Abstract

One of our society’s most widespread sicknesses – simultaneously one of the most injurious and most often ignored spiritual and political sins – is body image disorders. In Body as Battleground, theologian Tommy Ross, a recent graduate of Union Theological Seminary in New York, explores the ramifications of the U.S.-American “beauty myth.” Eating disorders are one devastating consequence of society’s definition of beauty. The media and fashion industries encourage men and women to hate their bodies, often laying the foundations for destructive psychological complexes. Ross sees the need for concrete spiritual expression that addresses body image disorders. In creating such a theology, religious obstacles that perpetuate a sense of self-loathing must be recognized. Crucial to the understanding of body image disorders is an awareness of the link between spirituality and politics. The task of combining spirituality and politics in the context of societal body image disorder demands a synthesis that promotes healthy body images, community support for individual struggles, and a spirituality that does not allow bodies to become vessels for the transmission of oppressive, belittling, and life-denying hierarchical ideologies.

One of our society’s most widespread sicknesses, simultaneously one of the most injurious and most often ignored spiritual and political sins, is the problem of body image. Our society’s obsession with body image spiritually cripples men and women alike, resulting in self-hatred, bodily violence, and feelings of unworthiness before God and our fellow humans. It is also a political evil; Naomi Wolf and bell hooks have demonstrated how Feminist and “Black is Beautiful” movements have been derailed and reversed by a conscious marketing effort of particular beauty myths. Wolf writes that since second-wave Feminism of the Seventies, “the weight of fashion models plummeted to 23 percent below that of ordinary women, eating disorders rose exponentially, and a mass neurosis was promoted that used food and weight to strip women of that sense of control.” But the infectious commodified beauty myth does not merely disarm Feminists; it creates spiritual sickness and political disempowerment in the face of patriarchal, racist, classist, heterosexist, and other elite systems among all people – male, female, black, white, Latino/a, Asian, straight, gay, young, old, and more. What we as a society need is a new way of approaching our bodies, a way that combines political empowerment with spiritual sustenance so that we can break the hold of the beauty myth and begin to love ourselves again.

Politics and Body Image

The body has always been a political battleground and this recognition fueled prominent innovations in appearance among many of the radical movements of the Sixties and Seventies. “Hippies” set themselves apart with a distinctive dress and long hair. The Black Power movement fostered Afro hairstyles among men and women. Feminists famously burned bras, ceased shaving, and wore pants. Naomi Wolf recounts that at some point the media and the market collaborated to launch a massive campaign to put these people “back in their place,” at least so far as appearance is concerned. What these industries realized – much more so than even the appearance-conscious radicals – is that one’s politics are expressed through one’s appearance, and controlling one will control the other. Today’s society is controlled through a beauty myth that channels power along gender, racial, sexual, class, and other hierarchical lines. Yet while power may be unevenly divided across these lines, all parties are corrupted and oppressed by the dominant beauty myth.

Gender Politics

Both males and females are subjected to a set of beauty myths that prescribe normative behavior according to gender. There are currently at least two dominant beauty myths for females, each of them depending on and supporting patriarchy. As Susie Orbach writes, “since women are taught to see themselves from the outside as candidates for men, they become prey to the huge fashion and diet industries that first set up the ideal images and then exhort women to meet them. The message is loud and clear – the woman’s body is not her own. The woman’s body is not satisfactory as it is. It must be thin, free of ‘unwanted hair,’ deodorized, perfumed and clothed. It must conform to an ideal physical type.” bell hooks describes similar images of “reed-thin, dyed-blonde women looking as though they would kill for a good meal.” This first image is young, dangerously thin, smooth-skinned, tall, flat-chested, and narrow-hipped, in addition to being white, affluent, and heterosexual. It is the image supported by supermodels and with its waifish, stick-figured body it instructs women to strive for unachievable goals. EDAP (Eating Disorders Awareness and Prevention, Inc.) reports that the average U.S. woman is 5’4″ tall and weighs 140 pounds, while the average U.S. model is 5’11” tall and weighs 117 pounds. The stick-figure image tells women that they can never lose enough weight, never grow tall enough, and never pluck enough hairs. In addition, the waifish, stick-figure body associated with this particular beauty myth implicitly denies the female body’s femininity. It suggests to women that beauty is achieved by denying their female physical characteristics and in effect becoming male, thus reinforcing the patriarchal hierarchy that holds men superior to women.

