Michelle Graham: Imperfect reflections

IV - Imperfect reflections

When you look in the mirror, what do you see? If the reality of your reflected image doesn’t match your ideal, does it cause a chain reaction of disappointment, guilt or compensating behavior? Your personal perception of your physical appearance, your body image, deeply affects who you are and how you live. How can you love the image in your mirror?

Body image issues are complicated. We are bombarded with messages about our bodies from our culture, media, family and friends. But the strongest messages come from our very selves, and those may be most confusing of all! No wonder we have distorted images of who we really are and how we appear to others. Michelle Graham shares her journey toward a more positive body image and her deeper relationship with God in the process. She is the author of Wanting to Be Her: Body Image Secrets Victoria Won’t Tell You (InterVarsity Press).

StudentSoul.org: Michelle, how did this issue of body image first grab you? When you look in the mirror, what are some of the conflicts that surface for you?

Michelle: My personal struggles with body image go back as far as I can remember. From my childhood with Barbie dolls and through junior high, I learned to compare myself to other girls. By high school I was convinced that I didn’t have a boyfriend because of my appearance. My insecurities followed me right through college and into marriage. The list was long — from my body size and shape, to limp and lifeless hair, to nearly invisible blonde eyelashes. I won’t go on. I thought my issues would eventually resolve themselves, but each new phase of life brought a new dynamic to the struggle.

StudentSoul.org: So you still find yourself regularly disappointed with certain features of your body. What helps you the most to overcome your negative feelings about how you look?

Michelle: I’m amazed at the power that scripture can have over something I often feel powerless toward, like my feelings of frustration with my body. I meditate on key verses like Galatians 1:10: “Am I now trying to win human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.” When my insecurities come up, I find that remembering scripture helps my heart align with the truth and dispels the lies I’m tempted to believe.

StudentSoul.org: In your book you talk about “the lie we buy.” What is that? How do you define it?

Michelle: “The lie we buy” is that our value as women is directly proportional to our physical attractiveness. Then we measure that attractiveness against all kinds of measuring sticks. But we’re convinced that whatever it is that we are really craving — such as feeling loved, respected, appreciated or successful — will be ours if we can be seen as attractive. Many women who feel their deeper needs aren’t being met are convinced that maybe the reason has to do with their lack of physical attractiveness.

But then I talk to women who seem to fit the mold of perfect beauty and yet there is always something that they still don’t like about themselves. They are beautiful, yes, but never perfect enough. Then these women wonder, “Is this all that is valuable about me?” So we all fail to measure up and then we buy the lie that our value as human beings, as women, is derived from our physical attractiveness.

StudentSoul.org: Does it seem to you that we are all unhappy, in some way, with our bodies? If so, how do we develop contentment with who we are?

Michelle: We’re all seeking contentment with our body image and how we look. The problem is that when we chase after beauty as a way to feel content, we’re never going to get what we are craving. This is partly because the images we chase often aren’t achievable — the air-brushed images in the media aren’t real. Living to win the approval of others is never-ending. And our bodies just deteriorate anyway so it’s a losing battle. So we are all seeking contentment, but finding the wrong way to get there.

What scripture says is that contentment comes through a relationship with the Lord. It’s a spiritual journey and it’s completely unrelated to appearances. If I can get to a place where I care more about what God thinks of me than what people think of me, then I’ve gone a long way towards experiencing contentment because it is based on something that doesn’t change. I know that the way God feels about me is not going to change and I can rest in that. It doesn’t depend on what happens to me today, or the choices I make today, or what I look like today. I can rest in him. So the swirling of life that goes on around me may be changing, scary or uncontrollable, but the way God feels about me is unchanging, and I can find contentment there. He is trustworthy.

StudentSoul.org: Do you find that it’s difficult to rest in God when the voices of self-criticism are so strong?

Michelle: Oh, definitely. That’s why those voices of self-criticism have to be examined closely. I think it’s important to take an inventory of the formative years of your life, especially adolescence. Where have the strongest messages about your body come from? It’s easy to point to the media as “the bad guy” by shaping what we think about beauty. But I would guess that most of us could name a relationship or two with someone who has most shaped the way we view ourselves. It might be your father’s comment when you were in junior high school, or your mother who was obsessed with her weight (and yours), or your peers in high school. It’s those close relationships that have marked us the most.

