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How faith can help young women - and men - take their body image higher


Go tell it at the gym, on Instagram, at the mall and everywhere young people compare themselves to their peers.

New research has found a potential antidote to the pop culture worship of ultra-thin body types, which can lead to depression, low self-esteem and eating disorders, particularly among young women.

It is called faith.

But not just any kind of faith.

Individuals who believe in a judgmental God often feel worse about themselves as they engage in activities such as binging or excessive exercise to win approval from a distant, demanding divinity.

However, young people who have faith in a God who loves them as they are have much healthier body images, according to several studies.

Some of the latest “God-in-the-bod research” is moving past documenting how faith can reduce negative health outcomes such as low self-esteem and unhealthy eating habits.

The studies are also focusing on ways faith may help you have a positive appreciation of your body regardless of its appearance, rejecting cultural and media ideals of beauty.

And near the top of the list for many people is faith in a loving God.

Love and self-compassion

Several studies have found growing rates of eating disorders from excessive dieting to bulimia and anexoria nervosa among young women.

As early as age 6 many females began to focus on body image. That can lead to depression, anxiety and low self-esteem as well as taking a physical toll.

Some earlier work on religion and self-worth found practices such as worship attendance, prayer and a strong sense of the importance of religion associated with body esteem.

Much of the latest research is delving deeper into specific attitudes and experiences to see how faith can help cultivate – or detract from – a healthy body image.

Consider these findings from four new studies now offered at the journal Mental Health, Religion and Culture:

How not to covet thy neighbor’s abs: A study of 186 female undergraduates found the more they compared their appearance, exercise choices and eating habits to others, the worse they felt about their own bodies.

Social comparisons were particularly damaging for women who worried about whether God loved them. Young women who felt unconditionally loved and accepted by God were more likely to accept and respect their bodies.

Compassionate religious messages boost body esteem: Students who read a passage emphasizing God’s love and mercy, then viewed magazine images of thin women and muscular men, were more likely to report higher body esteem than students who first read a passage emphasizing God’s judgment of sin.

The study of 112 Catholic undergraduates also found students with high levels of spirituality were likely to show higher esteem after reading the message of compassion.

“Our findings support the potency of religious messages for body esteem, especially for religiously committed students,” the researchers reported.

Belief in a loving, accepting God transcends peer pressure: Women who feel affirmed by God were better able to resist family and other social and cultural pressures to meet a thin ideal, according to a study of 102 women ages 19 to 57.

The study also found women with a secure attachment to God were less likely to deal with stress through emotional eating or to report disorders such as vomiting to prevent weight gain.

“These results suggest that the development of a secure attachment relationship with God may protect women against sociocultural pressure to be thin,” the researchers reported.

Divine struggles may contribute to eating disorders: A secure attachment to God may boost self-esteem and self-compassion. But negative feelings toward God appear to be related to body image concerns and potentially unhealthy behaviors.

A study of 413 female and male undergraduates found a “consistent and robust connection” between divine struggles, body image concerns and behaviors such as fasting, purging and excessive exercise.

From shame to acceptance

There are small signs of a cultural awakening to body image issues.

Sports Illustrated features a full-figured model in its new swimsuit issue. The latest Barbies are available in different sizes, including curvy versions.

Still, helping people overcome feelings of shame or inadequacy about their body is not an easy task.

Researchers in the study of adult women of various ages noted not even a secure attachment to God could eliminate the effects of social pressures on disordered eating.

“This indicates that eating disorders are a symptom of a distorted culture,” said the researchers from Fuller Theological Seminary.

Still, many researchers say the developing study findings suggest several practical approaches that can help people feel better about their bodies.

These include raising awareness among mental health counselors of the positive and negative ways faith can influence self-esteem and eating disorders.

In religious communities, clergy, youth group leaders and laypeople who lift up images of a gracious, forgiving, loving God who accepts people as they are may also make a major difference.

Comedians will go on making fat jokes. The ad pages of glossy fashion magazines will continue to feature tall, thin models in settings evoking luxury and status.

But faith may offer a particularly effective coping mechanism to help Americans traverse the road from shame to acceptance.

And that may produce a hallelujah or two from anyone struggling to conform to what for many of us is an unattainable – not to mention undesirable – quest.

Image source MATTEL, Barbie Fashionistas Line

Image source Churchrunner.com, Lloyd Mob Match, May 2014

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