Christians in Barbie Land

The obsession with body image and the proper place of fitness in our lives.

Jan Johnson is a speaker and author of When Food Is Your Best Friend and When the Soul Listens. She lives in Simi Valley, California.

"Are you working out every day?" asked Jennifer, a fellow aerobics enthusiast.

"No," I told her, "I work out three times a week, and I feel great."

"But you won't lose weight that way," she protested.

I winced because I knew my reply sounded so peculiar: "I'm not trying to look like a babe. I just want to be healthy and of average weight."

Jennifer assumed that I was like many American men and women, 65 million of whom are dieting on an average day. In our culture, which says all men should resemble work­out buffs and all women should be pencil-thin, overexercising and daily weigh-ins are common. The apostle Paul might paraphrase Philippians 3:19 for our culture by writing, "Their destiny is destruction, their god is their flat stomachs, and their glory is in their shame."

Fitness, one of the principal paths to good health, has now become intertwined deeply and dangerously with self-worth. Supposedly the more fit you look, the more likely you are to be hired for a job, to find a spouse, to be one of the admired and appreciated. Fitness has become especially entwined with self-worth for American women, 77 percent of whom think they are overweight. Even among fourth-grade girls, 50-to 80 percent are dieting.

Fitness is not an end in itself, however. It is important only as a tool to help us glorify God in who we are and what we do. As for thinness, our faith says that true attractiveness comes from the growth of the inner self toward God, not from outward show (see 1 Peter 3:3-5). So as the sales of Christian books and videos about fitness soar, we wonder, Are we listening to what God says about our bodies or to a culture that tells us to arrange our schedules and budgets around becoming buff and feeling guilty if we look sideways at a baked potato? Are we striving for good health or is shapeliness now next to godliness?

Here are some paths to consider in finding an attitude toward fitness that flows out of love for God instead of the obsession with our culture's values.

Determine the essence of self-worth. Christians have only one true source of self-worth. I am a worthy person because God loves me: "How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!" (1 John 3:1).

Believing this truth in our hearts is not an easy task, but following Jesus means we are in the process of absorbing this truth and letting go of the desire for continual self-affirmation and self-fulfillment. One step in that process may be to surrender the goal of being eligible to model swimwear.

Honor God with your body. In 1 Corinthians 6:16-20, Paul spoke about using our bodies to honor God as we flee sexual immorality. The passage presents the idea that, left to our own devices, we will use our bodies to get what we want. In today's world, that might include the admiring glances of a date, or the power and authority that a well-put­together appearance commands on the job. Part of the Christian adventure is to explore ways to make our bodies a not-so-grievous dwelling place for the Holy Spirit, and to understand that our bodies are "for the Lord, and the Lord for the body" (1 Corinthians 6:13).

The effects of chronic dieting diminish one's capacity to serve God. When we're irritable, can't concentrate, or are anxious, depressed, and tired, it's difficult to get out of the front seat of a car, much less walk the extra mile with a hurting person. Fitness then becomes an important issue we take before God, asking Him: "What is Your will about how I become and remain physically fit?"

Because we each have different physical characteristics and patterns, the answers aren't the same for everyone. When Randy, who was a wrestler in high school and now lives in a beach community, sought God's will about weight and appearance, he confessed to his small group at church, "I spend too much time and money on looking good: I work out everyday; I play outdoor sports to get a tan; I search for clothing to match my surfer look. I want to spend more time praying and reading the Bible. Pray for me in this struggle."

As I've asked God over the years to show me His will regarding fitness, He has shown me that I will need to base my goal weight on what the medical charts say rather than on looking eighteen years old. He's shown me that because of time commitments, I need to use an exercise video instead of going to a gym, and that I should not be ashamed if I miss my aerobic routine occasionally.

Accept the body that God gave you as His gift to you. As each of us was knit together in the womb, we inherited a certain body shape, as scientists tell us. Adopting our culture's standards can make us wish God had made different choices. Paul warned us: "Don't let the world squeeze you into its own mold, but let God remold your minds from within" (Romans 12:2, Phillips). As God remolds our thoughts about our bodies according to eternal standards of attractiveness, we can almost laugh at the world's standards. For example, in the days of the Flemish painter Rubens, pear-shaped women were most appealing. Today, wide hips are a curse, unless you live in the Middle East where wide hips increase a woman's marriage prospects.

Even within our own culture, American men and women in the media are much thinner than their counterparts of twenty years ago, says a study by the City University of New York. We can be liberated from the forces of our appearance-crazed culture only as we learn to be content with whatever state our genetic heritage has predisposed us to (see Philippians 4:12).

On days when I look into the floor-length mirror and see that my shape doesn't match that of a magazine model (whose average size is 6!), I strain to recall God's great acceptance of me from a phrase in one of my favorite verses, Psalm 18:19: "[God] rescued me because he delighted in me."

As I put my hands on my hips and lean closer to the mirror, I might whisper to my reflection: "This is me, the one God rescued, the one God delights in."

Aim for self-control, not preoccupation. When we berate ourselves for gaining a pound or constantly weigh ourselves (or tell a spouse or child to do so), this may be fitness obsession, not self-control.

"I always thought Linda was the epitome of self-control," says Beth. "Then we went on a women's retreat together. She complained at every meal about fat grams and threw her food away. She dressed and re­dressed in the morning, explaining that she used to be overweight and was now very careful with her appearance. Her kind of self-control didn't have anything to do with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and so on."

The fruit of the Spirit, self-control, flows out of Christians who manage what is within their control and surrender what is beyond its limit's. We can control whether we eat proper amounts of food and get proper amounts of exercise, but we can't control whether or not the results make us look like Ken or Barbie.

Let God help you. It's not an easy task to live so differently from our culture, and it seems impossible without prayers such as these:

"Help me to link what I feel about myself with Your unfailing love for me.

"Help me to focus my life on my growing union with You, not on the hype of the culture."

By choosing to pray this way, we open ourselves to hear God's answers and let fitness have its appropriate place in our lives. We move along in learning how to surrender our bodies as tools to glorify God.