Today the “Questions About Your Body Image and Comparison” series continues with this question about how to balance pursuing health and body image:
I’m a fairly healthy mother and wife who has struggled with my body image for at least twenty years. I know that there’s nothing sinful about being healthy and working to keep my body in good shape, but at the same time, I have a difficult struggle in not getting consumed with my body image every time I diet or start a new workout plan. Where is the balance? How can I stay healthy without obsessing about my body image? Sometimes it sounds like you are saying don’t worry about being healthy, but I don’t think that’s true. But, how can I let go of my body image issues without losing my health?
Thanks for your help!
S in Georgia
I love your question because it is the number one question I get asked when I speak!
And, everyone who asks it usually uses that same word: Balance. But, stay with me here, I don’t think balance is the right way to frame this issue.
Balance would imply we are searching for a happy state between body image idolatry and pursuing health. Instead, we need to know how to pursue taking care of our bodies in a holy way—one that honors God and keeps us as far away from the trap of idolatry as possible.
It seems instead that there is an invisible line, a line where we cross from striving for health over into body image idolatry.
Striving for health is admirable (even the Apostle Paul admits in 1 Timothy 4:8 that physical exercise is of some good). Goodness knows, if we want to last on this earth long enough to do what He wants us to do here, we need to be in good enough physical shape to get the job done. Being a good steward of the body we have been given is wisdom.
But, when we find ourselves absorbed in body image idolatry–when we obsess over our calories, the scale, or our jeans size—something other than desiring health happens. We cross the line from desire to dependancy. Just like in any addiction scenario—this is when our vices become dangerous.
So where is the line and how do we stay far away from it?
Here are three things I think we need to do to make sure we keep ourselves on the track of health and out of the pit of body image idolatry.
Way 1: Keep the truth in focus so you can see the line!
Those of us who wrestle our body image have deeply engrained fear patterns. Our minds are trained in a certain logic that goes something like this: if I don’t “worry” about my weight and appearance then I’ll turn into Ms. Frumpy Schlumps (that’s a thing – I’m sure) and I’ll never recover from the life of misery that ensues.
That may be a little dramatic sounding. But, I know it’s the way some of us think. My friend Whitney recently admitted that when she’s battling her body image, she is tempted by the enemy with this same line. He whispers in her ear, “If you don’t try to get thinner . . .you’ll never be beautiful . . .then you’ll never be happy.” Or, he says, “If you don’t carefully watch your weight and size, you are just giving up your dream of being beautiful.”
The first step to staying healthy without getting caught up in body image idolatry is to sort out the truth from the lies. Once we can rightly identify that beauty/thinness/whatever-the-hang-up does not equate to happiness, salvation and life, then we can more rightly assess how close we are to that line.
The truth: Your body is a vessel God has given you to accomplish his greater purpose for you on this earth. You are to use your body to worship and bring glory to Him.
Yes, your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. But the temple is to be used FOR worship, not to BE worshipped.
The lie: Your body is where your value is derived. You will be loved more, appreciated more, admired more, and of greater value if your body meets a certain standard of beauty. The opposite is also true. Your value will diminish if your body fails to meet that standard.
Keep the truth in focus as you pursue health. Are you spending extra time at the gym so you can use your body to worship God or so you can use your body to get others to worship you? Are you motivated to stay healthy out of fear of becoming Mrs. Frumpy Schlumps or out of faith that taking care of your physical being will help you serve God better?
Way 2: Find your treasure.
We can identify whether or not we’ve crossed that line by rooting out what we treasure. When we are honest with ourselves, the answer usually becomes clear. To find your treasure, you need to examine your heart by asking these five questions:
1– Where do you spend your time?
2– Where do you spend your money?
3– What do you think about when you are alone?
4– What do you wish for, more than anything?
5– What can’t you live without? Or, what do you fear would make your life miserable?
That last question can be especially revealing if you approach it in this way: What would happen to you if your body suddenly changed? What if you were no longer able to exercise? What if your face was altered in an accident? What if you lost your limbs? I don’t mean to sound macabre, but to get to the heart of the matter we have to realize that if we believe that our value would be diminished by the alteration of our physical bodies, then we are tempted by that lie. (See number one above).
If we allow ourselves to be honest, what we treasure shows us whether or not we’ve crossed the line into body image idolatry.
There are times when I know I’m valuing appearance over everything else. When I stand in a worship service to God and wonder if anyone thinks the dress I’m wearing looks good (or too tight because I’ve gained weight). This is kind of a silly example -but a truthful one about where our hearts and minds can wander…and stay. We have to constantly check our hearts for focus and repent of the idolatry (every time it creeps in) to get back on course. Then, just like with any sin—the temptation doesn’t disappear just because we’ve confessed it. We have to keep fighting it—stuffing down the lies of the enemy about what beauty/thinness and a better body will bring us and replace them with the truth of God’s word that says “He is enough!”
Whether you are underweight, overweight, or just right according to the BMI chart, the answer to this question is not found on your scale or tape measure. The line between staying healthy and dealing with body image issues doesn’t exist on a weight chart or a nutrition plan. The line is in your heart.
Way 3: Pursue things of eternal significance.
Recently I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease called Hashimoto’s. I’ve had to cut out gluten and am researching ways to improve my health and keep my body from attacking and destroying my thyroid.
I would not be a good steward of the body God has given me to say, “Who cares! I’ll eat and do what I want and see what happens.” That’s not an option.
But, as someone who has struggled with body image, it’s a huge temptation for me to obsess over the diet aspect of treating my disease. I fight that familiar voice that tells me, “Great—now you have more motivation to get skinny!” I have to, quite literally, acknowledge the lie and speak the truth of the Gospel to myself each time I hear it. That is: my value and Jesus’ love for me does not increase if I make my body look better.
I also have to fight to pursue things of eternal significance. On my desk there sets two books on treating Hashimoto’s. I’m tempted to re-orient my life around focusing on my health. But, I know that’s vanity. Pursuing Jesus is what matters most. If I stop my pursuit of Him, that’s when my struggle to find significance through my physical appearance will plague me. That’s when I know I’ve crossed the line from pursuing health in a holy way to body image idolatry.
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