Swimsuit season is upon us, and this time of year brings loud voices that speak sweet words of freedom—from embarrassment, self-loathing, rejection—and we listen, attentively. From gurus and coaches to the stay-at-home-mom next door, they promise to make our bodies new in exchange for our preoccupation and monthly service fees.
We line up.
We pray that God help us stay true to the diet this time. Failure and shame flood over us as we cry in the bathroom when the scale tells us scary things. Sometimes we cry because we are convinced that only people in perfect bodies have a right to do great things for God.
The Purpose of My Body
“All bodies are good bodies.”
It’s a phrase that challenges our modern notion of “good.” Of course not all bodies are good in a world where pain, disability, and terminal illness exist, we think. We can’t see that our own bodies are good because we’re looking at bodies the wrong way.
Classical philosophy tells that something is good if it fulfills its purpose. So if I want to know whether my body is good, I have to ask myself this question: What is the purpose of my body? The answer is simple yet complex—the purpose of my body is to have a relationship with God.
Wait, you might say, isn’t that what our souls are for? Yes, but that’s not the complete answer. In the mystery and wisdom of God, our soul and our body are inextricably linked. Our humanity is made up of all of ourself—body and soul. As I wrote in Lovely: How I Learned to Embrace the Body God Gave Me, “in a very real sense, I am my body.”
I have one-word proof of the dual-sided personhood: Incarnation. Our person is comprised of body and soul, just like the body and soul of Jesus comprise the personhood of the Son of God.
But what about the limitations of our bodies? The weaknesses we have? The illnesses from which we suffer? Indeed, Jesus is our example in this regard too. He considered the wounds on his body to be so important to his identity that they are part of his resurrected body. When Thomas finally meets him post-resurrection, he uses his scars to prove that he is himself.
The Jesus with the marks of love in his hands, feet, and side ascends into heaven in Acts 1, and the angels tell his followers, “[t]his same Jesus, who was taken up into heaven,” will come again. The God-man who sits on the throne of heaven, at the right hand of the Father, has a body full of scars that tell the story of his love for us. And when St. John sees the Apocalypse laid out before him, Jesus is there as the lamb standing as if he has been slain. Jesus never leaves his scarred and slain body behind, in the mystery that is the resurrected body.
Not only does Jesus still bear the wounds of love from the cross, but he also makes himself known to us in his broken body. On the night he is betrayed, he gives his body and his blood for his followers to eat and drink. “This is my body, broken for you.” In my tradition, we celebrate the Eucharist every time we meet so that we remember this great love of a body broken for you and for me.
Consider the disciples walking to Emmaus after the crucifixion, not knowing the good news of the resurrection, being taught about Jesus in all the scripture by the risen Jesus, and yet not realizing it was him until he breaks the bread that is his body, to share it with them. It is his broken body that reveals his identity.
I am undone as I consider the vulnerability of God to share his weakness with me. I shouldn’t be surprised when he asks me to share my own weaknesses with him. My wounds, my weakness, and my limitations reveal who I really am. In a very real way, my body tells the story of the life I’ve lived. Much like the body of Jesus does for me.
If the love and identity of Jesus is revealed to us through his broken body, why do we in our churches and on our stages and through our social media accounts try to hide our wounds and our brokenness? Why do we insist that our body’s purpose is perfection when our body’s purpose is to enable relationship with God?
Loving My Neighbor’s Body as Myself
“All bodies are good bodies.”
Maybe you can admit that other people’s bodies are fine and good, but you still need to work on yours to be pleasing to God and to yourself.
But what if the things God requires of us—to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God—don’t demand a perfect body? And what if our obsession with achieving and maintaining a perfect body actually harms our neighbors, the very ones that God is explicitly calling us to love?
After years of praying for God to help me change my body and him never answering me in the way I wanted, I realized that maybe I was asking for the wrong thing. When I read St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians, his words confronted my commitments to my culture’s focus on having a thin and fit body:
“Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations—‘do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,’ which all concern things which perish with the using—according to the commandments and doctrines of men? These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh.” (Col 2:20-23 NKJV)
This passage made me ask myself, “If I can’t diet my way to holiness, what can I do?”
As a good millennial, I took my query to Twitter, where J. Nicole Morgan, a fat acceptance advocate, pushed me to words of Jesus that I knew very well: loving my neighbor. It was like a bomb went off inside me—what if the answer to my body’s struggle was framing my life around love of God and neighbor instead of making my body smaller? Morgan’s words unfurled a sail inside my heart that caught the wind at just the right angle.
When I affirm that my body is good, only then can I truly love my neighbor’s good body. Jesus is clear—I am to love my neighbor as myself. Self-hatred and body negativity will not lead me or my neighbor into the fullness of the love of God. When we put a worldly definition of “good” on the bodies around us, it excludes so many of the precious people that God so loves—those of us with terminal illness who will never achieve health, those of us with disabilities, those of us (like me) who will always and ever be outside the cultural standards of normal.
For the sake of God and for the sake of your neighbor, embark on the journey to know that your body is good: all bodies are good bodies. In your today body, you can love God and your neighbor, sharing the good news of the slain lamb who conquered death and keeps his wounds present for us to know him by.
Cover image by AfriMod Studio