I am currently completing a thesis entitled “The Perfect Body: Anorexia, Body Image, and John Paul II’s Theology of the Body.” My main focus is on two of the late Pope’s ideas about the human body: the unity of the body, and the body as the image of God. I don’t want to go into too much detail about the connection to anorexia at this point, instead I would like to look at what body image is all about. We are all embodied beings. But what does that mean? At the very basic level it means we exist in a physical state. Our consciousness and our spirit are housed in a complex system of bones, muscles, organs, and skin. We are dependent on our bodies for life and our bodies rely on your thinking ability to provide the means to the necessities of life. So why am I giving an anatomy lesson? Well thus far I have been referring to our consciousness and our bodies as separate things. How many of us have thought about ourselves that way? I know I often get frustrated with myself when I’m not as strong or fast as I would like to be and I blame my body for giving up. It’s fairly normal for people to see their bodies as a hinderance to all kinds of success. I’ve heard people make comments like “If only I was taller, I wish I looked like that girl, I want that person’s body, if I was just thinner, everything would be better.” We commonly treat our bodies as commodities to be used, for pleasure, or excitement, often at the expense of our physical health, and ultimately our peace of mind.
How we view our bodies is a key part of our everyday functioning. What does that mean? The way we dress, how we carry ourselves, our confidence, our sense of self worth, our interactions with other people, and our behaviour are all to various degrees influenced by our self body image. Since I began working on this project I have read many accounts of anorectic girls with incredibly distorted body images. I have also read about members of convents, amish communities and the general public who have similarly poor views of their own bodies, and exaggerated opinions of the ideal body. Have you ever thought about what the ideal body actually is? Does anyone have any idea what that is? I don’t either, but I imagine many of us are sure we don’t have THAT body. I bet when you look at me you could point out a few things that aren’t ideal, but you probably don’t see what I see when I look at myself. And I probably don’t see all the things you see when you look at yourselves. When you walk around everyday I am sure that you see over and under weight people. There is a crisis in how we coexist with our bodies. Which leads me once again to the notion of the unity of the body. We know that our bodies separate us from everyone else, leaving us essentially alone in our experience. If none of you were here I would still be have my mind, spirit, and body, and I would still be me. When I use the term unity of the body, I am talking about the person as an individual. To give you some context, in the history of Christianity there has been debate over the exact relationship between the Spirit and the Body. Perhaps the most widespread example of the “war against the body” comes from the many communities of monks and nuns that have existed over the last two thousand years or so. For example, in my research on Anorexia I have come across various writers who argue that many nuns who starved themselves to death were actually suffering from eating disorders, but because that kind of self sacrifice was rewarded by their society, they were revered. There is definitely a part of Christian theology, and even of secular philosophy that worships our minds or spirits at the expense of our bodies. But I want to propose to you, and this may not be hard for you agree with, that the human body and the human soul are intimately and unalterably connected. John Paul II called our earthly lives, “a sacred reality entrusted to us.” I will get to more of that when I talk about the creation stories. Perhaps the ultimate symbol of the unity of the body is Jesus himself. Here we had God becoming a human being. Just as in Genesis God breaths life into the body of Adam, now God has united with the humanity in bodily form. So how is this significant in our lives. Well in my thesis I will be focusing predominantly on how anorectic girls treat their bodies either as objects of shame or as objects of control. But in either case they are treating their bodies as objects. Now anorexia is much more complicated that that simple explanation, but there is a more general lesson to be learned. There really is no separation between the body and the mind, much as we may want there to be. Moving away from the individual for a moment. I want you to think about the people you know, your friends, family, whoever. Do you view them as a person and a body? Probably not. In fact the way we form identity for other people is an amalgamation of what they look like and who they are when we interact with them. For us then other people are united body and soul. The challenge is of course viewing ourselves the same way.
I want to shift gears now and talk about the body as the image of God. If you read the creation story of Adam and Eve in Genesis, and whether you think of them as literal or mythical, the meaning is pretty clear. Our bodies were a special part of creation. Really the whole of the human person is a special part of God’s creation. “then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being,” (Gen 2:7). Or if you like the earlier account “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them,” (Gen 1:27). In both accounts the central theme is that humans were fashioned specifically by God to be a special creature upon this earth. Now if we can latch onto the idea that people are made in the image of God then we can begin to see the importance of the body along with the spirit. Imagine if we could all think of our bodies as a reflection of the divine. I think the temptation has traditionally been to view the spirit as divine and the body as earthly. The spirit represented holiness and purity while the body was sin. I’m not sure if we have really moved beyond that. Realistically the only body that we revere is the fit, toned, or thin image we see in print and on tv. But aren’t we more than that? Shouldn’t we be more than that? It is true that good nutrition, exercise, and avoiding dangerous destructive habits are an important part of living a healthy life and having a body that will potentially last 100 years or more. However, I think there is more to this than that. The big question is why do we act the way we do toward our bodies. For anorectics there is a pathological problem that is usually affected by traumatic events in the person’s life. For the addict there could be a similar condition. For the average person there can be issues with self esteem, an inability to properly control destructive behaviour like over eating, or just simply a need to fit in. As a society we tend not to view our bodies as particularly holy. There is always something that could be better, that needs to be improved, enhanced, or even removed. It is true that we should strive to improve ourselves inside and out as part of our journey through life. At the same time we should recognize that our bodies have value in and of themselves exactly because they are the image of God. The human body is a marvelous machine. It allows us to do things that other mammals can’t. Out of all the creatures on earth we are the only ones with the power to manipulate the earth and take part in shaping the way the earth looks and works. And that is not only because we have higher thinking functions. It is also because we are capable of building, moving, and operating machinery. Maybe your body helps you run marathons, or explore the world, or deliver flyers, or sort food, or in my case get to and from a classroom.
So now I have talked about a few different ideas now around the nature of the body and our relationship to it. But what does it all mean? Well, what I would like you to take with is a new perspective on your own relationship with your body. And for some of you this might already be how you view yourself. If you are anything like me this is something you will struggle with often. The first step is to think of your body as an ally and not an enemy. Now maybe you’ve reached a point in your life where you have resigned yourself to the fact that you will look the way you are and will be in the condition that you are, and that is great. But if you are trying to “improve” your body, I wonder if we couldn’t look at that as a way of loving our bodies as part of ourselves. An old adage has it that we should treat our bodies as temples. I would like to see myself treat my body as an extension of the person I am inside. We are embodied persons, and I think that how we treat our bodies is a reflection on how we view ourselves.
I would like to finish this post by saying a few words about anorexia. Eating disorders are very serious and very deadly, and are generally not caused by girls desire to look like models. Like many mental illnesses the exact causes of eating disorders aren’t fully understood. The one point I would like to drive hoe about them is that they are not simply about middle and upper class white girls being vain. They involve serious issues that can include abuse, lack of a sense of control over their lives, insecurity, and social problems. Those suffering from anorexia need immediate help or they could die.
Recognizing the unity of the body and viewing our bodies as the image of the divine are two useful tools in the process of developing a healthy body image. They are by no means the only way, or even essential to the process, but I believe they are important enough to be considered and used if your worldview happens to involve God. Ultimately how we view ourselves affects our everyday life and our mental health.