ordinarily makes a compliment to another in this way. Lol) so then I shared with her how I feel huge sometimes when in comparison to my friends .. – huge legs and huge dresses … UGHHH.

    & yet I also get really scared (noticeably. For realsz) when at the MH clinic my psychiatrist asks me if I’ve lost weight – I think she means it most observationally but it always makes me wonder if she thinks I’m deliberately starving myself or something (nooo most often its cos I’m wearing a dress from way back when the meds DID objectively make me gain a whole lot of weight …)

    But overall, idk. I’m generally quite iffy about the issue of weight because (1) sometimes people gain weight cos it’s a side effect of meds & (2) I think weight loss is perceived/intended to be a compliment in the eyes of society but it increasingly makes me wonder “how fat was I before this, that it’s so noticeable ..” – sometimes I feel like I can’t win — at too low a number I’m afraid the doc thinks I’m not eating properly, if it increases too much I wonder if I’m Fat. Which then turns into being The Right Number, which itself then becomes perfectionism & fixation (& it’s not just in January) ??? — I’ve been telling myself to keep off the scale for a while now, (but at the same time convinced I’ve probably reached a weight that is indicative of a too-high BMI, hurhur)

    “Imagine you were in charge of Moses’ tabernacle yet you knew that Solomon’s extraordinary temple was coming. You’d still look after the furnishings. You’d still keep up its appearances, after all this lowly tabernacle testifies to its future upgrade! And it’s a dwelling for the Holy Spirit himself. It matters. But – a more enduring house is coming, so you don’t worship the tabernacle itself or set your hopes on it. You let it serve its purpose, knowing something better is coming.”

    But this paragraph was really really helpful … (& is my favourite in the whole post hehe)

    Not sure if I’ve ever showed you this but — essentially my thoughts on weight, summed up in an article (that I wrote, yes.) ?

    Ssooo hard sometimes, but maybe that’s why reminders are necessary x

  4. Thanks Emma, the comparison between the tabernacle and the body is helpful especially when I see the tent showing some age. ?

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