Body Image and the Irish Church

By Sarah Marshall

It doesn’t take long to notice our obsession with bodies in Ireland. Weight, diet, anti-aging, and beauty are continually scrutinised in popular culture, on social media and in our everyday conversations.

Yet in church, body image is hardly mentioned. We can be tempted to dismiss it as trivial, superficial, and innocuous. Yet how we feel about our bodies can have significant and far-reaching implications.

I have experienced the crippling effect of an unhealthy body image throughout my teens and for most of my adult life. I came to a point where I was desperate to understand how and why my body image could rob me of the freedom and fullness in life that I knew Christ had for me. Having begun to study at the Irish Bible Institute, I decided to explore biblical theology for some answers.

Consumer culture and mass media play primary roles in shaping how women see their bodies. They have cleverly crafted a story that idolises, idealises, and increasingly sexualises the female body for profit. Advertising and media overwhelm and saturate our living spaces with this story, using images of the ‘ideal’ woman (flawless, young, thin, sexy, and, more recently, fit and strong.)

The constant association of this ‘ideal’ female with the satisfaction of basic human needs and desires leaves women convinced that being physically attractive is the answer to all their problems. Thinness has come to symbolise having it together. To be thin is to be successful in life, relationships, and career. Sexiness has become synonymous with popularity, value, and worth. Staying or becoming thin is commonly associated with ‘being good,’ encouraging a sense of morality about weight and body type. Though most women would not consciously define weight loss as their life’s purpose, many of their everyday thoughts and actions centre on this hope.

Throughout my theological studies, I explored how issues of body image impact the life and spirituality of Christian women and girls in Ireland. I undertook qualitative research, interviewing women of various ages and church backgrounds.

I found that these women were as equally affected by issues related to body image as women who were not Christians. Their longing to achieve the ‘ideal’ body often became more fundamental to their feelings of happiness, security, meaning, and identity than God. Yet, instead of finding answers, they found themselves enslaved and worn out by their efforts to chase the ‘ideal,’ which directed them away from finding true satisfaction in Christ.

One participant expressed a belief that becoming thinner would change her life: “I know that I am buying into some kind of lie but … [I] don’t know how to let it go or break it. I’d feel more beautiful and more confident and probably more desirable to my boyfriend.”

Another participant revealed, “If you could grab and just pull it off [weight] I think I would be happier and more willing to go out there and do things and people would receive me better… it’s another lie that people tell you – that attractive people go further and they’re happier and they have more friends.”

Another woman responded, “…on a bad day the cover of a glossy magazine can make me feel sad or bad about myself… like I’m not enough.”

The consumer narrative on female’s bodies has become increasingly sexualised, promoting the de-humanisation of females as sex objects. This has a devastating impact; it degrades the whole personhood of women, undermining their sense of God-given value.

“What your body looks like is everything, so if your body looks like what it should look like according to society then that is a massive piece of currency … it doesn’t matter how successful you are, how wealthy or how smart, how powerful or how effective you are politically, if you don’t look good then there’s no point.”

My research found that the way a woman feels about her body influences not only how she feels about herself, but also how she feels toward others. This was a significant finding for the Christian community whose foundational call is to a sacrificial and Jesus-like love of others.

Some women experienced feelings of inferiority or superiority based on how they looked compared to other women. Others described feeling insecure, intimidated, and “less than” based solely on appearance. This constant need for affirmation drove them to judge and mistreat other women, discrediting them and putting them down in order to feel better about themselves. Others admitted to jealousy or to feeling self-conscious in everyday situations.

“It just throws up a lot of sin sometimes, as well in me as in other people - jealousy, coveting, gossip - and that’s so detrimental to our spiritual lives.”

This picture of Christian women feeling sub-standard, divided, and pitted against one another paints a sad contrast to the call for us to be as one body and to “shine brightly as stars in a crooked, broken, and depraved generation.”

The women expressed regret that seeking to become more beautiful in character and Christlikeness was often trumped by their drive to become more beautiful on the outside.

“You can get so focussed on the physical that you actually forget you’re spiritual … you can forget what really matters and forget the kind of person you want to be… the focus goes off growing and changing and developing as a person.”

This negative impact of body image on identity seeps into many women’s ability to fully participate in church; women often fade into the background.

This negative impact of body image on identity seeps into many women’s ability to fully participate in church.

“I think how we look would still stop a lot of women from doing things… if you don’t feel you look great then you don’t feel very confident, and that’s why in church, women will always be on the serve teams and minding the children, whereas men will very happily volunteer themselves for the ‘up the front’ jobs or the leading kind of roles, the stronger, more visible roles, because they couldn’t care less what they look like…”

These accounts show that body image has a far-reaching impact on spiritual formation, Christian community, discipleship, leadership and ultimately the vibrant involvement and contribution of women in the Great Commission.

We are called to be a countercultural and transformational presence in our communities. To do so, we need to take issues like body image seriously and engage with them in real and practical ways.

The first step is for the Christian community to point to a biblical view of the human body. A recurring theme with the women I interviewed was how they felt the church failed to engage with these issues. Consumer culture was the primary voice in their understanding of the body. Many felt shame, expressing confusion about how to view themselves in a godly way. They were left to struggle with these issues on their own.

“I still feel unsure as child of God how I’m supposed to view my body with its imperfections. …how do you have a good understanding on what is bad about body image or what’s bad about your body and what’s good, and should you even talk about it like that?... It’s very hard for me to accept unconditional acceptance for my body or that God does; I don’t know what He thinks about it.”

I still feel unsure as child of God how I’m supposed to view my body with its imperfections.

A healthy theological framework will equip the Christian community to identify lies within our culture. Only then can we can repent, work toward change, and become a light in a world entrenched in brokenness.

The Irish church has an incredible opportunity to counteract the toxic attitudes of contemporary culture. Imagine if we were able to provide a community where women and girls—worn out by striving, competition and severe social comparison—found themselves accepted and lovingly supported, not for their appearance, but based on who they are!

I believe the church can foster loving interactions with one another—especially among women. We should challenge unloving consumer messages, choosing instead to be people who build, encourage, and enable one another. Church leadership can lead the way by deliberately recognising and celebrating the gifts of women. This encouragement will empower women to exercise and grow in their God-given strengths.

Something as crippling as negative body image should be part of an ongoing conversation within the body of Christ.

Something as crippling as negative body image should be part of an ongoing conversation within the body of Christ. I hope we continue to explore what a truly transformative and life-giving community looks like—a community that mobilises and empowers women as equal and valued members of the church, each with a specific purpose within God’s Kingdom.

Sarah Marshall was born in Australia and having moved to Ireland in 2008, fell in love with the country and now considers Ireland her home. She is a recent MA Graduate with Irish Bible Institute where she focused her studies on body image, contemporary culture and spirituality.