Temples to Self


As a teenager with worse-than-average body issues, I scrupulously avoided the gym. I was devastated just by a stray glance in the mirror; I couldn’t bear the idea of seeing myself reflected among a thousand other bodies, preening sweatily and (I thought) self-righteously as they loped along on their treadmills. Admittedly, my body shame made me really oversensitive. But even today, if I get talked into visiting the gym by a friend, I seldom see fun or health or camaraderie. What I see is a religion.

Never mind the stucco colonnades and faux marble finishes; it’s the activity inside the gym that really evokes a semblance of religion. The music is turned up to such deafening volume that it conveys only a mesmeric rhythm, to which the devotees march synchronously, their faces contorted with fervent effort.

In glass-lined antechambers, the gym’s elders lead novices in group rituals, exhorting them with shouts and skillful demonstration. At discreet intervals around the room, people line up at stations where they can take the measure of their faithfulness in pounds and inches. And in quiet recesses, people sit, wrapped in towels, to regulate their breathing and to reflect on the merit of their performance.

But more unnerving than any of this is how the number of attendees, at any given time, is visually multiplied by the wall mirrors encompassing the room. Enter, and you feel like you’ve done more than come to perform your devotions — you’ve joined a cause with legions in its thrall. You’re surrounded by people who reflect the values that you want to embody, whose success motivates you to strive harder and achieve new heights of physical enlightenment.

If you live anywhere but southern California, this description will sound overblown. But for those who grew up within reach of the San Andreas fault line, “exercise” will probably never mean a 20 minute jog or a soccer game in the park. It means a choking heart rate and hair plastered to your brow. It means spandex and muscle shirts and new shoes every four to six months. It means soreness, fatigue, and a stony sense of accomplishment. It means results.

Naked and unashamed

naked and unashamed

What Do Results Mean?

Many people in California want help making their bodies fit to be seen. Several of my friends from back home are or have been personal trainers. The cornerstone of their job, they tell me, is helping their clients define what “results” mean.

Apparently, it’s rare for a client to simply come in and say, “I want to improve my health.” Instead, it’s some combination of size in relation to body part. Smaller waists, bigger shoulders, targeted gain and loss from the pectorals to the external obliques.

For most people, visual results require much more time and effort than it does to simply feel better and have more energy. This discourages some from making any effort at all.

My friend Melissa used to be a personal trainer but found the environment increasingly unhealthy to be in. Now she only trains family members and friends, and she hardly goes to the gym at all. The competitive edge it provokes in her is, she says, not good for her family. (Nor was the outbreak of head lice that her kids got from hanging out in the gym childcare facility.) Instead, she goes running in her neighborhood and lifts weights in her garage. But recently, after a rare gym workout, she turned around and was confronted by the sight of a woman about her age and size, who had the abs and shoulders Melissa has constantly worked to achieve.

Close behind her initial reaction of competitive envy, Melissa says, came a conviction that she ought to reach out to the woman. So she said something complimentary; they began chatting. After a while, the woman confessed, “I’ve always wanted to have kids like yours.”

“That was funny,” says Melissa, “because I wanted to say ‘I’ve always wanted to have shoulders like yours!’”

The interaction made her reflect how instinctively we judge others and ourselves based on how we look. How our judgments, and the ways we respond to them, siphon our attention away from the actual person behind the appearance.

Photos by Joel Krahn
Photos by Joel Krahn

Does Beauty Need a Purpose?

My friend Rondi, a Pilates instructor, modern dancer, as well as a pastor’s wife, notes that Christians tend to be uncomfortable with the idea of beauty. Whether it’s simply how something looks, or how beautifully it moves, unless they can identify a clear purpose that drives the beauty. A basketball player gliding upward from the three-point line is safe to admire; a sinewy principal in the Alvin Ailey company feels somehow more dangerous.

And it is dangerous. Ugliness is much safer than beauty. Nobody is provoked to lie, hurt, or sin because they’re attracted to something ugly.

Beauty triggers a primal instinct for worship. It’s on that account that pagan cultures worshiped nature. It’s on that account that the Greeks equated “the beautiful” with “the good” and “the true” as the highest virtues. And it’s on that account that the Bible repeatedly enumerates beauty as one of God’s attributes.

So why should it alarm us that God endowed His creatures with a reflection of His beauty in their physical bodies? As humans, our existence is first of all a work of fine art. If you’ve seen an artist at work, you know that there is beauty in his movements well before they produce anything to look at.

Likewise, our bodies are meant to exhibit beauty not only statically, but kinetically. Our obedience consists not only in service to God, but in serving Him freely and beautifully. Choosing to exclude or ignore beauty is like sawing a leg from a tripod. Freedom and service are crippled when you remove attractiveness from them. Abasing the body and its capabilities is just as disobedient as worshiping it.

Of course, as we’re constantly reminded, this is a broken world. Because of sin, we are limited. Maybe this is the reason we don’t all naturally look like fitness models. Apart from sin, would we struggle with laziness, overindulgence, sickness, or deformity? Would we have bad digestion, fallen arches, weak joints, or chronic fatigue?

I don’t mean to suggest that less muscle tone makes you less godly or less worthy, any more than limited creative talent or intelligence or even spiritual perceptiveness does. Everyone expresses certain aspects of God’s nature more easily than others, which is why some people can maintain perfect abs on a diet of pizza and beer, while others can work out six days a week and still get asked if they are pregnant.

Apart from sin, would we have such a hard time knowing whether or not we are simply enjoying our bodies, without worshiping or abasing them?


Stuck in Self-Examination

I used to hate looking at mirrors when other people were around. I’d keep my head down when passing plate-glass windows or washing my hands in public restrooms. I felt ashamed of what my body said about me.

In private, I’d study my body carefully in the mirror. I’d pucker my lips to hollow out my cheeks. I’d suck in my stomach until my hipbones were like the pelvis of a starving cow. I wanted to reassure myself that, under the obtuse fat and the dull skin, the bones were still there. I wanted reason to hope that, with the right lighting and the right clothes and the right angle of vision, someone might see that underneath, I was actually beautiful.

We all hold up mirrors to each other, and we form all kinds of relationships on the basis of similar reflections. But when we place value on those reflections, rather than on the relationships they enable, we begin to feel things like pride, shame, worship, and disdain, that end up destroying relationships, and leave us fixated on ourselves.



This is an excerpt from an original article published in Converge Magazine, issue 12. 

Flickr photo (cc) by A&APhotographyServices