Every day, or nearly so, women and men look in mirrors, step on scales, count calories, and worry about body fat and about their appearance. It happens enough that children as young as four begin to develop anxiety over food, or express fears of being seen in a bathing suit. Even eating healthfully can become an unhealthy obsession. And often enough, people become so desperate to get control over their eating as to spend huge amounts of money on drugs, diet plans, and surgery. Occasionally, the burden of eating, of bodily existence itself, is too much to bear, and people lose their lives to anorexia — the deadliest of all mental illnesses.
So the ‘thinner-and-sexier evolution” series is kind of winding down, as there are (thankfully, I think?) only a limited number of consumer products that have been around long enough so as to be able to undergo some kind of thin-and-sexy transformation. Besides, at this point, it’s kind of "clicked there, browsed that," you know? Especially since every toy/image transformation does some basic variation on the theme of “thin down and sex up.”
Call it the Barbiefication of toys for girls.
Or, you could call it what the American Psychological Association does, which is sexualization. Sexualization, as opposed to healthy sexuality, is defined (by the APA) as any one of the following:
- a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics;
- a person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (narrowly defined) with being sexy;
- a person is sexually objectified — that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making; and/or
- sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person.
“This is my body, broken for you,” Jesus says to us in the central mystery of our faith. “Take and eat.” Eating is an inherently good activity, a channel of God’s goodness.
But in recent decades, this well has been poisoned for huge numbers of people. Anorexia, rare until the 1970s, today affects an estimated 1.5 million people in the United States. Perhaps twice that number have or are recovering from bulimia, a cycle of binge eating and purging (through vomiting or laxatives); millions more have binge eating alone. Up to one in five people with anorexia die from it—the highest death rate of any psychiatric illness. Eating disorders devastate the body, eroding teeth and bones, and stopping kidneys and hearts.
Christians certainly are not immune from eating disorders (they were “everywhere” at evangelical Wheaton College, one alum in recovery reports). But when was the last time you heard eating disorders mentioned in church? The body of Christ has a vocation to speak truth about the deadly idols of this present age, but instead we’ve kept a deafening silence.
Worse, underneath that silence are rubrics that reinforce rather than unravel the problems. You’re damned if you diet (vanity!) and damned if you don’t (gluttony!). Desire (for food or anything else) is blamed on the body, and both are lumped together as potential causes of sin. Old-fashioned sexism or newer libertarianism both give a pass to the hypersexualization and commodification of women.