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Women's bodies and the body of Christ

by Collette Broady Grund

Collette Broady Grund girlsWe’ve seen a lot of conversation here and on Facebook about bodies, how we view them, what we say about them and what Jesus has to do with it. It’s been intense, painful for some, invigorating for others. It’s been a good reminder to me that words matter, especially for people of faith. And how we need to be careful as we choose them. My two teenage stepdaughters and I offer the following reflection about the experience of inhabiting woman-bodies in a culture that shames us and how God meets us in that mess.

My own body

I was a late bloomer, flat-chested and without curves into my college years. When my girlfriends in junior high began to talk about hating themselves, it surprised me.  How could a person hate their own self?

I was lucky to have parents who were intentional about connecting my self-esteem to my identity as a child of God. They reminded me that they loved me, and God loved me, without regard for my looks, my behavior or my abilities. They told me with words and by example that I was beloved exactly as I was, and I believed them.

For the most part.

While I never doubted that my body was good and worthy of being called beautiful, the Christian culture in which I was raised made me suspicious of my body’s urges, especially toward sexual activity. While sex was a gift from God, it was not to be enjoyed outside of marriage. I signed at least one virginity pledge before I ever had a serious boyfriend.

This view of sexuality—with everything outside of marriage being sinful and everything within being holy—caused me anxiety in my early 20s. I wrestled with boundaries in two significant relationships, the second of whom became my first husband.

While my training assured me that everything should be black and white for a person who prayed as much as I did, my experience felt like an unwinnable war between my body and my spirit. It took me years to reconstruct a view of sexuality that brought those two parts together in a way that felt faithful.

And while I found partners in that work among my seminary classmates and closest friends, I wish I’d been able to process those struggles with my family and the church that raised me since it originated there.

A family of womanly bodies

In my new marriage, I am lucky to have two stepdaughters who are in that perilous and rich space between girl and woman. They are 12 and 15 and as different as can be. Cameron, the oldest, is tall and thin and an amazing athlete. She’s in 9th grade, but she’s been swimming with the high school team for two years. And though her body is what others might aspire to have, she has ambivalent feelings about it.

Most of the conversation between Cameron and her friends about bodies is negative, she says. Every girl tells the others how lucky they are to have the height or shape or features they do. Yet each one refuses to accept the compliments they receive. And while Cameron's family tells her that her body is a temple, she finds it hard to see for herself.

When I asked her about the times she feels best about her body, she talked about putting on her speed suit before a big meet, a process that can sometimes take an hour. These suits are tight and sleek from neck to knee. With the suit compressing her, swim cap and googles on, the locker room mirror reflects back an image of power and strength. Cameron has had the same body positive experience when watching videos of herself swimming or rock climbing, when for a moment she is able to see herself from the outside.

“It makes me sad sometimes,” she said, “that you don’t get to see yourself like others do. You know what you look like to yourself, but other people see you differently.” She paused, then said, “You should talk to Kendall, she’s good at this.”

Kendall is 12, and while she is tall like Cameron, she’s built differently. “I’ve never been tiny” is how she describes herself. And that’s not easy. She’s usually the tallest person in her class, male or female, and stronger than most of them too. 

While she admits wrestling with that when she was younger, she doesn’t let it bother her now. “I’m me, and they’re them. And if they say they’re ugly or fat or whatever, I just say ‘no, you’re not, you’re beautiful the way you are.’”

Not all 6th-grade girls are like this, of course, but Kendall surrounds herself with friends who are positive. Like Cameron, she credits her mom with helping her to love herself the way she is.

“Your body is like a phone case,” she said. “The case makes it pretty. The phone, what’s inside the case, is the important part.”

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The God’s-eye view

Both girls are clear that God loves everyone just as she or he is. “Beauty in God’s eyes isn’t about what’s on the outside,” Cameron said, “it’s what’s in your heart.”

Kendall agrees. “God is God, everyone’s best friend. God doesn’t care what you look like, God cares about your personality.”

Cameron said she sometimes thinks about what’s appropriate to wear to church. But both girls experience the church as a place that reminds them of God’s love and acceptance. Kendall thought it would be “really weird” to hear any body-shaming language from the church.

It’s part of my job as their pastor/stepmom to ensure the church continues to be that for them. I try to talk about the bodies that God has given us, which are as different as our spiritual gifts. Both are equally loved and needed in the body of Christ.

It’s the job of the people of God to live into that phrase from Paul, often quoted to the girls by their mother, which tells us our bodies are “temples of the Holy Spirit.”

I love how The Message interprets this: “Or didn’t you realize that your body is a sacred place, the place of the Holy Spirit? Don’t you see that you can’t live however you please, squandering what God paid such a high price for? The physical part of you is not some piece of property belonging to the spiritual part of you. God owns the whole works. So let people see God in and through your body.” (I Corinthians 6:19-20)

When we speak about all bodies as beloved dwelling places of God’s spirit, we begin to care deeply about harm to those bodies, both physical and spiritual. We are called to care for bodies that have too little food and water, bodies wracked by preventable disease, bodies bought and sold for other people’s depraved pleasure.

The work of loving bodies, both our own and others, is the work of God: feeding, healing, protecting and nurturing. What more important work could we be doing?

Rev. Collette Broady Grund lives in Mankato, Minnesota, with her charming husband, two smart and strong teenage girls, and two rascally 6-year-old boys. She serves Bethlehem Lutheran Church where she helps children discover the depth of God’s love for them.

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Photo of Cameron and Kendall courtesy of Collette Broady Grund