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Body image burden

Obsession with perfection takes a toll on health

By Christina Quick

Last September, Heidi Montag announced to the readers of Us Weekly that she had undergone plastic surgery.

The 21-year-old reality television celebrity told the magazine that she got breast implants and a nose job because she had “always been very insecure” about her body.

Montag confessed she was nervous about having surgery, but suggested death was a price she was willing to pay for bigger breasts.

“Right before I went in, I was like, ‘What if I don’t wake up? Oh, this is scary,’ ” she said in the interview. “Then I thought, ‘I don’t care. If I don’t wake up, it’s worth it.’ I just wanted it so badly.”

The magazine’s cover featured a smiling Montag in a low-cut top, showing off her enhanced chest.

Montag’s example illustrates the obsession with physical appearance that permeates today’s culture.

“We are completely self-focused,” says Constance Rhodes, author of Life Inside the “Thin” Cage and founder of Finding Balance, a Christian ministry that promotes eating disorder awareness.

“We’re constantly seeing images of ideals that are unattainable for the most part,” Rhodes says. “But the pursuit of physical perfection doesn’t bring peace. In fact, the more you strive for it, the less at peace you are.”

Rhodes should know. As a teen, she considered her naturally thin build her best quality. During her first year in college she developed an eating disorder, triggered by anxiety about gaining 15 pounds.

“My obsession with being a particular weight began to impact my health,” Rhodes says. “I was tired, cranky and isolated. I finally came to a point where I realized if I was so busy basically worshipping my body and thinking about me then I couldn’t grow relationally and spiritually.”

Rhodes, who ministers in churches and has developed programs for Women of Faith conferences, says Christians aren’t immune to debilitating body insecurities.

“This is the biggest secret in the church,” Rhodes says. “Pornography and other subjects that were once taboo are now being discussed. Yet body image issues, including eating-related problems, are something almost every woman struggles with to some degree and almost no one talks about.”

Surveys reveal at least 56 percent of American females dislike their bodies, according to Brigham and Women’s Hospital, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School. Other experts estimate a much higher percentage.

Those who constantly critique their bodies and examine themselves in mirrors are at a higher risk for eating disorders, according to a study conducted at Ohio State University.

“Women who do this tend to ignore their internal feelings and emotions and concentrate on their outward appearance,” says Tracy Tylka, the study’s author. “They think of their bodies as objects.”

Women aren’t the only ones prone to obsess over their physical appearance.

“Surprisingly, men are becoming increasingly preoccupied with their body image,” says John Sargent, professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

Anabolic steroid abuse, once associated almost exclusively with athletes and body builders, is now cropping up among adolescents and men determined to look like the pumped-up models they see in magazine ads.

An increasing number of males are also developing eating disorders. Leigh Cohn, co-author of Making Weight, believes such disorders afflict about 2 percent of men versus 4 to 5 percent of women.

“It’s hard to know because men have been so reluctant to seek treatment,” Cohn told the Associated Press. “And men, in many cases, are unaware that they have an eating disorder. For example, they may exercise obsessively and just think that’s regular guy exercise behavior.”

Rhodes says the desire for perfection is misplaced when it is focused on physical qualities.

“There’s something innate in our humanity that is projecting us toward perfection,” she says. “But the real problem is our spiritual condition. We should be drawn toward holiness, being perfect before God. Yet it’s easier sometimes to focus on the perfection of our outward bodies.”

Rhodes says television shows like Extreme Makeover present the idea that physical perfection is easy, necessary and the key to happiness. She says follow-up episodes should be shown five years down the road to see the impact of what took place.

“Did that person’s breast enlargement truly enhance her marriage?” Rhodes asks. “Did it make her happy? My guess is it was a momentary fix, something to get excited about. Then they get back into real life and realize they’re still the same person.”

When Rhodes shares her testimony, she emphasizes her life changed when she stopped trying to impress others and started living to please God.

“That’s not to say I don’t still struggle with body image,” she says. “It’s hard to detach your identity from your body because that’s how you present yourself to the world. But we shouldn’t let that define who we are. We should be defined by our relationship with God, the only thing that truly makes us complete.”


CHRISTINA QUICK is staff writer for Today’s Pentecostal Evangel and blogs at cquick.agblogger.org.

E-mail your comments to tpe@ag.org.

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