Body image by faith: Who is most satisfied with their appearance?

Summertime, and the livin’ seems easy on the glut of network shows featuring young men and women with sculpted bodies celebrating the narcissistic quest to determine who is the most desirable of all.

“The Bachelorette” rolls on in its 15th season, while “Bachelor in Paradise” begins season six next month. Last week brought the premiere of the U.S. version of the British dating show “Love Island” where contestants try to break up couples with revealing swimwear as a major weapon of choice.

But as we look away from the magic mirror of fantasy answers to the Cinderella question, consider how harmful it can be to the mental health and self-worth of those trying to live up to near-impossible cultural ideals of beauty.

New research suggests faith may provide an answer.

These studies offer some surprising perspectives, including the finding that both service attendance and informal spirituality are related to positive body image.

Separate studies also found veiled Muslim women and Orthodox Jewish women, two groups more likely to both dress modestly and to tune out the values promoted by TV networks and much of the fashion industry, were also most likely to feel good about the way they look.

A deeper reality

Poor body image is a serious issue, not least of all for women who are more likely to suffer from a range of negative outcomes from eating disorders to depression and low self-worth.

Some women are pushing back, as a matter of both empowerment and faith.

The growing interfaith modest fashion movement is one sign of a backlash against a secular culture that many say objectifies and demeans women, particularly Muslims who choose to wear a head covering in accordance with their faith.

It may also have a protective effect on their mental and physical well-being, some research indicates.

Researchers from Osnabruck University in Germany, analyzing data from 669 women, found that that veiled Muslim women perceived themselves as more attractive than did unveiled Muslim women, Christian women, and atheist women.

Unveiled Muslim women also were more likely to report higher bulimia scores than Christian women and were more likely to obsess about their thighs or overall appearance than veiled Muslim and Christian participants.

Still, there was little difference among all groups of women with feeling pressure to be thin.

“Prevention against eating disorders should integrate all women, irrespective of religious affiliation or veiling, with a particular focus on unveiled Muslim women,” the researchers concluded in the Journal of Religion and Health.

In a separate study exploring body image among 483 Jewish women ages 18 to 30, Israeli researchers found that ultra-Orthodox and Modern Orthodox women were more likely than secular Jewish women to be comfortable with their appearance.

On the other side of the body image scale, ultra-Orthodox participants were less likely than secular and Modern Orthodox Jews to repeatedly check their mirrors or avoid social situations due to an unhealthy focus on perceived abnormalities in their appearance.

The key difference explaining negative body image was more time spent watching television or surfing the Internet. But both strength of faith and lower media exposure contributed to a positive body image.

By focusing judgements of self-worth away from appearance and toward moral and ritualistic pursuits relevant to religion, “strong faith may offer individuals the opportunity to select and work towards meaningful goals, and may serve as a base of self-worth,” researchers noted in the journal Current Psychology.

Attitudes of gratitude

Less formal aspects of spirituality also can make a difference in women learning to love and accept their bodies, researchers from Flinders University of Australia reported in the journal Body Image.

In a survey of 345 women, the scholars found that both organized religion and spirituality were associated with positive body image.

Breaking it down further, the study found that among both the religiously affiliated and non-affiliated, those with a strong belief in the importance of spirituality and the sense that everything is connected reported higher levels of gratitude and lower levels of self-objectification. These factors in turn were strongly correlated with body satisfaction.

“The findings suggest that religion and spirituality may enable women to experience a loving, appreciative, and respectful relationship with their bodies, and accordingly, provide a valuable counterpoint to the appearance pressures inherent in contemporary Western societies,” the researchers concluded.

The results are consistent with some other studies that suggest the belief that one’s bodies are sacred, or “fearfully and wonderfully made” in the image of the divine, were related to greater body satisfaction and fewer mental health concerns and eating disorders.

But this is not going to come easy in the current culture, several researchers noted.

Among the clinical implications raised by the Israeli researchers was for counselors to offer materials on becoming critical viewers of media. In addition, promoting principles such as “focusing on serving others, actively engaging in one’s community, and on inner strength rather than on appearance, may enable one to ignore external media’s influences.”

There is plenty to ignore.

When, after all, can we expect to see a major network show where women of all faiths choose to wear modest clothing that affirms their identity, eschews self-objectification and values inner peace over product placement?

I think that’s scheduled for season never.

Image by Luluty hijab, via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 4.0]
Image by coopgas1, via Flickr [CC BY-SA 2.0]

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