The Church teaches us that we have dignity and worth regardless of our appearance.
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It’s a terrible thing, but sometimes it feels like being unhappy with your body is practically a prerequisite of adulthood in today’s world. Some 33% of men and 50-70% of women report some level of body dissatisfaction. But there exists a path to healing, alongside the Church and the saints, with help from a new book called Improving Your Body Image through Catholic Teaching.
First, it’s important to make clear that this book, or any book, is no substitute for therapy. If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, body dysmorphia, or any other mental health issues, seek a qualified mental health practitioner for help. You deserve to get the help you need to be happy and mentally healthy.
Instead, the purpose of this book is “to educate and reshape the thoughts we have about our bodies so we can lead more productive and meaningful lives.” The author, John Acquaviva, PhD, is a professor of exercise science at Wingate University.
Acquaviva explains in his preface that years ago he created a college course called “Weight Loss, Weight Gain, and Body Image” at his previous employer, Roanoke College. The class “filled to capacity quicker than any other course,” and in teaching it, he gained deep insight into the pervasive and tragic problem of body image insecurity—and into ways to heal.
This book can help with that healing, either as a supplement to therapy, or on its own if therapy isn’t needed. In particular, the second part of the book is dedicated to short activities to reinforce the book’s message, designed to be worked through in a group setting. This is a valuable resource for small groups of friends or family members to make progress together toward healing their body insecurities.
At its heart, Acquaviva’s message is the heart of the Gospel, but applied to a modern concern. So many of us live with the major fear that “we are worthless to society unless we are young and attractive,” Acquaviva writes. Yet in the face of this insidious idea, “Christ’s message is that we have dignity and worth regardless of our weight, shape, and degree of attractiveness.” It’s a truth worth remembering and reflecting on, again and again.
In a particularly unforgettable scene, Acquaviva recounts how he brought the editor of a women’s magazine as a guest speaker to his class:
She talked to the students about Photoshop, a common software program that most magazine editors use to manipulate just about everything found in a photo … She discussed in detail how editors, including herself, use this basic computer software to whiten teeth, remove veins from the white of the eye, improve imperfect skin, add muscle to a man, and decrease fat on a woman … While models are naturally attractive, she explained, none — at least in the way they appear in magazines — are as perfect as they seem. Her point was that the very models readers desperately aspire to emulate don’t even exist. The class was silent with awe throughout her presentation … But after a few more comments from the editor on this subject, one of the female students, nearly in tears, said: “Why do they do that to us?” With that, I almost cried myself.
Why do they do that to us? It’s a question well worth asking. Countless impressionable young people suffer needlessly because they believe in the distorted reality that the mass media presents.
At the most basic level, they “do that to us” for profit. Telling people that they’re not good enough as they are, but this product will make them better and fix all their problems, is what sells. I often point out advertising to my kids, explaining, “The people who make this are trying to trick us into buying what they’re selling,” and my kids laugh and say “Don’t let them trick you!”
This distorted reality is indeed a trick, a societally sanctioned sleight of hand. But it’s not a funny one. So many of us suffer the miserable side effects of relentlessly being told, “Who you are, as you are, the way God made you, is insufficient.”
Not only does this message cause great unhappiness and dissatisfaction, but it distracts us from our vocations. Acquaviva writes, “Few traits or habits are more effective at hauling us away from God than spending countless hours and emotional energy striving for the perfect body.”
The truth is that God made the body good, and accepting our bodies as God made them helps us fulfill His call for us. Acquaviva quotes St. John Paul II, who wrote, “You must live fully and with a purpose. You must live for God, you must live for others.” It’s not necessary to have a flawless body to be happy, healthy, and (most importantly!) holy.
Accepting ourselves is real work, and hard work for many of us. But self-acceptance frees up our mental space for so many more important things—education, love of neighbor, and love of God. Acquaviva’s book can be a valuable resource in the process.
Social scientist Brené Brown jokes in her viral Netflix special The Call to Courage, “I’m dangerous, I like myself so much!” This is the attitude we want to have. What could we achieve in the world, what could we accomplish with our lives, if we accepted ourselves as God made us and, instead of trying to change our bodies, threw ourselves wholeheartedly into doing His work for the Kingdom?
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