At a stone picnic table on the campus of a large, suburban Phoenix high school, I break bread with a dozen of my church’s youth. In the midst of their frenetic schedules, we pause to offer thanks to God for the food, which I brought for them from a nearby restaurant. In the blessing of the meal and the sharing of our lives at the table, we stand out as an odd oasis of thanksgiving and peace
in the chaos of 3,000 adolescents’ lunch period.
A recent, discouraging report on the status of women at Duke University serves as the “meat” of our table talk on this pleasant sunny day in Arizona. I ask these college-bound teenagers if they have experienced the intense pressure Duke undergraduate women describe as “effortless perfection: the expectation that one would be smart, accomplished, fit, beautiful, and popular … without visible effort.”
I ask the girls in particular if they feel a need “to hide their intelligence in order to succeed with male peers,” if “being cute trumps being smart?”
One student admits, “I felt the pressure intensely in middle school to look a certain way; now I’ve realized I don’t want to be a skinny little girl who labors for hours on my makeup and hair. I’m too busy with school and activities for that stuff; at some point you just give up.”
Others remark that the degree of pressure depends upon one’s group of friends—the more popular groups feel more intense pressure to be “perfect,” while the smarter youth feel pressure to pretend they don’t study all of the time.
These youth feel that girls and boys receive equal attention in the classroom (contrary to the experience of Duke female undergraduates), but all acknowledge that, in one way or another, appearances matter.
In a consumption-based society, bodies—particularly women’s bodies—become recalcitrant projects that require ceaseless work and the purchase of innumerable products. Physical deficiencies, such as excess weight or flawed skin, are increasingly viewed as evidence of moral weakness or lack of character. Thus, bright, talented young women at Duke University in 2003, though cognizant of media-derived pressure, nonetheless feel valued more for appearance rather than intelligence.
Does the church, I ask the youth, serve as a place that relieves, or intensifies, pressures to look and be “perfect?”
My survey certainly wasn’t scientific or comprehensive, yet my heart leapt with hope as the youth described those at church as kind and accepting. One student said she isn’t as conscious of body image at church; another said, “We go there to worship God, not to compare appearances.”
“At church, we’re not scared to be ourselves,” added a girl. “We can be real.”
Being real in the church involves a rich set of Christian practices, which are given their foundation in Scripture and theology, and are lived out in a community known as the Body of Christ.
In Scripture, we encounter a God who made creation in God’s image and called it good. We meet a savior who became flesh, washed in the waters of baptism, celebrated food and drink in his table life with the world’s outcasts, suffered crucifixion, and bodily rose again.
One youth in my congregation who struggles with body image (and who doesn’t?) learned that God made her good. Now, whenever a teen magazine or a cruel comment makes her feel less than beautiful, she repeats to herself her one Hebrew word, “I’m tov, I’m tov. . .”, and the doctrine of imago dei nurtures her body and soul.
Stephanie Pausell, in her book Honoring the Body, writes “Our fragile bodies require communal attention, and so honoring the body is a shared practice, one for which we need each other in profound ways … bodily vulnerability is something we all share.”
As a community, we share in the practices that honor the body when we wash one another’s feet, hold hands while praying over a suffering loved one in the hospital, or break bread together at a fellowship potluck. Worship offers innumerable practices to honor the body in its vulnerability—baptism, Eucharist, a liturgical year of feasting and fasting, singing, and Sabbath rest to name a few.
At our breaking of bread on the high school picnic table, one student remarked about our church’s practice of table. “You know,” she said softly, “I love coming forward for our Lord’s Supper. The bread of Jesus tastes so good.” The body’s sense of taste becomes an avenue for celebrating God’s grace within us. Alleluia.
Other practices of the Body of Christ that celebrate the body include retreats and mission trips.
After a trip to the border town of Agua Prieta, Mexico, an astute freshman at the University of Arizona (who very much identified with the findings in the Duke report) said, “People in this town (Agua Prieta) struggle just to feed their bodies and house their children—they don’t have the luxury of trying to be perfect.”
By touching and experiencing the lives of the poor as a practice of the church, we learn that the practice of honoring the body necessarily involves nourishing the hungry.
By honoring the body through Christian practices based in our scriptural tradition, the church mentors its young into a way of life that understands embodiment as a gift. In living together as the Body of Christ, we are a people who allow youth and young adults to be and to celebrate their bodies. We follow the advice of Toni Morrison’s character Baby Suggs.
“Here,” she said, “in this place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard.”
Melanie L. Dobson Hughes D’ 02 is associate pastor at Dayspring United Methodist Church in Tempe, Ariz.