If you can identify some of the personal sources of those messages you have embraced about your body, then you can start to process them. Ask yourself, Why have I believed that? How has that affected me? This can be a powerful tool to identify where the negative message comes from. Then you can examine it in the light of what God’s word says is true — and make a choice. Why have I believed this over what God has said to me? Wrestle with it. This may be a long process, but it can be powerful.

StudentSoul.org: Your book is written for a female audience. Do you see similar struggles among guys?

Michelle: It is a mistake to think this is only a women’s issue. Body image problems are on the rise among men, with 45 percent of males reporting being dissatisfied with their bodies. Eating disorders are becoming more common for guys — especially among athletes. There is even a new disorder for men called “megarexia,” an obsession with bulking up at the gym. Just one look at a Soloflex ad can send some guys into a tailspin.

But the reality is that the world has a different standard for women than for men. Some of this is created by women and their need to play the comparison game. Some of this is created by men and their perceptions of what makes a woman acceptable. Regardless, most women I know have been deeply wounded by the body image game. But I don’t see this being talked about among Christian women. We don’t see that this has anything to do with our relationship with Jesus, and we don’t make use of a community that understands and will walk with us through it. For women, the body image struggle is like the air we breathe: intricately part of daily life, but we’re usually unaware of its presence. That’s why I wrote the book for a female audience.

StudentSoul.org: What do men need to understand about how intensely personal this struggle is for women?

Michelle: Men need to know that a struggle with body image is not about superficiality. This is a deep wound women carry that is linked to our hunger for love and our desire to feel accepted.

Often men may be contributing to the problem without even realizing it. Even the “harmless” comments about a woman’s appearance, or about images in the media, can cut a girl to the heart. She’s probably thinking, “Do I measure up? Am I acceptable?” I can still remember a comment my husband made to his buddies when we were dating about which celebrity he found most attractive (a comment he had quickly forgotten). It was years before I could see that woman’s image without feeling inferior and insecure.

StudentSoul.org: Do you find body image issues are difficult for men and women to talk about openly with each other?

Michelle: Definitely! Sometimes guys feel that no matter what they say, they are going to get into trouble. As difficult as it may be to navigate this touchy subject, silence is not helpful. Women will fill this in with assumed messages of doubt and disapproval. Guys can work to affirm the women they know. They can talk about the things which radiate from a Christ-like character to make those women truly beautiful. All women need men in their lives who will reinforce God’s truth about them — that they are valuable for who they are, not what they look like.

StudentSoul.org: What do you tell the person who says, “Well, I know God loves me and I know God created my body as good, but I have done bad things to my body — where do I go from here?”

Michelle: That is a really valid question. We can acknowledge that what God originally intended for our bodies was good, but we do all sorts of damaging things to our bodies. Maybe you’ve gained a lot of weight since you got to campus, or you struggle with an eating disorder or cutting or whatever. Feeling rotten about yourself comes from guilt and shame that you screwed up — and then you feel worthless. So if there is no turning back, then why even bother? Why try playing the game of beauty if you’ve tried and know you can’t win?

The key lesson here is the issue of grace. I think God would say, “You are still lovable. I love you no matter what you have done to your body and there is grace for you. Let’s start fresh today by taking good care of the gift I gave you.” What are one or two good things you can do for your body today as a way of saying “thank you” to the Lord for making you? God doesn’t expect you to drop thirty pounds in a week so he can say, “Now you’re okay again.” It’s a choice to accept the grace he has for you and the grace that should be given to you by other people (whether they give it to you or not) and to live as though grace exists for you.

When you do that, then you can start fresh today, even though you may have really messed up your body by making terrible choices. Start making good healthy choices to take care of your body and be thankful for it, knowing that God made you and he is pleased with you. I think you’ll be happier with what you see in the mirror.

See the related article, Body image and Bible study at UT–Pan American.