Body Bashing

by Carmen Renee Berry

"Don't tell me," Carl's angry voice cut through Terri like a knife, "you've got another one of your headaches. At least come up with something original!" Terri's fingers massaged her pounding temples as tears of frustrated pain came to her eyes. "Oh Carl. Please. . ." "Don't patronize me," he snarled, snatching his pillow. "I can't stand sleeping next to you another night." Terri watched her husband disappear into the hall as she cried, "Why do I get these headaches whenever he makes love to me?" Her head throbbed and her heart ached. "What is wrong with me?"

headache.jpgWe all long to be loved and accepted completely. Too few of us, unfortunately, feel loved in our entirety. Since we are spiritual beings, no human being can fully satisfy our needs. We need to experience acceptance from God. And, since we are physical beings, this acceptance must include our bodies. . . our entire bodies.

Religious Body Bashing

Unfortunately, few of us feel fully accepted. Rather than feeling wholly loved, we may be splintered by assaults on our bodies, feelings and spirits. While all forms of abuse are hostile to the body, I am stunned by the many Christian writers who are outspoken and unyielding opponents of the body. In toxic religious circles, this attitude is common, and rarely subtle, as spirit is unabashedly separated from and elevated above the body.

While "splitting" a person into two competing parts may be touted as a religious virtue, psychological studies illustrate that the process of splitting is an extreme, self-mutilating response to an intolerably painful or threatening experience. ". . .In situations of acute bodily terror, the psychic sense of 'being' can be protected by seeming to be separated from the physical body. This preserves the sense of 'being' and guards against the dread of 'not being.' . . .In very insecure children. . . the psyche and the soma have seemed to be split apart."1

Without the all-encompassing love of a personal God, we can become "insecure children" indeed. Both our bodies and our spirits suffer:

Our bodies suffer because spiritually wounded people are almost always at odds with their bodies. In his sermon, "To Celebrate the Self," Alexander LaBrecque observed, "A lot of us have been taught theologically that to think badly of ourselves is a spiritual thing to do. . .In some quarters of the Christian church, a test of orthodoxy is how badly one thinks of humanity."2 When the body is separated from the spirit, the body either becomes overly eroticized (all touch becomes sexual touch) or the body becomes especially shameful, dangerous or even evil. As a result, various forms of sexual alienation are common among spiritually wounded people. Some have difficulty being sexually intimate with their marital partner because of body-based shame. Others seem to think of inappropriate sexual activity as the only "real sin" a Christian can commit.

God as Cosmic Shamer

Our spirits also suffer because, as spirit is split off from body, many of us develop a distorted view of God - as body hater, rigid judge, cosmic shamer. Afraid of a God who hates our bodies, we may take pride in a spirituality "above" flesh-and-blood concerns, ignoring our physical needs for rest, nutrition or sexual intimacy. Others may relate to God as an Absent Parent, who hovers over the world as spirit but has no tangible impact on our lives.3 Many have wondered, "Where was God while I was being hurt? Is God concerned about what happens to me in the 'real' world?" Losing faith in a God who cares about our physical well-being, we can feel isolated, unprotected, and alone.

We don't need to separate ourselves from ourselves in order to be safe. Spiritually, many of us are like children hiding in a corner with eyes closed, pretending no one can see us. Healing begins when we open our eyes and look into the loving eyes of our Higher Power. Within the intimacy of this personal relationship, we can experience acceptance of our whole selves.

Body Messages

Our bodies can be included in our spiritual journeys. As creations of God, our bodies are designed to respond to divine communication. For example, we are warned of excess stress through back pain and head aches. We are guided to trustworthy people through relaxed body posture, or informed of danger through sweaty palms or shortness of breath. We are called to rest through droopy eye lids, and energized to play through an excited pulse. Our desire for intimacy is supported through passion and sexual desire.

Both Terri and Carl, like many of us, need to know that their bodies are good gifts from God. God communicates our specialness through delicate blood cells coursing through your veins, muscle tension in your shoulders, sexual longings, the beating of your heart, each breath you take into you lungs. It's as clear as the nose on your face. . .you are loved, every part of you.

1. Tustin, Frances, The Protective Shell in Children and Adults (New York: Karnac Books, 1990), 39.

2. LeBrecque, Alex, "To Celebrate the Self," Sermon delivered October, 1992, Pasadena, California.

3. Berry, Carmen Renee and Mark Lloyd Taylor, Loving Yourself As Your Neighbor (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1990).

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Go to Carmen Berry's Articles in STEPS Magazine.