By Stephanie S. Smith
June 28, 2012
Stephanie S. Smith is a twentysomething writer and editor addicted to print and pixels. She works as content development editor at RELEVANT Media Group and blogs about the Incarnation and embodied faith at stephindialogue.com. Catch her tweeting at @stephindialogue.
Sometimes all it takes is the flash of a long-legged blonde on a mascara commercial, the impossible curves of the Victoria’s Secret model in the sidebar ad on Spotify, and I’m immediately at risk of being caught up in the stomach-turning carousel of comparison.
I avoid online shopping for this reason, because the clothes I want to wear will inevitably look better on models who are taller, leaner, prettier and bustier than I am. I don’t buy or read women’s magazines heavy in the beauty and fashion department because I know even a cursory thumb-through will leave me feeling deficient, guilty and average in the glare of such elite glamor. These are not moral decisions, just a personal choice I make for my own protection, the same way any recovering addict steers clear of their substance of self-sabotage. I know if I feel that familiar toxic pull, those dormant chemicals in the brain triggered into action and response, I am fallible.
Is our idea of physical perfection really so fragmented as to make us faceless?
Inspiration or Illusion?
Pinterest users call it “Thinspiration,” a term hijacked from pro-anorexic groups (yes, those exist) used to support each other in their self-starvation efforts, but Pinterest users searching for these images do not necessarily have an eating disorder. This perfectionist propaganda is being “pinned” by ultra-health eaters, fitness trainers, daydreaming teenagers and fashion aficionados.
As of March this year, Pinterest updated its terms of service to exclude any images that motivate self-harm, and now anyone searching for “thinspo” will be greeted by a remedial message—“Eating disorders are not lifestyle choices, they are mental disorders that if left untreated can cause serious health problems or could even be life-threatening,” followed by a referral to a help center.
I applaud Pinterest for this bold counter and their refusal to glorify eating disorders, but unfortunately, it doesn’t mean people have stopped chasing down these images, or being influenced by them. And that is the danger of a mental disorder—once an idea has taken root, left unchecked, it goes viral.
“Thinspo” may have gone underground, but anyone who can type keywords into a search bar can access it, and the media’s standard of beauty has long haunted the body consciousness of men and women alike. There are many problems with any medium that promotes this illusion of fantasy.
It Positions Envy as Healthy Motivation
Constant exposure to the photo-edited beauty standard corrodes self-confidence, and teaches us instead to adopt the toxic habit of comparison. The problem with these skeletal images, whether on Pinterest, magazine covers, or shopping catalogues, is that it perpetuates a standard of beauty and weight that dares the viewer to self-evaluate and determine how he or she measures up. It turns brothers and sisters into rivals, as we begin to see each other in two restrictive categories—skinnier than me, or not. And because there will always be someone prettier, stronger, slimmer than ourselves, this habit of comparison only feeds a cycle of dissatisfaction.
That is the danger of a mental disorder—once an idea has taken root, left unchecked, it goes viral.
This comparison and discontent has ancient echoes. Listen to the 10th commandment, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s” (Exodus 17:20). I tend to forget about this verse, as I suspect many of us forget it, perhaps because few today are in possession of donkeys and man servants. Regardless, it seems clear that in God’s economy, nothing good ever results from envy. And I don’t think it’s a stretch to apply this to Pinterest, where, as Emerging Mummy blogger Sarah Bessey has noted, “Really, we pin the life we wish we had.” We wish for her slender symmetry, his toned muscles, those perfect thighs, height, hair, grin, weight. This cycle of comparing and coveting feeds an itch and an envy that will never be satisfied, and rejects the generous ways in which God has created and provides for our bodies.
It Perpetuates a Singular Model of Beauty
When we glamorize the cultural ideal of long legs, tight hips, and tousled hair, all composed in a perfect hourglass frame, it reveals an incredibly narrow and un-imaginative definition of beauty. In a sense, this restrictive definition regresses against God’s creative play in Eden, when He fashioned plants, bird, sea creatures, into being—each “according to their kind” (Genesis 1:11), a phrase which is repeated 10 times in the Genesis narrative. And to cap it all, He created human life out of the dust, a man and a woman, each uniquely crafted in His holy image and divinely distinct.
The Pinterest images of “perfect” body proportions betray a stunted view of beauty. If we buy into them, we may begin to believe there is only image of God—and that she is a walking sex bomb. But God’s view of His created beauty is far vaster. It is not embodied in one exclusive mold, but in a glorious variety reflected in every man and woman He has lovingly created.
A New Body Model
Because there will always be someone prettier, stronger, slimmer than ourselves, this habit of comparison only feeds a cycle of dissatisfaction.
Perhaps we would be better off to focus our energies on working out the muscle of the mind, before our thighs, abs and arms. Body image certainly has physical implications, but it is a mental concept first. When we correct our injured understanding of our bodies, this healed perspective will overflow into our embodied lives.
Learning to live at peace with your body is a process, as it must be in a culture ever at war with the gods and monsters we create out of skin. But we can progress in this process—by being intentional about what we allow to shape our perception of beauty and body image, identifying our weak points, and putting healthy boundaries into place. And through all of this, we can find hope in the shape of a different body—in the Incarnation, which teaches us to identify with the brokenness of Jesus’ body, in the way that our own bodies feel broken, damaged, and defeated. And we can take heart in knowing as we identify with His death, we might also experience His resurrection, “so that His life may be revealed in our mortal body” (2 Cor. 4:11).