This blog was first done as a talk at Essex University Christian Union in 2023
In our culture, I think there are two main narratives that we are constantly being fed about how we should relate to our bodies. These are, in a sense, opposite ends of a spectrum.
1. Pin-Up Culture
Firstly there is what we could call modern “pin-up” culture. The phrase “pin-up culture” usually refers to the post-World War II industry that mass produced images of attractive celebrities and models with the intention of these being “pinned up” on people’s walls at home. The tacit underlying message of these pin-ups was something like: “this is what beauty looks like”, and by implication: “this is what you should aspire to look like”.
Today, I don’t know many people who have full-length posters of celebrities on their bedroom walls. However, I would suggest that pin-up culture has now moved from our bedroom walls, to our TV screens, billboards, shop windows, and perhaps most of all- our social media apps. We are constantly being bombarded with images of beautiful, perfect bodies that we are apparently meant to aspire to be like. And by implication, if you don’t look like them then you need to work on your body in order to be more physically perfect- by dieting, gymming, applying cosmetics, or even undergoing surgical procedures.
Clearly being healthy is a good thing. It is medically good for you, to take care of your body. And as Christians, beauty is important, because we worship a beautiful God who created a beautiful universe. Asaph writes in Psalm 50:2: “From Zion, perfect in beauty, God shines forth.” Beauty matters to God because it is part of who He is.
However, today’s “pin-up” culture has some deep problems. For a start, these images are almost always not real. They are usually images of real people, but the standards of beauty they propagate are not grounded in reality. I think we too easily forget that behind all these images that fill out billboards and phone screens is a huge team of people working on the hair and make-up and clothes. Plus, there’s another whole team doing editing and photoshopping and filtering (and that’s before we even get started on the whole topic AI generated images!). And even if we have none of these professionals, Instagram and Snapchat make it very easy to edit our own photos to make us more beautiful.
So today’s pin-up culture is not grounded in reality. But secondly and more importantly it can be really damaging. This constant bombardment of images of perfect bodies can make people feel negative about their bodies: “My body doesn’t look like that, so clearly there is something wrong with me. I’m the wrong shape, or wrong size, or wrong colour.” At best it leads to insecurity. At worst it can lead to people inflicting damage on their bodies, in the pursuit of an impossible standard of perfection. This is a huge problem in our modern social media age, and I don’t think we talk enough about this in our churches.
2. Body Confidence Culture
So on one end, we have modern “pin-up” culture that constantly bombards us with images of physical perfection. But on the other end we have what is commonly referred to as “body confidence” culture. The narrative of “body confidence” culture is that we should love our bodies, take pride in them, and even flaunt them, no matter what shape or size we are.
Channel 4 always seems to be running some sort of series extolling the virtues of body confidence and they usually involve lots of people getting naked on TV. In 2020, the hashtag #NormalizeNormalBodies went viral on social media following a big body confidence campaign. And, there is now a widespread drive to call out and condemn so-called “fat shaming” or “body shaming”. If someone criticises someone else’s weight, their “body-shaming” is called out as bigoted and having no place in liberal society.
Clearly there are some very good and commendable aspects of these campaigns for body confidence. Human beings are all different, and as we’ve seen already it is both untruthful and potentially damaging to impose impossible standards of beauty on people. We should celebrate our diversity and of course we should see normal bodies as normal. Furthermore, it should go without saying that it is not okay to bully or discriminate against people because of their size.
However, I would suggest that “body confidence” culture also has some major problems. For a start, we need to at some point acknowledge that some body types are medically unhealthy. It shouldn’t be controversial to say that it is unhealthy to be severely overweight or severely underweight. We shouldn’t shame people for it, or judge them, or discriminate against them. But we also shouldn’t pretend it’s healthy.
Furthermore, where does this culture leave those who aren’t “body confident” or who struggle to conjure up this confidence from within themselves? Such people are probably insecure already because they don’t like their bodies, and then become doubly insecure because they don’t feel the confidence they are meant to be feeling about their bodies.