There is a second beauty myth operating parallel to the waifish supermodel image: the woman with over-large breasts, shapely hips, and other exaggerated feminine characteristics. This is the image of pornography of Pamela Anderson and Anna Nicole Smith. Women in this model are judged beautiful by features that accentuate their female sexuality. The product of this beauty image is the message that women are deemed worthy according to their ability to sexually gratify male fantasies. Women are subjugated by this myth insofar as their entire personhood is reduced to the size of their breasts and the shape of their rear. These two parallel beauty myths work in conjunction, so that many women strive to be tall and waifish, and at the same time consider breast implants. The push-pull dynamic between the impulse to lose weight and shape and the impulse to increase bust size creates a situation in which a woman can never live up to the standard, no matter how thin or how busty. Consequently, female beauty myths push most women – judged to be failures according to these standards – to view themselves as “not beautiful,” as ugly. Feelings of ugliness (fatness, hairiness, “flatness,” smallness) propagate self-hate and low self-worth.

There are similarly two beauty myths that dominate our society’s image of maleness. The first is the big, muscular, hairy, overly masculine man (again, also white, straight, and affluent). This image supports patriarchy as well, calling attention to the power and strength associated with maleness. The second image is similar to the female supermodel: young, tall, waifish, and hairless, though still with well-defined muscles. This image is confusing is some ways, because it both supports and undermines patriarchy. This is the image often used to portray men as intellectual professionals – dressed in suits, making cell-phone business deals, and working at the computer. However, like the female supermodel, it is an androgynous image, de-emphasizing masculinity and implicitly instructing men to become more feminine. And though these two images for the most part support patriarchy, they function through the same push-pull dynamic as the female images, always judging average men as failures – either as too muscular or too thin, too hairy or too effeminate, too short or too burly. David Gilmore describes this push-pull dynamic between masculinity and beauty: “males are confronted with dangers of narcissistic injury from two sides: they fear ostracism and sexual rejection as ugly, puny, ‘rubbish man,’ and so forth. They also, however, experience the deeper psychological terror of failing literally to embody national ideals, not to mention anxieties they suffer about their carefully defended self-presentation as ‘masculine.'” The results are the same: feelings of ugliness, self-loathing, and low self-worth. Gilmore concludes that “the male body and consequently the male psyche, like the female, is a punishing crucible in which the ego is painfully subjected to the tyranny of the Ideal.”

Race Politics

Both male and female beauty myths equate beauty with whiteness. The vast majority of fashion models in magazines, on television, and in other venues are white. However those who are not white perhaps prove the point even better. There are a token number of minority models, usually African-American. But even these token models represent whiteness inasmuch as they generally possess features associated with whiteness. Females tend to have long, straightened hair; males have shaved heads (not white, but a cover-up of their unique black hair). Both males and females tend to have thin, not full, lips, and females usually fit into the waifish supermodel image described above, despite the veneration of large, well-shaped rears – the “booty” – in some expressions of African-American culture. Just as gendered images depict male as superior to female, the dominant beauty myth depicts whiteness as beautiful, ruling out all non-whites as ugly.
Parallel to the equation of beauty with whiteness, media images equate blackness with ugliness and deviance. In her book Salvation, bell hooks describes a “color caste system” in which white is supreme. In racially mixed individuals, the lighter their skin is, more acceptable they are by society’s standards. Dark-skinned people are used to represent the undesirable or the fearsome: males are thugs and females are “bitches.” “No matter the color of a filmmaker’s skin,” hooks writes, “in movies and videos today dark-skinned black women are not likely to be cast in any role except that of demonic black bitch.” Moreover, acceptable black women in media images are portrayed in submissive, domestic roles: “the most common image of a black person showing care in the mass media is the portrayal of the self-sacrificial black mother figure.” It is important to note that these self-sacrificial mother characters often represent the antithesis of the white female beauty image: middle-aged, black, and full-figured (e.g. Nell Carter, Aunt Jemimah, Oprah Winfrey). In view of these trends, hooks concludes, “the vast majority of images of black people we see in the mass media simply confirm and reinforce racist, sexist, and classist stereotypes.”

