Christy and I have this ongoing dialogue about our clothing and our bodies. She and I have such different approaches to both. When we were first married, I was a recovering materialist with absolutist tendencies. I was abnormally opposed to buying any new article of clothing. Christy, on the other hand, was more normal. She would bring home a five-dollar shirt from The Gap and would be happy about it. However, I would be unreasonably peeved about it. In fact, it took me several years before I was okay with either her or me buying new clothes.
In fact, we still disagree over what I am going to call ‘jeans madness’. For many years, I owned just one pair of jeans--a byproduct of being the son of my dad, a one-jean man himself. He and I “get” each other. Christy and I didn’t “get” each other and still don’t--at least on this subject. Christy really likes her jeans! From her, I learned about what I came to think of as “jeans madness,” where someone buys expensive, designer jeans knowing they will spend more money getting them altered! Christy’s argument in favor of this practice boils down to: if I alter them, then I can get exactly the look I know I want. In the end, I conceded her point as fair enough. I just take a different approach to clothing, and we have agreed to disagree over “jean madness.” As we have gotten older, I have (lovingly) joked with her about stressing over and changing outfits when she is going to an all-girls birthday party or girls’ night out. I’ll look at her and say, “who in the world are you trying to impress? I think you look great! I wish I was going out with you tonight!”
After this went on for about a year, it finally dawned on me that I wasn’t her barometer. Although my opinion mattered somewhat to her, she didn’t necessarily measure her appearance or clothing against what I said or thought. Around this time, I remember listening to a sermon series by Matt Chandler (A Beautiful Design) in which he explained the phenomena I was observing: "Most women will agree that when we look in the mirror, we don't ask ourselves what he sees in us. We ask what she sees.” [emphasis mine]
He goes on to say, “According to Dr. Caroline Walters, a body image and women's sexuality specialist, it's not just other women's clothes we're checking out, either. 'It's practically every aspect of another woman's appearance, from hairstyle to tan, shape, size, even body hair and fat distribution.' Whatever we deem to be most important ourselves [we check out in other women]." (Cited from Chandler, A Beautiful Design)
In an article entitled “Why Do We Check Out Other Girls?” Julia Oliphant, a writer for The Telegraph, says: "Like it or not, we're all guilty of it. Be it an inconspicuous glance at the girl browsing the same clothes shop window as you, or the rather more blatant stares at the girl sitting opposite on the tube, we just can't seem to help ourselves. And a recent study has confirmed it. Women spend more time checking each other out than they do the opposite sex.” (Cited from Chandler, A Beautiful Design) I heard this and felt both validated and frustrated. I felt validated in that empirical research had confirmed my sneaking suspicion, and frustrated that even though my wife and I agree on many things, we differ very greatly with regard to very fundamental issues of both our clothing and appearance.
When it comes to how we see our bodies, we differ as well. In high school, I always futilely sought to put on muscle mass for sports. My parents bought me the latest and greatest weight-gaining supplements and pills. I was consuming thousands of calories per day through my own concoctions and a daily Smoothie King shake called The Hulk (my favorite flavor was strawberry)--all to no avail. Then in our twenties, Christy and I went through a marathon running phase. During that time, it was a challenge just to stay calorie-replenished and even out our net intake. Now we are both in our mid-thirties. My metabolism has slowed down and Christy has had five children. So, now I have been able to gain weight like I have never been able to before and am glad about it. Christy has encouraged me to consider a ‘ceiling,’ a upper weight gain goal, somewhere to stop. I, of course consider this preposterous, as I am finally able to gain weight for the first time ever. But I have to respect the fact that unlike hers, my body has not experienced a decade of being on an expansion-contraction playlist that seemed to get stuck on repeat five times in a row!
We work out together in the gym a couple of times per week, and Christy feels the need to constantly remind me that: “I don’t want to become a ‘hulk’--I just want to be healthy.” I usually respond by pointing out that while I appreciate her viewpoint, that I actually want to bulk up and become the very thing she wishes to avoid. Hopefully, you’re quicker than me and see the point here, which took me so long to learn. Most women have a unique view of their ideal body, which usually differs from how most men visualize their own ideal body.
For women in particular, body image is a huge topic when it comes to marital intimacy. Christian marriage and sex author Shannon Ethridge describes body image as a bear - “a mental image that sends many women running for a safe hiding place, surrendering their sexual confidence every step of the way.” (Ethridge, The Sexually Confident Wife, p. 86)
Research statistics (Ethridge, p. 87) support this idea:
- 45% of women are dieting on any given day
- 80% of women report that they are unhappy with their appearance
Two years ago, when we were planting the church that we currently serve, I made one of those mistakes that pastors have nightmares about. We were launching Friday night services on the University of Michigan campus. We had not previously found much success in doing this, but this was our third Friday night, and I was ready for a great night. While attendance was low that night, I gave it all I had as I shared my sermon, ending it with a music video that I was positive would speak directly to everyone’s heart. I had even previewed the video to make sure it was precisely what I wanted. As I wrapped up my sermon and it was go-time for the video, I glanced at the recoiled in disbelief and horror when I looked up at the video projection screen behind me.
Someone had spliced in pictures from a women’s conference. Instead of proceeding to the images that I had previously seen many times when viewing this same video, there were new images of women staring discontentedly at themselves in the mirror--most of them wearing nothing but a bra and panties. I turned bright red, but kept going, choosing to believe that this was a one-time mistake, that we could just act like nothing had happened. However, less than a minute later, another disconcerting image appeared (remember this is a brand new church and first impressions are very important). This time, the young lady appeared to have no clothes on at all and was seated on the ground with her knees pulled up to her chest. The image wasn’t exactly pornographic, but it was certainly more of a distraction than I wanted! I later discovered was that I had accidentally shown our fledgling congregation a video that was intended to minister to women struggling with body image, with the corollary message of how to deal with self-hatred. A great message, but not the one I wanted to talk about that night.
While I, along with our launch team, can look back on that moment and laugh, self-hatred related to body image is not a laughing matter. My wife and I have listened to many people’s stories over the years, and when we drill down to the core issues at work in a person’s heart, we often find a root or a remnant of self-hatred. While we understand the validity of self-effacing humility and some value in limited self-deprecation, we find actual self-hatred to be a heartbreaking and debilitating predicament. The good news is that there is hope for change if you find yourself so situated.
How to Address Self-Hatred
- Discover how much you are loved. Unconditional love will destroy self-hatred.
- There is no better way to do this than by spending time with God, and being reminded of this central truth.
- Actively resist thoughts that tempt you to agree to turn to self-hatred.
- Sample prayer: Father, thank you that You love me. Thank you for demonstrating Your love me by having Jesus die for me. Help me see me as You see me, I pray. And help me love myself in a right way as You set me free from hating myself. Thank You that You are faithful to hear me. Amen.
- Be part of a community that consistently encourages you and calls you out when you make comments that relate to self-hatred.
- Action Point: Commit to going deeper with an existing community of faith, or commit to joining a community of faith where you can be known and where you can know others.