Our bodies are an integral part of us; the parts work in specific ways in order to function as a whole. We know that our heart is for beating and pumping blood; our lungs are for breathing; our skin keeps everything inside. But as a whole, what is the purpose of our bodies? This is a question that we generally do not think about; we think only about what each part does, if we even think about it at all. Sally McGraw, author of the book and website Already Pretty, was stumped by this question. When asked what women think their bodies are for, she replied “I don’t know!” After giving it some thought, she went on to say that she thinks “it varies quite a bit from woman to woman. Many mothers have an appreciation for what their bodies can do, many athletes love the mechanics and logic of their bodies, many young women value their bodies as tools of attraction, many older women just want to work with what they've got.” What was key, though, was that she said “the common thread would be that most women believe their bodies are for display, though many of them resent it.” Many times, women will feel as if they are a piece of meat. Often, our bodies help to shape our identities. People are thought of as skinny, fat, tall, short, whatever. Tall people are identified as potential basketball players, small people may be thought of as gymnasts. Culture judges based on people’s bodies, and in some instances it is seen ok to comment on bodies while in others it is not. We can say “wow; he’s a big guy” to a male who is built like an NFL player, but that we couldn't say that to a woman. Likewise, it often is culturally appropriate to comment on a pregnant woman’s changing body, but we wouldn't comment on a man who may have obviously eaten more than his share at the buffet.
Unfortunately, this focus that our society has on bodies can result in women not only generally being unhappy with how they look, but they then become prone to eating disorders. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, 91% of female college students have attempted to control their weight through dieting. Eating disorders are a very real problem in our culture.
It seems that we just don’t know what to do with our bodies, and I suspect that is because we don’t really understand their purpose as a whole.
As McGraw noted, most women believe their bodies are on display, and generally, the advice given to Christian females is to “be modest”, or to “avoid attention”. This typically is based on a verse from 1 Peter: "Do not adorn yourselves outwardly by braiding your hair, and by wearing gold ornaments or fine clothing; rather, let your adornment be the inner self with the lasting beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in God's sight." (1 Peter 3:3-4).
Women are often told to dress modestly in order that they don’t cause their Christian brothers to sin by causing them to lust after the women. Men are not warned in the same way and this is often because women’s bodies are portrayed as more sexual in nature. However, there is a broad range of what modesty may mean, and so the admonition to “be modest” is generally unhelpful. In Rachel Held Evans’ newly released book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, she spends one month exploring what it means to be modest from a Biblical perspective, and realizes that “women from a variety of religious groups claim biblical modesty as their standard of dress, and yet none of them dress exactly the same” (123-124). Modesty often tends to be about being covered up, but if that were the case, then we should just all walk around in bathrobes. I can’t think of anything more covered up than that.