The Choice of Idols
So those are the two dominant narratives about our bodies that I think our culture is feeding us. On one side we have modern “pin-up” culture that sets impossibly high standards of beauty that we are meant to aspire to. On the other side we have “body confidence” culture which says that all bodies are wonderful and we all just need to find body confidence from within. Both of these cultures have some grains of truth, but both also have significant problems.
And ultimately, I would suggest, perhaps controversially, that both cultures are forms of idolatry.
“Pin-up” culture ties our worth as human beings to how close we can get to this impossible standard of physical perfection. We are told to essentially idolise the perfect body. “Body confidence” culture tells us to idolise our own bodies, as it links our self-worth to how much we value ourselves and our physical idiosyncrasies. We are either to worship our body, or someone else’s body.
So is there an alternative? Is there a better way of viewing our bodies?
Well I think the Bible gives a much bigger, more satisfying and more secure view of our bodies then either “pin-up” culture or “body confidence” culture. Psalm 139 is particularly helpful on this.
a) The Omniscience and Omnipresence of God (v1-12)
David begins Psalm 139 by marvelling at the omniscience and omnipresence of God. Firstly, God’s omniscience- His “all-knowing-ness”. Here is v1-4:
You have searched me, Lord, and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you, Lord, know it completely.
God knows everything there is to know about us. He knows our every thought, word and deed before we even do. He knows where we are heading and where we have been.
He knows more about us than Facebook, Google and the Chinese government combined!
So we firstly see God’s omniscience. Then secondly we see God’s omnipresence: His “everywhere-ness”, v7-10 reads:
Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.
God is everywhere. There is no escaping Him.
I like to imagine a fish in the Pacific Ocean, trying to find somewhere where there isn’t water. He swims east and west, up and down, but the water is still there. He buries deep into the sand, and checks behind all the rocks, and pries apart all the leaves of seaweed, but everywhere he looks, the water is still there. That’s the kind of image David paints of God. No matter where you go, God is there.
b) The Beauty and the Preciousness of Human Beings (v13-18)
So David starts the Psalm with marvelling at the omniscience and omnipresence of God. But then he moves in v13 to marvelling at the beauty and preciousness of human beings, v13-15:
For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Here we have the picture of God carefully designing and putting together our human bodies. Note all the tapestry-related words here: "you knit me together” (v13), “I was woven together” (v15). The description is of an artist carefully and patiently weaving threads together to create a piece of art.
And this piece of art is stunning! In v14 we read: “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made”. I don’t think “fearful” means “scary” here. Perhaps a better translation would be “awesome”- “I am awesomely made”. This is a piece of art that fills you with awe and takes you aback with its beauty. This is how the Bible views our bodies.
And the image on the tapestry… is of God Himself! Genesis 1:27 reads:
So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
Human beings are meticulously woven works of art that bear the image of the artist. Therefore God unsurprisingly is concerned with what happens with his precious creations, as David writes in v16-17:
Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. How precious to me are your thoughts, God! How vast is the sum of them!
God not only creates us, but plans each day of our lives (v16), and we are constantly on His mind (v17).
A couple of years ago, I bizarrely found myself in possession of my colleague’s engagement ring. She had taken it off to do some procedure and had given it to me for safe-keeping. And then, for reasons I don’t understand, she forgot that she’d given it to me, and just left work that day without it. As you can probably predict, I then received a very anxious text message that evening. And so, I had to look after the engagement ring overnight before I could give it back to her the next day. And of course looking after something of such high financial and sentimental value was incredibly stressfully. I didn’t know where the safest place to put it was. My pocket? My bag? My locker? Should I just wear it overnight?
That is a very pale metaphor for the value God places on our bodies. Our bodies our precious, intricate masterpieces of God that bear His image.