Other Political Expressions

The prevalent beauty myths of our society support patriarchy and white supremacy – in addition to other organizing hierarchies. For women, youth is a prerequisite for beauty. Naomi Wolf explains that “aging in women is ‘unbeautiful’ since women grow more powerful with time, and since the links between generations of women must always be newly broken: Older women fear young ones, young women fear old, and the beauty myth truncates for all the female life span.” The same is not true for men, because patriarchy wants to support male power. Thus, the male beauty myth is often expressed through thirty- and forty-year old men, and Hollywood’s lead males continue to include actors like Harrison Ford, George Clooney, Robert Redford, Sean Connery, and Richard Gere – all over age 50. For both genders, the dominant beauty image is heterosexual. Advertisements use heterosexual sex to lure consumers to their products, and rarely risk even the slightest sexual ambiguity except for comedic effect. Finally, the dominant beauty image is affluent. Clearly, this depiction is part of the consumer market – what apparel company would want to model inexpensive materials or non-designer clothes? However, even in advertisements for non-fashion products like cigarettes or chewing gum, models are always marked by symbols of affluence – certain clothing, cars, activities, etc. Thus, the beauty myth tells U.S.-Americans that the poor, the homosexual, and the old are ugly, with the exception of some older men, who are attractive. In conjunction with its patriarchal and racist modes, it corresponds with the dominant power structures in our society to create a strict hierarchy of beauty and power while at the same time degrading and dismissing all individuals as failures before unattainable (and contradictory) standards of beauty.

Consequences: Eating Disorders

The consequences of the beauty myth are disastrous. Men and women inundated with media images that instruct them to hate their own bodies are plagued by, at minimum, a gnawing dissatisfaction with their appearance, if not a psychological complex such as an eating disorder in which individuals become clinically obsessed with their outward appearance. Moreover, dissatisfaction with appearance is not only superficial, it creates self-loathing and poor self-esteem.

According to EDAP, conservative estimates place the prevalence of eating disorders at around 5-10 million girls and women and over 1 million boys and men. These individuals suffer most often from bulimia, anorexia nervosa, and compulsive eating. Of these millions, no less than 50,000 will die as a direct result of their disorder. However, this baseline estimate does not give nearly the whole picture of our country’s societal body image neurosis. Many more – in fact most – Americans are affected and infected by the beauty myth. For example 80% of American women are dissatisfied with their appearance and 91% of recently surveyed college women had dieted in order to control their weight. Traditionally, men have suffered from eating disorders at a much lower rate than women. However, as the dichotomy between the two prevalent male beauty images is intensified, we should expect men to increasingly suffer. Already, anyone walking into a gym or weight room can see spaces filled with young men that could probably be diagnosed with what is being called anorexia athletica – over-exercising as a form of managing dissatisfaction with one’s appearance. Men and women alike are destroying their bodies.

Though not all are caused by dissatisfaction with physical appearance, eating disorders are certainly a symptom of our society’s body image neurosis. Men and women internalize feelings of inadequacy when confronted with the standards set by media and fashion industries and as a result punish themselves by under- or over-eating. However, it is important to recognize that these disorders are simultaneously a significant critique of societal values. Susie Orbach, in her book Fat is a Feminist Issue, discusses the political implications of compulsive eating: “for many women, compulsive eating and being fat have become one way to avoid being marketed or seen as the ideal woman: ‘My fat says “screw you” to all who want me to be the perfect mom, sweetheart, maid and whore.'”

