Moving Towards a Body-Positive Church

I preached my first sermon at Church of the Pilgrims yesterday! I talk about some pretty personal stuff in here, but it was wonderful to have the opportunity to process my experiences through this reflection. I hope you find it helpful or interesting or enjoyable. Maybe even all three. 

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The Word Became a Body

Two weeks ago today, I ran the Marine Corps Marathon. Many people have showered me with words of congratulations, informing me that I should feel proud of myself. Yet I find myself unconvinced that the marathon was much of an accomplishment. The first half of the marathon felt phenomenal; I was on track to beat my previous time by about half an hour. I felt an annoying, sharp pain in my foot, but it was nothing that running on the outside edge of my foot couldn’t solve. However, around mile 16 or so, I wasn’t able to ignore the pain any longer because the throbbing had spread from my foot to my knees and my hips. My pace slowed between two and three minutes per mile. It felt as if my body were rebelling against my insistence that I make it run this absurd distance. I still had ten miles to go, so I trudged on. I couldn’t escape the conviction that I was causing irreparable harm to my body. Meanwhile, spectators held signs that were intended to be encouraging, saying “push through the pain.” One especially ridiculous sign claimed, “marathons are 90% mental and 10% physical.” It seems like a blatantly dangerous lie to claim that running is more about what’s happening in the head than what’s happening in the body, considering up to 70% of all runners sustain a running-related physical injury in a given year. Why were these people lined up in the street literally cheering me on to ignore my bodies’ needs? I couldn’t just convince myself that I was fine while I could simultaneously feel my body breaking down. The marathon was a radical and clear illustration of how western society actually encourages the submission of our bodies to our minds.

What’s even more troubling is that one of the most common places we’re encouraged to repress the body is in the church. The church has plenty to say about the body, but it’s rarely positive. I find this particularly egregious considering the incarnation is so central to the Christian faith. John 1 tells us that the word became flesh and made his home among us. Becoming human entails having a physical body, and Jesus’ body was crucial to his ministry. He ate with sinners, touched the untouchable, washed his disciples’ feet, was hungry, thirsty, needed food, needed to rest, suffered, and ultimately, gave his body to die on a cross. Jesus was a steward of his body by giving his whole body to his ministry. However, even though the incarnation, or the notion that God had a physical, human body, is a vital component of Christianity, somehow this doctrine hasn’t encouraged a body-positive church. Where’s the disconnect? I believe we don’t see more body-positive churches because our conceptions of the body don’t actually come from the Bible. They come from Plato.

According to Genesis, God didn’t make a body and insert a soul into it. Rather, God formed the human’s body from dust, then breathed divine breath into it, and brought the body of dust to life. The dust did not contain a soul, but it became a soul—a whole creature. The concept of an immaterial soul distinct from the body isn’t actually found in the Hebrew Bible. Our modern understanding of the body and soul being two distinct, conflicting beings is actually rooted in Plato, not the Bible. Plato contends that “one has no hope of understanding the nature of knowledge, reality, goodness, love, or beauty unless one recognizes the distinction between soul and body; and one has no hope of attaining any of these unless one works hard on freeing the soul from the lazy, vulgar, beguiling body” (Elizabeth Spelman). Pretty harsh, Plato.

Both Jesus and Paul, since they were both Jewish, would have subscribed to the belief that the body and soul are one, not that they are at war with each other. For Paul it is the body, not just the soul or even the mind, which is the temple of the living God. The body is meant for the Lord, he says, and the Lord for the body. Jesus himself tells us that the kingdom of God is within us. It’s in our bodies, with all our desires and cravings and longings, that we are capable of knowing and experiencing God. Repressing our bodies limits the ways we’re able to experience God. We’re a channel of God’s love, but disconnection from the body narrows that channel. When we buy into Plato’s supposition that we must privilege the soul over the body, we actually lose one of our primary connections with God.

I spoke earlier about how society actually encourages us to repress our bodies through endurance sports like marathons, emphasizing “mental toughness” while encouraging us to deny its needs. I believe the reason marathons and other endurance sports are so popular is because they give us an opportunity to take control of our body. We believe that we can make our bodies bend to our minds’ will. Because of this widespread belief that the body is less important than the mind or the soul, we even believe that we’re capable of conquering our own bodies. This desire to be totally in control of the body manifests in other dangerous ways as well. I had been an active swimmer in high school and didn’t have to try particularly hard to maintain a healthy weight, but after settling in to my first year in college, I became totally apathetic about my body’s appearance. It wasn’t until I got home that summer when I realized that my reflection was totally unfamiliar. Staring into the same mirror I had stared into in high school made me confront the fact that my body had radically changed; I both looked and felt differently. Then, after a high school friend made a passing comment about my apparent weight gain, I freaked out and became obsessed with my weight. Interestingly, it was in response to that comment that I first began running. From the beginning, I had associated running with wanting to take control of my body. The problem was, it was a thin line between taking control of my body and wanting to conquer my body. Running quickly became an obsession and I began eating less and less. Eventually, my thoughts became distorted; if I had to consume nothing but water until dinnertime, if I had to eat one meal a day, if I had to throw up those cookies I had for dessert, I didn’t care what it would take, but I was going to lose weight and I was going to conquer my body. I lost the weight I had put on the previous year and more, but I was out of breath going up and down the stairs. I coerced my body into running even when my strength was totally depleted. I framed this whole experience as an exercise in mental toughness. Mind over matter. I separated myself from my body, convincing myself that the desire to eat was what my body wanted, not what I wanted. And I could conquer my body.