Surely this is a much richer, better and more dignified view of our bodies than anything pin-up culture or body confidence culture can offer. Your body is immensely valuable and precious not because it resembles some industry set standard of beauty, nor because you feel very body confident, but because your body is precious masterpiece of God- given to us. And it is something that the omniscience, omnipresent God cares deeply about.
Furthermore, our bodies are tapestries that bear the image of God, so when we see our bodies in the mirror, they should remind us, and point us towards, the God who gave them to us.
What does this mean practically for us? Well it means that we should value, appreciate and take care of our bodies. They are good gifts from God. But we also should not tie our self-worth to our bodies, or our opinions of our bodies. We shouldn’t idolise them. Rather they should point us to the God who gave them to us, and who gives us ultimate self-worth.
c) The Damage and the Restoration from Sin (v19-24)
So we’ve seen the omniscience and omnipresence of God, and the beauty and preciousness of human beings. But of course our bodies are not perfect masterpieces. And so Psalm 139 ends with reflections on the damage of, and restoration from, sin. Sin and wickedness make people turn against God and become His enemies (v19-22). And then in v23-24, David turns the camera on himself and acknowledges that we are all stained by sin, including David.
Because of sin, our bodies are now damaged masterpieces. They break, and go wrong, and are simply not what they should be. It is interesting to note that in Genesis 3, when God curses Adam and Eve for disobeying His command, He gives different curses to different people. But both sets of curses involve pain. To Eve He says (Gen 3:16): “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe”. And to Adam he says (Gen 3:17): “through painful toil you will eat food”. Pain, sickness, body image issues, and of course death, all result from sin.
And so if we feel this acutely- if we have a difficult relationship with our body in some way, it may be worth reminding ourselves that we are not alone- we are not the only one. This is the world we live in, following the Fall- and at times it’s awful.
But of course, the Christian hope is of future restoration.
When we get to the New Testament, we see the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us. God Himself became a physical, embodied man. If you like, the artist became the tapestry. In the incarnation, Jesus gave his ultimate vindication of the value and dignity of the human body- by taking one on Himself.
As the gospel then unfolds we see Jesus descending to the depths of the grave and then rising in glory. And in Jesus’ resurrection, we see what our resurrection will be like:
Here is 1 Corinthians 15:20-23:
But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.
“Firstfruits” refers to the first crops that pop up at the start of the harvest, and that show the farmer what the rest of the crops will be like. And so like Jesus, we will be raised, physically from the dead, with our unique features and idiosyncrasies still intact- the disciples could recognise Jesus after all- but also with all our frailties, sicknesses, and insecurities washed away. And we will live forever in redeemed, glorified, physical bodies.
I think this is one of the biggest things that both “pin-up” culture and “body confidence” culture lack- and that is… hope. Pin-up culture puts you on this endless treadmill of trying to attain an impossible standard of beauty. And body confidence culture ties our self-worth to how confident we feel about ourselves. And so we need to be eternally reaching into ourselves to produce confidence. But the Bible says that our redeemed, perfect, glorified bodies are guaranteed. They are guaranteed by the resurrection of Jesus.
In closing, we have looked at the two narratives of our bodies that our culture is feeding us with. One says we need to attain some impossible image of perfection, the other says we need to reach inside ourselves and find body confidence. One says we should idolise other people’s perfect bodies, the other says we should idolise our own.
But I would suggest that the Bible gives a much better view of our bodies. Our bodies are intricate, beautiful Masterpieces of God, that God cares about and values so highly that He took on one Himself. Yes, they are broken and damaged by sin- body image issues and insecurity are real and tragic parts of our fallen world. But our hope, guaranteed by the resurrection of Jesus, is that one day we will rise from the dead in redeemed, glorified and perfect bodies.
As the final verse of William Rees’ hymn goes:
Here is love, vast as the heavens; Countless as the stars above Are the souls that He has ransomed, Precious daughters, treasured sons. We are called to feast forever on a love beyond our time; Glorious Father, Son, and Spirit Now with man are intertwined.