Anorexia is a similar critique through an opposite method. It “reflects an ambivalence about femininity, a rebellion against feminization that in its particular form expresses both a rejection and an exaggeration of the image. The refusal of food which makes her extremely thin straightens out the girl’s curves in a denial of her essential femaleness. At the same time, this thinness parodies feminine petiteness.” As a society, we need to find ways to hear these critiques, to view the packed weight rooms, dangerously thin under-eaters, million-dollar fashion magazine sales, and individuals trying to “pass” as white or straight or young as cries for help and justice amid the oppressive, unjust, hegemonic system of “beauty.”

Spirituality and Body Image

Certainly one of the primary places to which many have turned in recent struggles for justice has been spirituality and faith. Liberation movements such as Feminism, Civil Rights, Black Power, Latin American Liberation, Red Power, and even the Hippie movement have been accompanied and sustained by spiritual expressions. However, in the struggle against a hegemonic beauty image – a struggle which involves all people – there little in the way of a concrete spiritual expression that addresses body image oppression. In addition, there are many serious obstacles in contemporary Christianity standing in the way.

Asceticism

Margaret Miles writes that “in the Christian West, a myth of individual autonomy, self-directedness, a chosen self that is cultivated, exercised, trained and has articulated and examined values continues to exert attractive force.” One significant product of this myth is the belief that one can exercise complete autonomy over one’s body, shaping it into a perfectly measured product with only the right amount of effort. Pandemic body image dissatisfaction is clearly influenced by this misconception. Another equally significant product, however, is the emphasis on self-training and spiritual exercise that in the Christian context comes through denial. Christian worship has sacralized denial as a centerpiece of Christian discipline and devotion. The fast is one of the most common forms of self-disciplining denial. Fasting is equated with prayer, as Christians are often called to fast in times of distress or discernment. Fasting is equated with purification, as Christians are called to fast and to “give something up” – often chocolate or fatty foods or some other epicurean indulgence – during Lent. This association is particularly problematic for those who view their body, with which they are dissatisfied, as unclean or ugly, as well as for the survivors of sexual abuse who often attempt to purify themselves through eating disorders. Fasting is equated with martyrdom, as Christian saints are venerated in remembrance of their extreme denial. Christianity thus equates the act of denying oneself food with faithful Christian devotion.

The sacredness of denial in Christian discourse is related to the concept of sacrificial love. Sacrificial love is the highest ideal in Christianity – and this ideal of loving one’s neighbor more than oneself is present even in many of the liberation theologies. Jennifer Manlowe explains that “the view of Christian love, or agape, has focused on the concept of other-regard often epitomized by self-sacrifice. Those theologians who emphasize loving one’s neighbor as the highest model of Christian love have had a dangerously critical stance toward self-love.” We must question why we must choose between loving our neighbors and loving ourselves. Why must our ideal expression of love involve sacrifice? The primacy of self-sacrifice and the neglect of self-love create a glaring spiritual paucity in any Christian attempt to address body image issues that revolve around self-loathing rather than self-love.

Mind/Body Duality

Feminist theologians have for some time pointed out the mind/body duality in establishment Christianity and have demonstrated the spirit-sapping, unjust consequences of this duality. Beverly Harrison describes spiritualities that promote such a duality: “such spiritualities sacralize mental activity or consciousness as ‘higher’ than the rest of physical existence. Thus we are conditioned by religious and philosophical orthodoxy, or the official doctrines of the elite, to view the body and bodily needs as ‘lower,’ ‘animal’ modalities of existence that have to be tamed or in some way overcome and transcended by a higher and loftier power that is ‘really’ rational and spiritual.” Taught to prioritize our minds over our bodies, Christians can easily justify neglecting or punishing our bodies. Punishment particularly seems appropriate, given that theologians since Paul have located the source of evil, temptation, and sin in the body. Moreover, Harrison demonstrates that women are associated with body, and men with mind. So not only does such a duality instruct Christians to punish their bodies, it sustains a gender-based hierarchy and instructs us to punish our women. This perspective becomes a dual source of self-loathing for Christian women, so it should come as no surprise that women suffer eating disorders as much as ten times more often than men.

