Altar to a False Image

BY JOHN MONTAGUE

Dr. Karen Hye-cheon Kim wants her patients to know two things, “God cares about your health and we cannot be healthy by our own strength.” Kim, an assistant professor at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, studies the relationship between religious beliefs and physical health, specifically obesity. She has also written articles about how faith can affect body image and mental health. For her innovative integration of faith and vocation, Kim recently received an award from InterVarsity.

Kim’s work is interesting not just for the inspiring way she connects Christianity and public health, but also for what it teaches about the theology behind health and the body. Some of her recent research demonstrates that Christian messages about body and health are correlated with healthier behavior and a more positive body image.

Religion & Healthy Behavior

Most of Kim’s research had been devoted to studying how religion impacts body weight, dieting, and exercise. Some of her early work showed that in the absence of explicit messages tying religious beliefs to healthy behavior, there is little correlation between faith and health.[1] However, several recent studies by Kim and her colleagues have demonstrated the efficacy of faith-based weight loss programs.[2]

Kim and researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill selected three African American congregations in rural North Carolina. In partnership with pastors and congregation members, the researchers implemented a program headed by lay church leaders and designed to take advantage of the churches’ strong existing social networks. After receiving training and education from professional health workers, lay leaders formed and led eight-week courses on health. Weekly meetings included Bible study, prayer, exercise, and education about health and food. Compared with control groups, the Bible-centered community groups showed significant weight loss over the eight week period. In addition, leaders and participants reported in interviews that they found the faith-based and community-centered aspects of the program to be encouraging and important for social support. They became accustomed to thinking of their struggle to eat healthily and exercise in moral terms and reported seeking sustenance in the Bible and prayer. These attitudes and the community framework reinforced messages about diet and exercise and accompanied significant weight loss during the eight-week period of the study.

Religion & Body Image

Kim has also done some research on mental health and body image. Past empirical studies have confirmed what is probably obvious to most Americans: idealized images of thinness popularized by the entertainment and advertising industries have negative effects on women’s perception of their body image.[3] (Although men can also develop negative body images, the majority of studies focus on women.) As the authors of multiple studies report, women’s negative feelings do not stop with dissatisfaction about their weight or shape but actually reinforce negative feelings about themselves.

One author stated the problem particularly well: “For many women, weight is a quick and concrete barometer by which to measure oneself and one’s worth – how well one is doing as a woman.”[4]

The author of one book even argues the modern world has replaced spiritual attainment with physical beauty such that, instead of suffering to achieve greater piety, we now sacrifice ourselves on the altar of our own idols of beauty.[5]

Hypothesizing that religion may provide an alternative measure of worth, Kim has examined the relationship between religious beliefs and body satisfaction.[6] Her empirical study found a significant relationship between prayer, religious commitment, and “positive religious coping”[7] and greater body satisfaction. Those women with strong faith commitments and practices were more likely to be happy about their bodies and less likely to engage in unhealthy dieting.

Body Image, Health & the Gospel

Kim’s studies confirm that the gospel can – and should – play a crucial role in conversations about physical health and body image. Her published studies show only correlations, but some careful thought reveals that the gospel teaches several important truths about these issues: unhealthy behavior is not merely a failure of discipline; body image is an idol; and the love of Christ provides the best source of strength to overcome these struggles.

First, overeating and lack of exercise are not simply failures of will power, nor is “lack of discipline” the true sin at work here. Kim and Sobal (2004) hypothesize that emphasizing teachings about the body being a temple of the Holy Spirit (I Cor 6:19) may lead to healthier lifestyles when Christians realize that God cares about what they do with their bodies. This is true, but focusing too much on the moral importance of healthy behavior without thinking enough about God may result in a series of rules imbued with moral authority: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” Paul condemned these laws, noting, “Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence” (Col 2:23).

What does have value in restraining sensual indulgence? Paul instructs us that we are to set our minds and our hopes on Christ, putting to death our earthly desires (Col 3:1–5). In practice, the power to overcome these temptations – and they are temptations – lies in a real relationship with God and not in sterile rules. But this real relationship does not come by sitting back and thinking about it; it comes by putting into practice spiritual disciplines such as prayer, meditation, spiritual friendship, and service. We must commit ourselves to God, not to asceticism.

Second, our culture’s fetishization of the ideal body image is just that: idol worship. Idol worship consists of acts of devotion performed for the benefit of some false deity. Christians must stop offering sacrifices to this unholy god. For example, conversations that glorify the body over the rest of the person must cease. People should not measure themselves or their friends by their weight and should stop objectifying others by paying homage only to their outward appearance.

Paul tells us that we need to be careful about what thoughts consume our minds: “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things” (Phl 4:8). Thinking about other things – such as focusing on our own unworthiness in the sight of the world or imagining that we will be happy if only we attain a certain figure – can have powerfully negative effects on our attitudes and spiritual lives. This knowledge should make us more careful about how we spend our money and our time: buying magazines, shopping for clothes, or focusing on advertisements that teach us to glorify the body will likely contribute to our idol worship.

Finally, women and men need to understand that a person’s true worth comes not from beauty but from her position before God. The gospel teaches us that all have sinned; we are all equally broken and nothing we are or do makes us worthy. We are unworthy indeed. Yet we are utterly loved. We have all the acceptance we need in the love of Christ, and this fact gives us strength and confidence in ourselves. We can see both overeating and obsession about body image for what they really are: attempts to achieve satisfaction from something other than God. They will fail. Yet God remains ever-loving.

Kim’s research successfully integrates her faith and her profession and reveals God’s power to change even the most hollow aspects of our culture. The gospel can unwind the lies with which we strangle ourselves, and it gives us the power to change even our most harmful thought patterns and deeply-rooted sins.

Footnotes

[1]Karen Hye-cheon Kim and Jeffery Sobal, “Religion, Social Support, Fat Intake and Physical Activity,” Public Health Nutrition 7 (2004): 773–781; Karen Hye-Cheon Kim et al., “Religion, Social Support, Food-Related Social Support, Diet, Nutrition, and Anthropometrics in Older Adults,” Ecology of Food and Nutrition 47 (2008): 205–228. (The latter study found positive correlations between religious involvement and food-related behaviors only in older women.)

[2]Karen Hye-Cheon Kim et al., “The WORD (Wholeness, Oneness, Righteousness, Deliverance): A Faith-Based Weight-Loss Program Utilizing a Community-Based Participatory Research Approach,” Health Education & Behavior 35 (2008): 634–650.

[3]See, e.g., Lisa M. Groesz, Michael P. Levine, and Sarah K. Murnen, “The Effect of Experimental Presentation of Thin Media Images on Body Satisfaction: A Meta-Analytic Review,” International Journal of Eating Disorders 31 (2002): 1–16.

[4]Ibid., 12 (quoting J. Rodin et al., “Women and Weight: A Normative Discontent” from T.B. Sonderegger (ed.), Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, Vol. 32: Psychology and Gender (Lincoln: Nebraska University Press, 1985): 267–307).

[5]The book is J. J. Brumberg, The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls (New York: Random House, 1997).

[6]Karen Hye-Cheon Kim, “Religion, Body Satisfaction and Dieting,” Appetite 46 (2006): 285–296.

[7]Positive religious coping included methods such as looking for a closer relationship with God in times of trouble.

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