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As politicians go low, faith can combat body shaming, new research finds. Do you consider yourself 'fearfully and wonderfully made'?

Some two decades ago, then-President Bill Clinton had a sexual relationship with a college intern, and then lied about it, subjecting a young woman to years of shame and ridicule, much of it centered on her weight.

Today, GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump seems unrestrained in making demeaning comments about the appearance of women, whether he’s communicating through social media or at campaign rallies and presidential debates.

Has nothing changed?

More realistic Barbies and a plus-size model in Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue provide signs of hope. But the political calculations of Trump and Clinton may offer more compelling evidence of the continuing widespread acceptance of body shaming in America.

Yet as politicians go low, faith can take individuals to a higher body image, new research reveals.

People who consider their body, in the words of Psalm 139, “fearfully and wonderfully made,” are significantly more likely to report feeling good about their bodies, according to a new study.

However, believers who consider the body to be basically sinful are more likely to be ashamed of their body, researchers at Biola University found.

And it is not just young women who are affected.

In the eye of the beholder

Christianity has long held two seemingly competing theological perspectives on the body.

One view suggests the body is separate from the spirit, a cause of sin that must be controlled. “And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched,” notes a passage in the Gospel of Mark.

The other perspective emphasizes the sacredness of the body. Body and soul are connected in human beings made in the image of God. “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you?” Paul asks in 1 Corinthians.

In the Biola study, 243 Protestant men and women ages 18 to 80 from evangelical and mainline Protestant groups participated in an online survey. The results are published in the December 2016 issue of the Journal of Religion and Health.

Religious beliefs about the body had a significant influence on body image over and above other factors such as religious commitment.

“The belief that one’s body is ‘just something I live in here on earth,’ the belief that one’s body is sinful and meant to be subdued, and that one’s body is less important to God than one’s soul were linked to body shame,” the researchers found.

“In contrast, beliefs reflecting Christian teachings that one’s body is a temple of God, created specifically by God, and that God is glorified and honored through one’s body, were linked to appreciating one’s body.”

Another recent study of religion and body image found some similar results.

The belief that one’s body is sacred predicted fewer abnormal eating concerns and higher body satisfaction in data collected from 168 women at a Catholic-affiliated university.

“Perhaps seeing one’s body as sacred includes a belief in divine acceptance of one’s body, minimizing messages regarding culture’s body ideal, inspiring participation in health-promoting behavior, or limiting engagement in unhealthy habits,” the researchers reported.

Going high

Our culture promotes near-impossible ideals of beauty, particularly for females. Those feelings are tied to a range of negative outcomes from serious eating disorders to depression and low self-worth.

So what can the latest research offer in terms of practical tips to go high in promoting a positive body image?

Heather Jacobson, a clinical psychologist and the lead researcher in the Biola study, offers some approaches medical professionals and religious leaders may want to consider. Among them:

Be aware. Knowing the individual’s religious beliefs about the body can help counselors address body shame issues. This can include placing in context biblical passages seeming to connect the body and sin.
Be supportive. From the pulpit to church programming, emphasize encouragement, meditation and reflection on the transcendent value of the body. This process can start as early as with young children in Sunday school.
Be pro-active. Help congregation members see the divine-body connection in such fundamental acts of worship as kneeling in prayer. The symbolism can be particularly powerful for Christians during Communion, when they place the host into their body.

The “outrageous comments” disparaging women made by Trump during this campaign show “we have such a long way to go” in addressing body shaming, Jacobson said.

But the new research indicates faith, and support rather than judgment from the faithful, can shorten the journey.

Image by verkeorg, via Flickr [CC BY-SA 2.0]
Image by Mariamichelle, via Pixabay [CC0]

One Response to “As politicians go low, faith can combat body shaming, new research finds. Do you consider yourself 'fearfully and wonderfully made'?”

  1. Henry Simmons says:

    “Help congregation members see the divine-body connection in such fundamental acts of worship as kneeling in prayer. The symbolism can be particularly powerful for Christians during Communion, when they place the host into their body.”
    Kneeling in prayer, kneeling while receiving Eucharist. Not so sure about this . . . The posture of the Orans (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orans) is powerful–can be both the posture of Jesus on the cross and the posture of a Christian who stands, boldly and bodily, before God.

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