A year ago, Desiring God published my article, “The Epidemic of Male Body Hatred” — I received an insane amount of feedback, stories, testimonies of shame and grace, and revelation. A few months ago, Greg Piken — a pastor at Journey of Faith Church in Manhattan Beach, CA (a beach city run on image-consciousness)— reached out and asked me to do a Q&A with his young adult ministry on the topic. We finally got to it this past Sunday. So, I wrote down my answers to the questions, and I hope you find them helpful.
- I love how you call Christians out on your blog when you say that we all want to be sexy but we never talk about wanting to be sexy. Do you think Christians are ashamed of themselves for wanting to look good?
I have a feeling a lot of my answers will be “Yes and No” — I hope that provides nuance, because the crowd is split in their approach to this quest: those who are truly well outside the culture’s standards for bodily beauty, and those who are well within it.
Are Christians ashamed of themselves for wanting to look good? Yes. The guy in the weight room, the girl in yoga pants, Christians will find a reason to judge them — and they are supplied with church-based resources to hate themselves. We will throw adjectives at them: vain, proud, obsessed with themselves, worldly, inappropriate, probably addicted to pornography. Are Christians ashamed for wanting to be sexy? Yes. Christianity is full of very sticky labels that we are very careless with. I think that our judgment of those who are image-conscious likely comes from our own insecurities about our bodies. Humans are a race of one-uppers, and so if we see a fellow believer who is in much better shape than us, or who is going on a diet, or who is a better dresser than us, or who is trying to physically improve themselves, we just call it a sin issue, and we feel justified and godly for our own insufficiencies for (just) a second.
Are Christians ashamed of themselves for wanting to look good? No. We can play our over-spiritualizing card in both directions. We aren’t ashamed of looking good at all, because we want to be “good stewards” of our bodies. And “Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit.” I saw a Christian bodybuilder once explain why he lifted weights four hours a day and had 7% bodyfat — and he cited 1 Corinthians 6:19: “You bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit.” And I thought, “Really? That’s what the Spirit wants? A muscly, vascular, tanned Miami-beach temple?” So, you asked a psychological question — are we Christians ashamed for wanting to look good? We will find a Christian reason to be both proud and ashamed of our desire to be attractive, depending on which direction our insecurities push the question.
- You mention how some men can develop a subconscious God complex — we want to intimidate our peers, measure up to our fathers, and even portray ourselves as superhuman. How do we know if we have developed that God-complex and what do we do about it?
I like how you say “some guys” — because I think this is a good point to mention that not all guys are driven by an unhealthy self-obsession. I certainly am. I wrote that article for Desiring God, and I was pretty sure they would send it back to me and say “Paul, we love you, but this is too honest and weird and niche.” Not at all. I got a ton of emails from this article, of people telling me their stories, their insecurities.
What does the God-complex look like for men? So many things. When we find ourselves resenting other men who have sexier bodies — I have a friend who is such an attractive man, and there are moments when I absolutely hate him. I don’t want to hang out, because I will only wish I was as jacked and handsome as him. When we find ourselves exercising an inordinate amount. I was once dating a girl, years ago, and she told me she didn’t like my body. I found myself running 3 miles at a time, working out in the gym for hours at a time, 3 or 4 times a day. I was getting knee injuries, shoulder pain, I wasn’t performing at my job, because I was driven to have a body worthy of love. During that season, I was bulimic. I have been surprised to learn over the past year how many twenty-something single guys force themselves to throw up, either during a workout, or late at night, or after a meal. I thought I was super weird, but it’s very common.
What does a God-complex look like? It looks like a collection of subtle self-assuring behaviors. It looks like microscopic mental maneuvers where we position ourselves as better than others. Look for very small, rationalized forms of extreme behavior rooted in insecurity.
What do we do about it? Wow. How do I get over my desire to look like Chris Hemsworth? How do you get over a God-complex? It’s by first coming to terms with what’s beneath your desire for a sexy body — a desire for intimacy. We tell ourselves sometimes, “Oh, I just want to be healthy, that’s why I’m dieting and working out so hard” — that’s BS. There is a big gap between healthy and six pack.
One example that illustrates this mindset is, nowadays it’s popular to say — and I had a friend say to me the other day — “I need to build my platform.” He wants to grow to 100K Twitter followers. Why? He told me, “I need to be self-employed.” Well, why do you want to do that? “So that I can have awesome experiences and build a nice home for my family.” Boom. There you go. There are easier ways of having great experiences, or of building a home, than by getting 100K Twitter followers. There are more direct routes to achieving that, but there is this myth that platform automatically translates into success. So what my friend really wanted was to be safe, secure, and successful.
Our thinking about nice bodies is the same. We just assume that once we get a six pack, people will love us, women will want to be with us, and we will be happier. There is certainly an element of that — and to deny that would be foolish. But the idea that an attractive body will bring us that settled sense of satisfaction that family and friends and God give us is false. If you want to get in shape, great. Do it. That’s awesome. But if you assume that you need to look like Thor to be loved, this is a great opportunity to examine and trash that way of thinking. And I think we’ll get a bit into how exactly to shed that belief when we start talking about other men, women, and God.
- To see another guy and think, “He’s bigger, stronger, cooler, funnier, and more attractive than I am” is a common experience for guys, but not something that we talk about very openly because that’s not seen as a masculine thing to do. As Christian guys, how do we encourage one another in a way that doesn’t feel weird or forced?