Clearly, Christianity’s valenced bifurcation between mind and body is a significant obstacle blocking our society’s struggle to come to terms with our bodies. Feminists and others have identified this obstacle and begun to struggle to change and overcome it. However, it is important to recognize that, while privileging the mind over the body is certainly undesirable, there are some dangers with a simple re-leveling of mind and body. Eating disorders are sometimes caused by dissatisfaction with appearance; however, they are also the product other interior pressures, pressures one would not locate in the “body” as opposed to the “mind.” Eating disorders teach us that individuals often address psychological issues physiologically and internalize physiological dissatisfaction psychologically. We must avoid attempts to em-body theology/philosophy/ideology that continue to ignore the porous barriers between “body” and “mind” by simply re-privileging body. Until Christian theology can completely reintegrate body and mind – that is, until “body” and “mind” fully disappear into the wholistic system of “person” or “being” – Christianity will continue to promote a societal body image neurosis. As Ivone Gebara states, “we are invited to live the oneness of the matter and energy that are our very makeup without knowing what that oneness really is.”

Body Images of Icons

The dominant image of the body in the New Testament, and in the patriarchal spirituality that has dominated Christianity for the last two millennia, projects the body as the primary locus for sin, temptation, and evil. The Apostle Paul calls Christians to reject the sin and temptation of the physiological body in favor the opportunity to join a spiritual body – the Christian Church. The body is thus metaphor for both sinful individual and for faithful community. Beyond these two metaphors, Christianity since Paul’s time has developed nearly sacred images of the major figures in the divine drama – Jesus, Mary, God the Father, and the saints. Each of these icons become beauty images inasmuch as they visually represent the spiritual qualities of purity, goodness, faith, strength, and chosenness. In other words the depictions that have come to be accepted, to the point of violent resistance against alternative images, as visual representations of these divine figures use aesthetic signifiers to symbolize non-aesthetic, personal qualities. Each conveys a message to devotees: in order to be a faithful Christian, you must not only act, but also look like God, Jesus, Mary, and the saints.

Of these figures, God is the least depicted. When depicted, God is father figure; not a person to be emulated, but to be viewed with reverence, awe, and distance. As such, God serves as less of a beauty myth than the other figures. Christianity offers Jesus as the inimitable role model for every Christian. The image most often presented of Jesus is a gaunt, long-haired, white man suffering on the cross. Marcella Althaus-Reid adds that this image is also both androgynous and asexual. This image – the image that all Christians are told to emulate – is completely unapproachable for the majority of U.S.-Americans. Women can never be male, yet as Christians they are encouraged to deny their gender and to be something they cannot be. Non-white individuals can rarely pass as white and are asked as Christians to deny their ethnic heritage and identity. But the image instructs Christians to reject our bodies beyond these immediate representations. Not only must the Christian striving to attain Christ’s beauty image be white and male, s/he must deny health and sexuality. The gaunt Jesus suffering on a cross upholds the precept of sacrificial love and places this ultimate neighborly love in vivid visual contrast with self-love or self-care. The androgynous, asexual figure supports the androgynous beauty myth discussed above, and alienates males who are “too masculine” and females who are “too feminine.” In short, the Jesus image presents a body that is unattainable for the vast majority of the very people who are implicitly taught to work toward attaining it. The system preordains failure and defines failure to be like Jesus – explicitly through works and implicitly through appearance – as sin, thus supporting the self-loathing felt by victims of society’s beauty myth.

Mary, too, presents an unattainable image. Althaus-Reid describes Mary as “a rich, white, woman who does not walk,” and exclaims, “alas, the Virgin is just her skirts.” Both of these images are important. First, like Jesus, Mary alienates all those who are not white. She is also rich and unattainable for the poor. Though Mary is a woman and thus a secondary ideal (after Jesus) for women, women are still left without a physical model, for Mary “is just her skirts.” Mary is not a female figure. She is a white face supported by layers and layers of cloth. This appearance sends the message that the ideal woman is disembodied, without femininity and without sexuality. As with the Jesus image, Mary’s normative body image not only creates inimitable standards, but also sanctions certain values. Althaus-Reid notes that “the idea of the good daughter, good mother and wife have been constructed around virginal/whore dichotomies” which grow out of this non-female, non-sexual Mary. The “good” woman, created in Mary’s image, is thus the woman that denies her female body.

