Bearer of His Image: Beauty in the Body
It’s consuming our culture: the war between toxic self-deprecation and self-glorification. Despite the trend of cultural movements that emphasize body positivity, there are moments when the person you see in the mirror is the last person you want to see. At the heart of this discussion is the fact that we are dissatisfied with our design. We disagree with the hair on our heads and the clothes that we wear and begin to suppose that maybe we should not be this way at all; maybe how we were made was an error in creation, a mistake.
In competition with these internalized doubts, many different forces of both secular and religious perspectives have united under the belief that the human body has inherent value, and that this value is an absolute truth, regardless of circumstance.
Social movements which champion this idea of self-esteem have become increasingly prevalent, with the most recent wave beginning in the 1990s. They attempt to reclaim the negative concept of self-image by encouraging people to not only accept their individual bodies, but to love them, regardless of their differences from a supposed norm. The most current example of these social movements is the Body Positive movement, which was started when social workers Connie Sobczak and Elizabeth Scott wanted to prevent loss caused by erroneous self-image.¹ These movements wage war against pessimism and reframe our conception of “handsome” or “beautiful.”
However, the Body Positive movement was not the first to champion this idea. It is saying something much more profound than we realize and something that has been declared from the foundation of the world: the human body is inherently complex and beautiful, inside and out. These social movements paint a picture of beauty that is multifaceted, deeper than a one-size-fits-all mold. Similar to these movements which advocate for the acceptance of various forms of outward beauty, our biology points to an inward beauty exemplified in our body’s constitutive parts.
In the midst of the disorder that we deem as being chief among the forces in this world, there is inherent order in the body that governs every homeostatic mechanism. In the genetic code, unique to every individual, lies the dictates for reproduction, generation of completely new tissues, and production of proteins for every single biological function. Our information storage system is “encoded with the precise information needed for life."² In order to truly function, we depend on our many biological systems to work in unison, a process requiring energy. During the process of cell respiration alone, the probability that just one complex in one of the hundreds of steps of energy production, cytochrome- C, would be spontaneously and accidentally formed by the coding of amino acids originally from DNA is 1 in 10⁶⁰.² The formation and function of DNA in this circumstance and millions of others is both extraordinary and essential to life.
Truly, in our DNA is a gift specific to each individual, and it is wondrous how inside one of trillions of cells is this miracle that sustains every function for daily life. The complexity in the process, which is a coordinated concert of proteins, RNA, DNA, and internal structures, takes multiple lifetimes to begin to understand, and each day researchers work to comprehend this mystery. The formation of human anatomy and physiology had to occur in this specific way for any one person to live as they do, and the homeostatic mechanisms that maintain the balance in the body are nothing short of improbable. We are fine-tuned to our environment on this Earth and able to endure insurmountable odds.
Our opinion of ourselves may seem to fall apart, but engineered in our body is a vast network of intercellular, extracellular and even intramembrane structures that anchor each cell together, guiding movement, growth, and direction. Each of the many detailed parts display the grandeur of what it means to be human, which is to be complex, individual, and, while not perfect, full of wonder. Each day that we are awake, we depend on our lungs to breathe, our heart to beat, and our senses to relay information that they may respond. The brainstem controls involuntary processes on which we depend for survival. Even without expending conscious energy, the average person’s heart beats around two billion times³ and lungs breathe an average of 700 million times within his or her lifespan.⁴ The performance and ability of the human body incites wonder at its formation.
The intricacy in the body even led renowned evolutionary biologist and Oxford Professor Richard Dawkins to declare that “biology is the study of complicated things that have the appearance of having been designed with a purpose.”⁵ Every aspect of anatomy naturally leads to certain awe and even questioning of the specificity and intentionality of human design. Whether one believes in a higher power or not, the design of the human body points towards a God who cares about every single detail.
Finally, just as both social movements and the biological perspective point to our internal value, Biblical tradition also asserts inherent beauty in design. However, the Bible differs with social movements and biological perspectives in the source of this value. The Christian Gospel agrees that we have a value that we do not always perceive, but it also asserts that as members of God’s family, our body, mind, soul, strength, and beauty all are royalty, redeemed, and inexplicably remarkable. While social movements and biology point to a form of beauty, this beauty is relatively simplistic, and the beauty described in the Bible stems from the decision of Christ to endure the cross, moved by love. Value is placed on us by a higher power and comes from our newfound heritage. As Christians, we believe that God gives us intrinsic value in our position as daughters and sons of the King of Kings, due to Jesus’ restorative work on the cross.
The God of the Bible deals in order, perfection, beauty, and intimacy. The Bible states in Psalms 139:13-16 that the Lord was intimate and close during our development in the womb, orchestrating every hair on our head and freckle on our face.⁶ His work in creation was called “wonderful” by the psalmist, and as humans are formed, He is the integral force that knits us together in awe and wonder.
If God is who He says He is, at the moments that one does not know his or her own worth or value, God asserts his or her beauty as the truth of design. Beauty as a societal construct has become so closely indicative of our perceived and marketed identity. However, if beauty is of aesthetic appeal or comparative value, then it will always be self-defeating, constantly changing, and unattainable by nature. The beauty of humanity truly lies in the worth and sanctity of a life and capacity to love. Just as the Bible states, God divinely created “mankind in his own image,” an image that is more than any one physical trait.⁷ While it is seen in our biology and in our personalities, it is not reduced only to that. Value is non-negotiable and inherent, because no one has to become beautiful, they simply are beautiful. In the moments when we personally feel like falling apart, He draws near, holding all things together.⁸
It is easy to question how we are made when our bodies do not fulfill a societal standard or norm. However, Scripture rivals that disheveling feeling by asserting that the design of one’s body was determined with an unshifting value, unequivocally our inheritance as God’s children. Christian tradition believes that God designed humans intentionally and remarkably, not leaving any question of our value up to the shifting tide of emotions that we feel and circumstances that we walk through. Beauty, therefore, is not something that can be taken away.
Walt Whitman, influential American writer and poet, proclaims that “if anything is sacred, the human body is sacred.”⁹ The design of the human body is beautiful, and its biology is intricate. Human anatomy is complex and unique, and Scripture tells us that in every moment, we are bearers of God’s image. Social movements, a biological perspective, and Christian tradition all point to the truth that we are more than what superficial labels we choose to place on our mantle. Humans are fascinating, and the design of the body confirms Christian belief that who we are is fundamentally interesting, beautiful and worth knowing.