In two ways. First, look at the older mentors you respect. I’m telling you, of the two men I respect more than anyone in the world — one is 300 pounds, and one is 5’5”. And never have I ever judged them or thought less of them. But that’s not because I’m charitable. It’s because when these older guys invested in my life, I just had an immediate respect for them — actually, their lack of physical pretension was a bit disarming. They were smart, kind, giving, inviting, non-competitive. I never once snickered about their weight or height. I met another guy recently who is a big hero of mine — a pastor — and he’s like 50 pounds heavier than I thought he would be. But it didn’t even register for me, because I look up to this guy so much. But we apply a much more rigorous set of criteria to ourselves. If we start balding, we think we’re ugly and no one will ever love us. We don’t think, “Tim Keller’s bald, and we all love Keller.” We just think, “I look like a troll. That’s it. My shot at marriage is over.”
Think about Keller for a second. Or John Piper, even. There had to be a time when Tim Keller was going bald and just thought, “Ugh, oh no. I’m going bald. Everyone is going to think I’m weird and make fun of me because I’m bald. No man will respect me. No woman will think I’m attractive.” But if any of us were to meet him today, what would we think? We respect the guy because of who he is. First of all, he’s Tim Keller. And second of all, because of his position in Christ, he doesn’t have to do the mental gymnastics of self-assurance. Both his position in Christ, and the natural psychology of human relationships, testify against the voices that accuse for what our culture perceives as physical imperfection. And we have to remember that that’s how other people view us as well. You don’t have to be Tim Keller to assume that other people appreciate what’s really beautiful about you as a person.
Second, we as men need to practice speaking out loud to one another these values. You asked, “How do we do this in a way that isn’t weird or forced?” I don’t think I can answer that question. I have had several guys come up to me this month and out of nowhere, tell me that they appreciate me, and that they love me. I guarantee you that that was a nervous and weird moment for them. But it made my whole day. It just squashed my self-hate, even for a few hours, in a way that no podcast or self-help or positive thinking book could ever do. So, be weird, and be forced, do things that make you nervous and by all means do things that make you seem unmasculine, if those things are speaking out loud to your brothers those values which makes them great — and if you really think about it, their body isn’t going to make the list most of the time.
Be a safe, non-competitive place for other men. And try, as hard as it is, try to receive those positive affirmations when other men express their appreciation to you. Put their appreciations in the bank.
- I think a lot of women are surprised to hear that men also struggle with body image issues because their struggles often get more press. What should the women in here be aware of when it comes to how they interact with us and how that contributes to a man’s self-worth?
About half of the emails I received after this article were from women saying “I didn’t even know this about my brother/boyfriend/husband, but they tell me it’s true.”
I need a lot of grace for this answer. A lot.I don’t really have the credibility or the depth of thought to answer this question sufficiently. So, I’ll make one point that I think may sound rather harsh — but, please give me grace.
On thing girls can do is stop making fun of men.
Girls get away with the whole “He’s so hot, look at his abs, he’s so ripped.” They get away with it, and they get away with doing it in front of other guys.
And they also shut down their guy-friends by saying “I wouldn’t go out with him. I don’t find him attractive.” Whereas, a guy wouldn’t necessarily get away with saying something like that. It’s easy for girls to bash on guys’ self-images, because they think that guys don’t have self-image issues. Think about it the other way around. If you were interested in a guy and you found out he said to his friends, “Yeah, if she lost 20 pounds, maybe.” You’d be crushed, and you’d totally hate the guy (and you’d be justified in a degree of anger and frustration). So, first of all, remember that body-hatred (and self-hatred in general) is not a female issue, but a human issue.
And, while our culture definitely puts heavier standards of beauty on women, that pressure is rapidly increasing for guys — look at the whole metrosexual, spornosexual, lumbersexual fads — men are expected increasingly to have certain popular methods of grooming, body-sculpting, and even the ability to grow facial hair. I know women who have rejected men — or who have mocked male prospects — for not being able to grow a full beard. Like, get over yourself. You don’t deserve a guy who can grow a full beard and more than a guy deserves a girl with a size 2 waist.
Girls also make fun of guys a lot for doing guy stuff — like working out at the gym together, or trying a diet thing like Paleo. But girls have girl stuff, too. They go out to brunch and wear fun dresses. Girls have their own routine and are so much more individual, I think because they have a more evolved and adapted self-conscious insecurity. So, whenever you’re tempted to throw a guy under the bus under the umbrella of “He’s such a bro,” … don’t.
Assume that each man is defined more by his belovedness by God than by his personality features which you find unlovely.
- At the end of the day, I know that no one ever puts me down as I much as I put myself down. How do you replace your own view of yourself with God’s view of yourself?
This is probably the hardest, and the most simple answer. If you’re doing everything above — you know yourself, you know your insecurities, you’re accepting the positive things others say about you, just fearleslly accept the voices that make you feel closest to God. If reading a certain author, or listening to a certain preacher, makes you feel dry and empty and overwhelmed by self-hatred in a way that does not produce the godly fruit of repentance, look somewhere else. Don’t let anyone tell you what you need to think, or that you need to hate yourself more, or that you could use a good dose of body-hatred. It’s totally false. It’s 100% false.
Look at others in your life — your parents, your mentors, your peers, that homeless guy on the street — and ask yourself, “What does Jesus Christ think of these people?” Of course, he loves them. Of course, we know he has an overwhelming desire for them to enjoy his intimate acceptance and joy. Allow yourself to be counted among the flock of God. Include yourself in that group of people. He loves you. Never give up on trying to believe that, no matter how hard that is. It might seem impossible some days, some weeks. It’s exhausting to believe God’s unconditional love and acceptance sometimes. God created all body types. God created all walks of life. And you are not less lovely or less on track than Tim Tebow. Strive to believe that, and there is joy waiting for all of us somewhere in that wrestling.