The visual images of Jesus and Mary, along with the saints, whose illustrations imitate Jesus or Mary according to their gender, may not be significant causes of our society’s unhealthy obsession with body image. However like other elements of Christian spirituality, these images erect difficult obstacles that prevent Christians from developing a spirituality that initiates and supports a struggle to break free from the hegemonic beauty myth. Just as Christian spiritualities have historically mirrored and inculcated societal values of white supremacy, wealthy elitism, and homophobia, so too do they continue to sacralize the beauty myth. In waging a struggle against the societal sickness of body image disorder, we must forge a new relationship between spirituality and politics that recognizes their interconnections and seeks to shape a new image of God that promotes a more just political reality.

Spirituality and Politics and Body Image

When talking about spirituality and politics together, we must recognize that the two cannot essentially exist apart. Spirituality reifies political and social norms; as Feuerbach realized, we create our religion in the image of the personal and societal characteristics and power dynamics we wish to maintain and strengthen. Politics fundamentally refers to the ongoing struggle between multiple individuals and institutions to establish, maintain, or change power dynamics – whether through controlling institutional structures and hierarchies, access to material and social resources, or societal value systems and ideologies. Politics is upheld by spirituality, but spirituality also encourages political actors to improve unjust political structures. Robin Gorsline defined spirituality as “the sum of everything we do and are that promotes the wholeness of full creation and the establishment of right relationships.” This type of spirituality, though it certainly does not represent all spiritual expression, defines the work of establishing just power relationships as spiritual work. So when we talk about these two concepts together, we must consciously shape our spirituality to promote more just political relationships, and consciously draw our political motivation from the spiritual realities we recognize and worship.

The task of combining spirituality and politics in the context of societal body image disorder demands a synthesis that promotes healthy body images, community support for individual struggles, and a spirituality that encourages people to refuse to let their bodies become vessels for the transmission of oppressive, belittling, and life-denying hierarchical ideologies. The body will continue to be a political battleground, but we must gain the strength to fight back against subjugation in our own bodies. Many of the problems discussed above are ultimately related to self-love and love of neighbors; the remainder of this discussion, then, will be devoted to modified interpretations of Jesus’ command to “love our neighbors as ourselves.”

Love Yourself, Then Love Your Neighbor

As Jennifer Manlowe points out above, Christianity has long emphasized agapeic love of neighbor in contrast to love of self. Our society’s pandemic dissatisfaction with our bodies calls us to be selfish. The pervasive consequence of this body image neurosis is self-loathing – the beauty myth teaches us to hate ourselves because we do not measure up to industry standards. As female, we are taught to hate ourselves because we are not male. As non-whites, we hate ourselves because we cannot be white. As gay, because we are not straight. As poor, because we are not rich. And as anything less than tall, glamorous, perfectly figured fashion models, because we are not beautiful. With this rampant self-hatred, we need a spirituality that tells us to love ourselves before we even begin to relate to our neighbors. As bell hooks points out, the former is a prerequisite to the latter anyway: “to choose love, we must choose a healthy model of female [male, too!] agency and self-actualization, one rooted in the understanding that when we love ourselves well (not in a selfish or narcissistic way), we are best able to love others.” James McMahon, a clinical psychologist, affirms hooks’ assertion, promoting radical self-acceptance: “finally, as the great commandment reminds us, you are free to love yourself. No longer imprisoned by shame and self-centeredness, you can experience yourself as God does, you can love yourself without reservation.We will approach total freedom from the evaluation of others. For radical self is spirituality. And wisdom is seeing the world through your own eyes, your unique vision, and co-creating with the Transcendent.” A healthy political spirituality in the face of pandemic body image disorder calls for a little selfishness. It demands that we love ourselves first, and as we love ourselves, become empowered to struggle against the oppressive structures of society that discourage self-love. After we love ourselves, then we can begin to love others.