When the next school year began, I swung to the other end of the pendulum, eating whatever was in my reach. I would receive care packages, filled with fifteen or twenty brownies. I’d eat them all in an afternoon. I felt shame afterwards, but immersed myself in schoolwork to avoid having to deal with what I was doing my body. I moved from apathy to avoidance and intentionally began avoiding mirrors. I just refused to deal with my body. I remember telling someone that I wished I didn’t have a body. I just wanted to be a floating head. I wonder if that’s what Plato would have wanted, too. I didn’t just want to repress my body’s needs and desires; I wanted my body to disappear entirely. I was angry that when it got hungry and or had any sort of cravings when I didn’t want to eat, I couldn’t control it. At some point I realized I was thinking about my body as if it were a separate entity from me. Like there was me, and then there was my body, refusing to do what I wanted it to do. I was othering my body.

About a year ago, I was moving into my new room for senior year when I opened the closet door and inside found a full-length mirror left behind by the previous occupant. I stared at my reflection for a solid minute or two, once again struck by the unfamiliarity of my own reflection. It had been several months since I had looked at my body in a full-length mirror. Even though I had convinced myself that I didn’t have any body image issues any longer, I realized in this moment that avoidance isn’t the same thing as acceptance. I decided to keep the mirror in my closet, but I used an expo marker to write a verse from Psalm 139: “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” Every time I noticed myself criticizing the body I found in my reflection, I brought my eyes back to the words written on my mirror and meditated on them.

I know I’ve been bashing running a little bit, but I recognize that running can be an empowering sport for some people. Even in this congregation many of y’all have told me about the joy you’ve been able to find in running. However, for me, because of the negative associations I’ve made with running and body image, I’m going to give running a break for a while (not to mention I still have pain in my foot lingering from the race two weeks ago. I’ve never been able to train for a race without getting injured in the process). I’ve begun dabbling in other ways that I can engage my body physically, but more positively. This past summer I began lifting weights. I found this to be an incredibly empowering experience because it shifts my focus from wanting to be thin to wanting to be strong. One of the goals of lifting is to actually gain weight, so it forces to me dissociate my self-worth from the scale. I can track my progress by how I feel…and I feel stronger. If I’m not able to lift a certain weight, it’s not a matter of mental toughness. It isn’t mind over matter. It’s simply the limit of my physical capability at that moment. Lifting helps me set boundaries with myself. While I can force my body to run well beyond my breaking point, I can’t lift heavy until I work up to it. Lifting gives me an awareness of what my body is capable of and this awareness is essential for me to begin developing a healthier body image.

Insisting on separating the body from the soul, or the material from the spiritual, can have damaging effects on individuals, like myself. However, this philosophy has systemic implications as well, particularly concerning how society understands social justice. According to Julie Clawson, “it’s easier to opt out of loving one’s neighbor when one’s theology is built around such a hierarchical view of creation that not only divides our body and souls, but privileges one over the other. And with such views held by those in power, the bodies of the marginalized (women, the poor, the racially other, the queer, the old, the disabled) continue to be oppressed and ignored.” Not only do we value the soul more than the body, but we also value certain bodies over others. Whether this privilege is based on gender, race, or size, we deny certain bodies the dignity afforded by being created in God’s image. All seven billion of us are created in God’s image. This means no matter what race or ethnicity you are or where you find yourself on the gender spectrum, you are a reflection of God’s image. When you look in the mirror, that’s a reflection of God staring back at you.

The church has so much potential to be a powerful voice for the body-positive movement. We believe that we’re created in the image of God. We believe our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. We believe that God had a human body and experienced all the same desires, cravings, and longings that we experience. God became human to show solidarity with the human experience. Yet we have such deficient and negative attitudes about embodiment, the physical world, emotions, and sexuality. What we often fail to understand is that it’s in our bodies that we’re capable of experiencing God and participating in God’s activity in the world. It follows that our relationship with our bodies is a direct microcosm of our relationship with God. Perhaps the most fundamental gift that God calls us to be stewards of is the gift of our bodies.

Still, we’re taught that we are not our bodies. How do we reconcile this dualism with the person of Jesus, who was paradoxically both human and divine, both lowly and exalted. I propose that we can’t. We can’t reconcile this notion that we are not our bodies with the story of a God who defied culture’s dualistic religious assumptions, became flesh, and dwelled among us. Who says he despises religious gatherings if all we do is pray and worship, neglecting the bodies of the hungry and the oppressed. When we separate the material and spiritual worlds, poverty and other social ills are considered less important than spiritual matters, like “saving souls.” Many churches insist that there’s no need to take care of the earth, no need to participate in the fight to alleviate poverty because, hey, we’re only on this earth for a maybe 70 or 80 years. What’s that compared to eternity? It’s the next life that we should be concerned about. This hierarchy of the spiritual over the material blatantly ignores the fact that there is so much work to be done on earth. I think there’s a reason Paul refers to us as body of Christ. Our individual bodies are sacred and in the same way that we’re stewards of our individual bodies, we can show that same love and respect for communal body of Christ.

What would it mean for the church to be body positive? It would entail deconstructing the hierarchy of the soul over the body and recognizing that the two are inextricably linked. Instead of seeing the body as an obstacle to a good religious life, we can begin to understand the body as our primary location for experiencing God. When we become more present to our bodies and more aware of what our longings are, we are giving ourselves, not just our bodies, our whole selves the respect we deserve that’s inherent in being created in God’s image. Our bodies are where we meet God, and that makes our bodies sacred. Amen.

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One thought on “Moving Towards a Body-Positive Church

  1. This is so beautiful and raw Emily; also I have never contemplated the divergence between the soul and the body as a Plato thought! You are wonderful .

    Like

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