A friend of mine told me recently that her sister exercises for one reason only: she knows her body is a gift from God, and she wants to show her gratitude by taking care of it. Sounds simple enough, right? But how many of us view our bodies, as well as how we treat them, with God in mind?
When I was in the grips of my eating disorder, I exercised compulsively, not because I desired health or wished to honor God, but only because I wanted to be thinner. Eating was not about fueling my body. It was about control. Micromanaging how much or how little I ate made me feel more powerful. I couldn’t make others love me, but I could make myself thinner.
It took several years of treatment and a lot of prayer for me to break free from disordered eating and a poor body image. Thankfully, nowadays when I break a sweat or reach for whole grains and veggies instead of processed food, it’s because I want to show appreciation for the body with which God has blessed me.
I also want to be healthy and strong so I’m better equipped to carry out God’s will for me, which, as a mother, includes the often exhausting work of taking care of four small and energetic children. My husband exercises and eats well so he has the stamina to work long hours to provide for our growing family.
We exercise and eat properly because that’s what we need to do to live healthy lives. But not everybody shares this kind of lifestyle.
Some of us may look in the mirror and not like what we see. Others may chronically be on a diet—our days are whittled down to how many calories we’ve consumed. On the other hand, maybe our bodies aren’t on our radar at all—exercise just isn’t our thing. Or maybe we find ourselves living to eat rather than eating to live.
Here’s the hard truth: if we are to glorify God in our bodies—if we’re to glorify God at all—then we have a responsibility to take care of ourselves. This means not turning your body into your life project as I once did, but it also means not ignoring your physical self completely.
While we are, first and foremost, human beings and not just human bodies, we’re neglecting a fundamental truth of our Catholic faith if we live as if our bodies do not matter. Recognizing the supremacy of the spiritual— that the state of our soul is more important than how we look—doesn’t mean we say, “To heck with my body. I don’t need to exercise or eat well. I’m a good person with a good soul.”
Consider these words from the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC): “Man, though made of body and soul, is a unity. Through his very bodily condition he sums up in himself the elements of the material world. Through him they are thus brought to their highest perfection and can raise their voice in praise freely given to the Creator.
“For this reason man may not despise his bodily life. Rather he is obliged to regard his body as good and to hold it in honor since God has created it and will raise it up on the last day” (364).
Jesus is the image of an invisible God. The purpose of our life is to become more like God. Christ suffered in the flesh. God became human. Our souls are not suspended in nothingness. We stumble toward heaven in these “temples of the Holy Spirit.”
This is My Body
Here are three spiritual truths that have helped me to see my body in a new light: when women carry an infant in their womb or hold an older child until their arms begin to ache; when people use their hands to comfort others; or when we embrace the cross of physical limitations that age or sickness might bring, we are saying: “This is my body. It has been given up for you.”
This is a powerful eucharistic analogy. When we’re using our bodies as a sign of sacrificial love, we are living this. But when we fail to give our bodies a healthy respect—eating too much or too little, ignoring the dignity of the body by over-sexualizing it, or abusing drugs or alcohol— what we’re saying is: “This is my body It has value.”
You Are Made in God’s Image
Here’s something that can help anyone who sometimes wishes to be leaner, curvier, taller, shorter, or more muscular: we were made in the image of God, not the media. Our bodies may not share the measurements of Hollywood’s ideal (and often distorted) standards of attractiveness, but “being in the image of God the human individual possesses the dignity of a person, who is not just something, but someone” (CCC 357).
Achieving real beauty—the kind that shines from the inside out and that both men and women can possess—has nothing to do with liposuction or pumping iron. It has everything to do with God. Prayer, which brings us closer to God’s likeness, offers the best makeover of all.
Your Body Is an Instrument—Not an Object
Your body is not something that has to be whipped into submission. You have more to offer the world than skin. Think of your body as an instrument to serve God and others.
Our bodies are the only vehicles we have to live out the lives God purposes for us. To this end, I’ve learned I have a responsibility to eat healthy food, get enough sleep, and exercise in order to meet the physical demands of being a mom of young children. To be the best instrument in God’s hands, I don’t need to look like a starlet on the silver screen, but I do have to figure out how to use my body to lead a life worthy of God’s calling.
Saint Gianna Beretta Molla once said, “Our body is a cenacle, a monstrance; through its crystal the world should see God.”
Man or woman, young or old—we all possess a divine beauty and goodness. God saw what he created, and it was good. You are good. It’s time we start believing that and allow God, who dwells in us all, to shine for the world to see.
The Body-Mind Connection
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), 1 percent of people in this country—over 3 million—suffer from Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD). The ADAA defines this condition as “a body-image disorder characterized by persistent and intrusive preoccupations with an imagined or slight defect in one’s appearance.” Translation: BDD sufferers are obsessed with their perceived flaws.
Symptoms of this disorder include low self-esteem, evading social scenes, an avoidance of or a fixation with mirrors, excessive grooming, unnecessary surgeries, and extreme exercise. The ADAA also reports that people with BDD also suffer from social anxiety disorder, severe depression, and eating disorders.
Effective treatments include cognitive-behavioral therapy and antidepressant medication.