I was a nerd, not a jock, a little flabby but not obese, interested in the brain more than the body, catching my breath after a few flights of stairs, thinking this was the way to live Catholicism. I saw the problem with society’s ideal model: a self-starvation woman with liposuction, plastic surgery, a facelift, make up and airbrushing; a steroid-enhanced man, dehydrated, in a constant state of flexing, and chemically tanned. I rejected that image. I chose to be body-positive. Or did I?
In hindsight, I think I fell into the cultural trap, even in trying to reject it, rather than following a Christian body-positive view.
As a boy I enjoyed sports like anyone else but being uncoordinated, I never really succeeded in them. I was one of the last boys chosen in sports: beyond lacking coordination, I couldn’t do a push-up. What was left for me except walk away and focus on where I could succeed? That was becoming a lazy but moderately successful engineering student. My body seemed like something I just had to drag around so I can do the real work of the mind and the soul.
Joining the seminary, exercising more and understanding my struggle spiritually, didn’t change my basic indifference towards my own body. Certain spiritual elements tended to reinforce this indifference by making the body a mule, or teaching the primacy of the soul. Even when I learned the positive value of the body in philosophy and theology, I didn’t change my practical indifference, almost disgust, towards my own body. Recently, however, two things – one practical and one theoretical – have changed my outlook, make me rethink the current body-positive movement and the way a Christian is positive about their body. I think these two realities I’ve come to understand can help us all better appreciate our bodies and change the way we catechize.
I started working out on my own terms, and actually started to be able to sustain the same speed on cardio longer and lift more weights. Abs, biceps, quadriceps, identifiable muscles, before covered with fat or undeveloped now became identifiable. I don’t have a body that will go on a muscle magazine but looking in the mirror, I actually like the body looking back at me. I felt refreshed from exercise not just struggling through it. More than looks, more than feelings, I appreciate what I can do with this body, which for me means road cycling…….fast. If you follow me closely online, you may notice that along with my constant religious, motivational stuff and news analysis, I occasionally post cycling stuff. This is genuine. Not requiring much coordination, relying on my lower body where I’m naturally stronger, and being something I can do alone on my own schedule means I’m a powerful cyclist. As an example, I’m ranked 2nd out of 242 riders on a road near my home. (Note: this is using Strava, an app that semi-serious to serious cyclists and runners use to turn ever ride/run into a race; I’m good on other segments too but this is my best; I wrote the rough draft with my best ride in 6th then went out to try to get 1st on Monday but missed by 2 seconds.)
I’m satisfied with my body but it doesn’t seem to match an ideal or even a standard measurement. I weigh 240 pounds and have a BMI just over 30, in the obese range. However, pinching myself, I come up with body fat down around 12% or 14%, a healthy, quite athletic range for men (anything under 18-20% is healthy for men and below the 7-11% range is where male ab models or body builders are). Here we can admit the claim of the body-positive movement that people come in different shapes and sizes. One guy in the seminary was 2 inches taller than me but had a build as skinny as a pencil. If he and I weighed the same amount, he would either be fat or I would be anorexic. Professional strongmen and professional marathoners give an example of different shapes. They are both in shape even though the world’s fastest marathoner weighs 128 pounds while the World’s Strongest Man weighs 440 pounds. Based on genetics and training, they accentuate different aspects of human health as a Christian body-positive message should.
Interestingly, the current ideal beach body is generally not healthy. Women starve themselves and get plastic surgery to achieve a perfect hourglass. Men thinking they need steroids and dehydrating themselves to emphasize muscle mass. The body-positive movement often helps people set more realistic goals that create a healthy body over striving for an unreachable, in fact unhealthy, ideal.
Looking not just at positive bodies, we should encourage people to take care of their bodies, by staying in shape and eating well. We should be positive about the various shapes that a healthy body can take. We shouldn’t be positive about people’s unhealthy choices while we should be positive about their natural body shapes. We cannot blame people for their genetics, their shoulder width, their height, their ability to drop fat or add muscle mass. This gives us a world of diversity in shapes and sizes. Nonetheless, we each have a responsibility to take care of our body. A Christian body-positive attitude would include encouraging those who are not taking care of their bodies to do so, to do some form of regular exercise and to eat at least moderately healthy food. This means not requiring kale every meal but avoiding a liter of ice cream and 5 Twinkies every day.
Resurrection of the Body
The first point stated largely on the human plane but at the same time I have been making some spiritual reflections, mainly about the resurrection and the goodness of the body.
Our tendency in American Christianity is to separate soul and body and focus on the soul. We need to help our soul get to heaven and our body is mainly a hindrance having all these desires against our soul’s good. This is unfortunately a Cartesian view contrary to Christianity which held the resurrection of the body from the beginning. In a Cartesian view, we are our soul but we have a body; in a Christian view we are each both soul and body.
This leads to many unfortunate consequences: thinking bodily sins don’t affect our spiritual health, having a pure legalism as our moral framework, focusing our moral life on pure willpower, thinking bodily pleasure is evil in itself, and, the focus of this paper, despising the body. People with a Cartesian view usually think of heaven as freedom from the body but our ultimate destination is not a bodiless heaven but the resurrection of the body. St. Paul affirms our bodily resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:16-17, “For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” Modern philosophy has focused on the physical world alone without reference to the supernatural: Christians realized this was false, choosing to turn away from it, ending unfortunately in denying the physical rather than affirming the goodness of both spiritual and physical. Cartesian philosophy is against the gospel.
As Catholics in the United States, it’s easy to affirm the resurrection of the body in theory but fail to put in the practice. If my body will resurrect, I need to be positive about it and not simply think of it as my slave or mule. If I have my body forever, it’s something great and something I need to take care of. I was in my body does not front my soul but instead grows with my soul: true moral life is virtue, our body acting in conformity with our soul, our passions oriented towards what is good, not an opposition between body and soul, a positive unified view of soul and body.
The resurrection of the body gives the body-positive movement a transcendental dimension. Transforming it from a merely human plane to a supernatural level, alerting it that the body lasts forever. If I go into eternity, body and soul, I should want to have the most wonderful soul and the most wonderful body forever. At the same time, bodies of different natural shapes and sizes have a deep beauty even if they don’t match our current definition of beauty. Beauty standards are constantly changing and eternity defines beauty by being in accord with the best you can be.
The body-positive movement destroys the stereotype of a single form of beauty; it moves us away from the anorexic or steroid-enhanced beauty that our current culture praises. Nonetheless, if taken too far, it discourages people from treating their body properly and healthfully. The Christian view of the body goes beyond this, put into eternity, pray to the resurrection, leading us away from a division between body and soul, towards an eternal vision of our body-soul unity. We should neither critique every person who doesn’t measure up to a certain beauty standard nor praise every person for the body no matter how they take care of it. Instead we should praise all bodies that are well-cared for.