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Feast, fast, and Photoshop

12 January 2024

Megan Dent reflects on the importance of the body


IF YOU have not found yourself the target of any #newyeardetox or #weightlossjourney content online in recent days, this is a sign of hope. Sadly, at about the time of Jesus’s birth, our media culture is often busy projecting images of bodies entirely at odds with the overwhelming wonder of Christmas: that God would be born of flesh — rounded, marked, stretched — and thereby proclaim the preciousness of its very imperfection. In contrast, we are bombarded with myriad messages and images that can be readily distilled into Resist the Feast; Detox; Stay Trim.

“Body positivity” and “body acceptance” have gained traction on social media in recent years as a backlash to many decades of diet mania. But, more often than not, our culture remains full of unrealistic expectations of human bodies, thanks to tools of technological modification — cropping, Photoshopping, AI, etc. — that seek to minimise perceived flaws.

To help mitigate these unhelpful influences, I wonder whether the Church could make more of Christian theologies of the body which emphasise not only the sanctity of the flesh as a creation of God, but the individual body’s relationship with others.

Fundamentally, our bodies communicate something about God’s purpose for us. As the church Father Tertullian wrote in the third century, “The flesh is the very condition on which salvation hinges.” Far deeper than their shape, colour, or perceived desirability, our bodies belong in God’s plan for creation. The incarnation of Christ — which, with the angels, we’ve just announced to the world — reveals that the human body is holy.

Indeed, the phrase (and book title) that claims Your Body is an Instrument, Not an Ornament seems especially apt for a Christian understanding of matter and the part that it plays in sacramentality. The bread in the eucharist is not merely a symbol that points to Christ, but a substance that brings Christ into reality for us. So, too, are our bodies more than signs of the souls that Christ has given us: they quite literally carry those souls into the world.

THE theologian Dr Paula Gooder has shown that, when Paul talked about the body in his Hebrew context, he meant the whole person: an integrated notion of spirit and flesh. And Tertullian understood body and soul as nearly indivisible: “The flesh is anointed, that the soul may be consecrated; the flesh is signed (with the cross), that the soul too may be fortified.”

Our culture’s propensity to separate our bodies from our inner selves — to use them as canvases of fashion, or thinness, or even fitness — leads us into the troublesome territory of always yearning for a different body from the one that we have.

In contrast, Christ meets us in the natural condition of our flesh, which includes not only disease, entropy, vulnerability, and mortality, but also the shifting qualities of our flesh: the “mis-sized” contours, the softness, the blood, and fluid, and digestion — all of it.

How can Christians learn to regard their bodies in relation to this transfiguring power of Christ, and in relation to one another, rather than by comparison with the altered images on social media? One area of focus must be community and connection. Meals — including the feast of the eucharist — bring us together at a common table. In Jesus’s time, eating with others was inextricably bound up with relationship and connection. When, in St Mark’s Gospel, Jesus “sat at dinner in Levi’s house” and “many tax collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples,” the Pharisees express astonishment: by eating with them, Jesus gives dignity and status to those whom society has cast out.

Jesus sees the table as a place of radical inclusivity; he even breaks bread with the one who betrays him, never expelling him from the group, but inviting him into his final act of communion with his disciples. This tells us something about how God wants us to understand eating: as an act that draws us to one another, and to him.

Indeed, Dr Gooder has shown that Paul understood the body as collective rather than individualistic, as in his First Letter to the Corinthians: “Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.” On the Talking Theology podcast, the Revd Dr Liz Kent has suggested that, if we are all part of the body of Christ, then “what I do with my body deeply affects other parts of the body of Christ.”

In other words, an obsession with thinness or fitness can spread, like a contagion, through families and communities: a point demonstrated in much recent data on the negative impact of social media on teenagers’ mental health.

BROOKE MILLER, an American Christian and registered dietitian who promotes body acceptance under the Instagram handle @nutrition.for.mamas, says that many women try to change their relationships with their bodies when they have children: “A lot of my clients realise that their kids will be looking to them when they’re forming their own eating habits; the way we eat has a ripple effect on those around us.”

Miller encourages women to adopt “intuitive eating”, which is a “compassionate, self-care eating framework that treats all bodies with dignity and respect”. As well as listening to the body’s hunger cues and enjoying a variety of foods with no restrictions, Miller encourages her clients to “get in the photos” with their families, regardless of their fears about their body image.

She says: “I wear the swimsuit in the pool with my kids because they, like God, don’t focus on my stretch marks or criticise my size. They want to make memories with me, and I want to show them what it means to live in a body without shame. I often remember words from 1 Samuel: ‘The Lord doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.’”

One phrase that Miller and others in the intuitive-eating movement favour is “food freedom”. This means the removal of food from an outsized pedestal, where it dictates our thoughts and actions — those thoughts and actions that could bring us into greater belonging and further joy in Christ.

Extremely restrictive eating represents a kind of captivity, far from the freedom that we are offered in Jesus. As Dr Kent puts it, “One of the ways that we can articulate from a Christian perspective why disordered eating is a distortion of what God would want from us is because the effect of it is to further isolate people.”

It feels dispiriting to realise the continued power of unhealthy ideas about bodies, especially on the media platforms that specifically target young users. And there is no easy way for the Church to intervene on the innermost feelings of young people about their bodies and eating. But there are stirrings of hope in the theologians who are writing and speaking about this, as well as in the intuitive-eating movement and its emphasis on bodily dignity, regardless of shape or size. A theology of the body which can speak to these challenges starts by recognising all bodies as instruments of God’s love: worthy of belonging, and worthy of care and health.

Surely, this is where Christ calls us: to the table, as we are, to nourish ourselves in the gift of flesh, and to find him not only in our own bodies, but — as he commanded us — in one another.

Megan Dent is a freelance journalist.

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