Holy self-worth: Studies find religion promotes healthy body image for young women

Forget looking like Kate Moss.

Young women trapped in a downward spiral of low self-esteem trying to measure up to unrealistic images of thinness and beauty may want to try something more effective than perpetual dieting.

A spiritual makeover.

Worship, prayer and a strong sense of the importance of religion can help teens and 20-somethings with eating disorders overcome feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness, new research indicates.

A study of nearly 2,500 young women just published online in the Journal of Religion and Health adds weight to other U.S. and international research suggesting religion can be a countercultural force in promoting healthy body images.

Being part of a community that lifts up the message “God made me, and he doesn’t make anything bad” appears to help moderate the impact of the “body loathing” promoted by popular culture, said sociologist Andrea Henderson of the University of South Carolina, lead researcher in the study.

“Intuitively, it makes sense,” she said.

Several studies have found growing rates of eating disorders from excessive dieting to bulimia and anexoria nervosa among young women. The focus that females — as early as age 6 — place on body image can lead to mental health problems such as depression, anxiety and low self-esteem as well as taking a physical toll.

Henderson and sociologist Christopher Ellison of the University of Texas San Antonio analyzed data from nearly 2,437 women ages 18 to 26 participating in the 2001-2002 National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health.

Women with eating disorders had lower self-esteem and higher levels of symptoms of depression. But for all women, more frequent religious attendance and a strong prayer life were significant predictors of lower rates of depression. Those who considered religion important in their lives and prayed regularly also had higher levels of self-esteem.

Young women with eating disorders, such as binge eating and extreme weight-loss efforts, were more likely to have poorer mental health the lower their levels of religious involvement, the study found.

Religion appeared to have a particularly strong effect on self-worth, researchers found. Attendance, prayer, a sense that religion is important and spiritual guidance all were associated with women who have eating disorders feeling better about themselves.

Research on religion and body image is still developing, but other studies also have indicated that faith may provide a safe haven from a secular culture that encourages women to fit into a body type that comes naturally to only about one in 20 females.

In one study, some college women were exposed to positive scriptural images such as the body being a temple of the Holy Spirit, then shown pictures of thin fashion models. Those women were far more likely to feel good about their appearance than college women in a control group who read neutral texts before being asked to look at the pictures of models.

“It seems plausible that women’s beliefs and feelings about their looks could become more positive from reading a set of affirmations … that espouse a vision of one’s body as divinely loved and accepted,” Bucknell University researchers reported in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

A separate study of 111 college women conducted by researchers at Hope College found students who were highly committed to their faith were more likely to report higher body esteem and body satisfaction.

In a University of Hong Kong study of 124 Asian college women, 23 percent of participants with no religion reported being extremely dissatisfied with their weight; just 6 percent of religious women expressed the same dissatisfaction.

In one sense, the research takeaway for congregations is to “continue what you’re doing” in terms of providing an environment where young women are valued for who they are, not what they look like, Henderson said.

In addition, women’s groups may find it of value to offer special ministries to young women. Clergy also may want to consider emphasizing theological images of the “beauty” of individuals transcending appearance in their sermons, Henderson said.

“Beyond Appearance: A New Look at Adolescent Girls,” a book published by the American Psychological Association, notes that “environments that enhance girls’ self-esteem in general and body esteem specifically … appear to increase resiliency against unhealthy eating patterns.”

Churches, synagogues and mosques can provide some of those places, the research suggests.

As one participant in the University of Hong Kong study put it:

“My identity is in Christ and that is what matters most. I am happy with myself and what I look like, mainly because of my faith.”

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