Throughout history, women’s bodies portrayed in the media of the day— from billboard ads to TV screens to mobile phones—have influenced what we think about our identities.
According to Mary Inman, a psychologist at Hope College, the early 1970s marked a new age for female body image. The fashion model Twiggy took the stage and the norm of Marilyn Monroe, who had substantially more body fat, started fading.
In 1979, Jean Kilbourne’s lecture-based film Killing Us Softly (and later, Jackson Katz’s work) documented the connection between media and “young women and men to think that the perfect body shape is thin for women and muscular for men,” said Inman. These messages “also communicate that the function of the body is to be an object of sexual desire for women and a tool of dominance for men.”
Although today’s body-positive movement provides some pushback (and also attracts critique), nonetheless the same problems persist. In studying the issue, Inman and her colleague at Hope College, Charlotte vanOyen-Witvliet, wanted to know: Does faith buffer a negative body image?
In a recent study published in the Journal of Psychology and Christianity, Inman and Witvliet measured body esteem in college-aged men and women in relation to their understanding of God’s love.
They spoke to CT about what they found.
What led you to research body esteem?
Witvliet: Our bodies are good gifts; a biblical view is that we are embodied souls, ensouled bodies. We are called to value, respect, and care for our bodies—neither devaluing nor idolizing them. Many people struggle with low body esteem and related distress and disorders. We wanted to better understand body esteem in relationship to gender, conditions of self-worth, and people’s experience of their relationship with God.
Your study mentions research on so-called “appearance norms.” How are appearance norms set for men and women? And how do they affect one’s body esteem?
Witvliet: Appearance norms are often more caught than taught. We are bombarded by images. We don’t have to seek out these norm-shaping pictures, videos, ads, billboards, and beyond—they show up in our social media feeds, pop up in the middle of articles we read online, and decorate the highways we drive on.
Inman: Appearance norms can emerge in our relationship circles of family, friends, peers, and encounters with “fat talk.”
Your study surveyed participants about their self-worth based on two measures of religious concepts: attaching self-worth to “when I feel loved by God” and “trusting in God’s love and care.” You felt the second concept better conveyed unconditional trust in God’s love. Why?
Witvliet: At face value, it might seem like a good thing to base your self-worth in having God’s love. But some items in the scale we used were written in a way that sounded like God’s love was changeable or conditional. We thought that we needed to also test a scale that fit with a view of God as unconditionally loving. Using a second scale allowed us to find that trusting and feeling loved by God was associated with higher body esteem in both genders.
What did you learn by asking about more than one religious concept?
Witvliet: Religiosity is multifaceted—it includes people’s relationship to God and others, beliefs, motivations, feelings, practices, and approaches to suffering and flourishing. So, we need to include different measures that tap these aspects of religious life.
What is different about body esteem and religiosity between men and women?
Inman: Men reported reliably higher body esteem than women did. Also, men who trusted in God’s love and care and his all-knowing, all-powerful nature—qualities measured by one of the religious scales—did not show the otherwise reliable pattern of appearance-based self-worth and low body esteem.
But interestingly, females reported stronger secure attachment to an unconditionally loving God and based more self-worth on having God’s love than males.
So, trusting God’s love was associated with better body esteem in men but not in women. What do we make of this?
Witvliet: Perhaps the relationship between basing self-worth in appearance and having low body esteem is harder to overcome in women, even with strong faith factors. Both in the broader culture and in Christian subcultures, women face pervasive and consistent appearance norms.
Did the gender differences surprise you? Was anything counterintuitive about the results?
Inman: I expected that. There’s a lot of research showing that women are much more dissatisfied with their bodies than men are dissatisfied with theirs.
Witvliet: There’s also a lot of data showing higher levels of religiosity in women than men.
Inman: There are very few studies on the relationship between religiosity and body esteem in men. I thought it was very interesting that one religious variable broke the association for men. We were surprised that it didn’t break it for women.
How might your research results potentially impact the way teachers, parents, and church leaders disciple and care for youth and young adults?
Inman: Based on my past research, some helpful strategies include reading biblically based body affirming statements. I found that people who thought about these beliefs and these biblical passages—our body has been blessed by God; it is to be in God’s service— felt more loved and cherished when compared to people reading nonreligious passages.
Wivliet: Body surveillance happens in the church, in youth group, during fellowship. We can be surveying bodies the whole time we’re supposed to be in worship.
Inman: If people are preoccupied with the body, they’re going to be speaking out body comparison and body talk. There’s research looking at “fat talk”: “I feel fat today,” or “I don’t know if I should have that brownie.” That needs to get out of our language. [Researchers have found] that a mom’s evaluation of her own body can affect the child’s evaluation of his or her own body.
Wivliet: The visual is so captivating; we’re very visual people. We need to be willing to talk about [our response] to the visual images that we’re bombarded with constantly—not obsessing over it but acknowledging it.
Inman: There are media awareness interventions based on studies out there that have looked at educating kids on airbrushing, etc. The informed youth were less influenced by the media than non-informed youth. There are also contemporary models of body acceptance—like Meghan Trainor upset over her music video editors Photoshopping a slimmer waist—and biblical models as well. Moses was a stutterer, but God used him in his imperfection.
Witvliet: We can engage and appreciate each other for who we are as image bearers of God and what we can contribute rather than reducing others to the flatness of a billboard or screen image. We can pay attention to how we greet one another. Is the first thing out of our mouth: “It’s so good to see you. You look great”? That’s an evaluative appearance statement. Can we say: “It’s so good to be together”? Find something you can always praise about appearance that never changes: “I love your eyes”; “I love your smile.” These approaches embrace a vision of who we are as persons—valuing each other and ourselves as embodied souls.