The Pope’s recent remarks about the obsession with having the perfect body were intended as a commentary on the rejection by some of the dignity and quality of life of the disabled. I will be writing more on that topic tomorrow. Today, however, permit me some musings on the obsession that many of us have with achieving the perfect body ourselves.
Let me start by saying (with all the good humor I can summon) that I do not have a perfect body. In fact, I have become increasingly dissatisfied with my appearance over the years as I gain weight, lose hair, and watch the gray eclipse the dark brown of what hair I do have left. Fatigue and sore joints are also increasingly my lot.
Yes, I am well aware that my body is far from perfect and is steadily “heading south.” Like many of you, I do my fair share of exercising, watching what I eat, etc. But trying to be something that I am not (a 21-year-old with a 28-inch waist and dark rich hair) is increasingly a losing battle. The fact is, I look just like my father, who looked just like his father. Genetics, body type, and age tend to win, and the energy required to try to overcome these is increasingly disproportionate to the results and to my other duties.
I do want to say that I love being 55. I would never want to be 25 again; I have learned too much in those 30 years. God has done important work in my spiritual life during that time—thank you, Lord! Spiritually, I am now younger, more confident, and stronger, even as my body ages—thank you, Lord. And Lord, please spare me from the obsession with having the perfect body.
Our culture’s obsession with the perfect body has terrible effects upon those who are younger as well. There are many young women today whom I regard as quite beautiful, who nevertheless struggle with low self-image; they are extremely anxious about any perceived imperfection in their hair, complexion, or body shape, no matter how minor. In our hyper-sexualized and visual culture, ordinary women often compare themselves unfavorably to famous women, many of whom look the way they do by spending thousands of dollars and countless hours on personal trainers, makeup specialists, and cosmetic surgery. And with the pervasiveness of photo-editing software, many women today are actually competing with the images of women who don’t even exist; they are “Photoshopped” (see video below).
Men are not immune to this either. Most men care more about their appearance than they will admit. I remember being obsessed for years with the gap between my two front teeth. It made it awkward for me to smile and I was very self-conscious about it. And yet when I asked people about it or admitted my embarrassment, most told me that they hadn’t even noticed it. Weight gain is now my primary irritant. My slash-and-burn Lenten diet merited only a 10 lb. loss, which stopped midway through Lent. A few extra laps around the park just doesn’t seem to do the trick anymore.
At the end of the day, the older body just seems designed to carry extra weight. We should ask the Lord for the proper balance in order to legitimately moderate our caloric intake and to watch our health without the preoccupation with the perfect body.
Part of the obsession for the perfect body is a result of our culture’s preoccupation with youth. Healthier cultures esteem the wisdom of age and look to elders for answers, but ours disdains its older members as “old,” “out-of-touch,” and with little to offer. Meanwhile, the young are considered “hip” and “relevant,” and are presented as the ones who really know what is going on and whose views are both glamorous and cutting edge. Young = good, old = bad.
Thus, younger bodies have become the image of perfection. And even when we leave youth behind, we are still obsessed with looking young. If we don’t, we are perceived as having “lost our edge.” Never mind that we may have reached the peak of our life intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, professionally, etc. If you don’t look young, you’re no good; you’re washed up. This is a foolish preoccupation with mere externals that dismisses the hoary crown of wisdom. Older bodies are rounder, grayer, and less agile. But perhaps God intends this, as we hopefully become more graceful, wise, and mindful in our walk, and as our personality becomes more “well-rounded.”
I have often mused that God built in a certain protection for us as we grow older: as we age and become “less attractive,” our eyesight worsens so that we don’t notice it so much! But then we go ahead and cancel that out by putting on glasses J. With corrective lenses, our artificially “young” eyes can’t bear the sight of our actually older bodies.
These are just some of my thoughts on today’s obsession with having the perfect body.
Help us, Lord! Keep us grateful for what you are doing in our souls even if our bodies are “heading south.” Help us to remember that every passing day here puts us one day closer to being with you. Keep us faithful so that we do not fear aging or the reminder of approaching death it may bring. One day, Lord, we will be in your presence, forever young before you, the Ancient of Days.