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 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)