Love Your Neighbor AND Yourself

The beauty myth creates self-loathing by encouraging individuals to compare themselves with other individuals. Advertisements, television and movies, and fashion shows invite us to compare ourselves with models that are held up as beauty ideals. When we inevitably fail to measure up, the process of self-loathing has begun. However, this comparison process extends beyond just competition between models and consumers. The beauty myth by extension demands that individuals compare themselves with every other individual they encounter. Naomi Wolf explains, “at present, ‘beauty’ is an economy in which women find the ‘value’ of their faces and bodies, in spite of themselves, impinging on that of other women’s. This constant comparison, in which one woman’s worth fluctuates through the presence of another, divides and conquers.” As Wolf points out, not only does this constant competition exacerbate self-loathing, it also defeats the possibility of women (or women and men, since all are oppressed by the beauty myth) joining together in solidarity to fight back.
The spiritual need here is for a perspective that encourages us to view beauty as a continuum, not a competition. We must begin to see that there is not a hierarchy of beauty in which one must always compare oneself to others in order to calculate one’s “rank,” but that beauty is inherent in all of God’s creation. We must venerate the human body in all of its permutations – thin, obese, black, Asian, hairy, tall, male, female, etc. – as equally beautiful, and as part of a beautiful creation in which sunflowers, sycamore trees, and subway rats are beautiful as well. We must love our neighbors and ourselves as different expressions of God’s own image.

Love Your God As (Not) Yourself

Finally, we must constantly re-envision divinity. Marcella Althaus-Reid recognizes the importance of constantly deconstructing images of God, Jesus, Mary, et al. because “what cannot be made indecent in theology is not worth being called theology because it will mean that ‘God’, ‘Jesus’ and ‘Mary’ only may have meaning in a determined.system.” In each of these figures, representations sacralize certain values and normative behaviors; so by deconstructing or “indecenting” these figures, we constantly question the worldview and ideology of political authorities. Deconstructing the particular body images of these icons calls into question the idea of a single, monolithic definition of beauty to which few of us can ever measure up. So we must constantly re-envision divinity. We must be able to pray to a black God, a gay Jesus, a poor Mary; but we must also be able to pray to a fat God, a hairy-armed Mary with medium-sized breasts, a Jesus who is not too tall but not too short, a God with acne or chewed-off nails. These divine figures are meaningful to us because they relate to us. As James Cone puts it, “if he [Jesus] cannot be what we are, we cannot be who he is. Our being with him is dependent on his being with us in the oppressed black condition.” For us to be with “him,” Jesus must be human, and therefore, Jesus too must have an imperfect, blemished body. But we must also go beyond embodied divinity. As Althaus-Reid tells us, whenever we erect one construction of the divine, other expressions of humanity are excluded. So we must follow eco-theologians and envisage God as earth, as running water, as solar system, as an interconnected web of life. A spirituality that promotes a healthy political relationship to our bodies must decolonize God as a vessel of the beauty myth, and establish a divine flexibility that allows us to turn, if necessary, to a different God every time we pray.

The above discussion is an attempt to problematize the spiritual and political dimensions of our societal body image disorder. It is certainly incomplete. Nevertheless, as theologians committed to struggles for liberation against injustice, we must recognize that despite the reclamation by many groups of their political identities, the body is still colonized by oppression and hierarchy. Indeed, as Naomi Wolf traces in The Beauty Myth, the body is a political battleground in a way that it never was before the successes of liberation movements such as Feminism in the 1970s. She demonstrates that the institutional oppression targeted particularly at the body is not static, but appears to be rapidly growing. Consequently, she predicts greater frequency of clinical eating disorders, particularly among men. There is no doubt, then, that our next great battle for liberation may need to be fought not by guerillas in the jungles, not by protesters on the Washington Mall, but by average people in average bodies. We need to develop the political and spiritual resources to sustain us in our struggle.


Tommy Ross graduated from Union Theological Seminary in New York City in May 2002 where he received a Master of Arts degree in Christian Ethics .