Art, Body Image, and Gratitude

Praise him for you are wonderfully made.

Thomas Pollock Anshutz, “A Passing Glance”, ca. 1900
Thomas Pollock Anshutz, “A Passing Glance”, ca. 1900 (photo: Public Domain)

When we decided to study the history of art with our children as part of their homeschooling I did not realize that the course of this study would show me just how deeply I had been influenced by the secular media to disvalue my physical appearance. There is a stark contrast between what modern media presents as a beautiful, attractive woman and what neoclassical, baroque, romantic, realist, etc. art portrays as beautiful. Through looking at these paintings I have learned to value the beauty of women and to truly be thankful for the way that God made me.

Over the last three years our family has gone through the history of painting from the classical to the modern using different paintings each year (and we plan to repeat the cycle). These artists had every opportunity to brush the women they painted into the image of beauty of their time and so many of these women are painted with full, healthy, realistic bodies. Further, they often emphasized with their paint the childbearing function of a woman’s body—showing it beautifully, not shamefully. This is especially true in the most beautiful of all woman, the Blessed Mother. But in our current society this is the very aspect of our bodies that women are told to change—we are to desire flat, not round abdomens. We are supposed to work to erase the extra weight and evidence that we have had children after they are born. We are told by the images that surround us that it is not beautiful to have the shape of a mother once our child is born, but these images are wrong. Art has shown me that we are beautiful because we look like women are and have potential to be mothers.

While we can know this in our heads, it is hard to not compare ourselves to what society seems to expect of us and think of ourselves as ugly. It is hard to not look at all the images in the media and not analyze every inch of the model and compare her to us. We forget that these images are airbrushed into a lie to create thinner looking, taller looking woman. We forget that what is presented in the media as the ideal for all women is an unrealizable, unrealistic ideal. Sure, some women have beautifully thin, tall figures, but most of us do not. There are as many different types of female beauty as there are women, and we have to struggle to accept our own personal beauty as it has been given to us. Looking at how woman have been portrayed in art over the millennia can help us see this beauty in ourselves and in others.

It is so easy for me to see beauty in nature, like in a sunrise or in the flowers in my yard, but I often overlook the fact that as a living, breathing creature, I, too, have natural beauty, that when God created woman, he said that she was good. You, too, have been created beautiful.

Scripture gives us a beautiful example of how we are to view ourselves:

For thou didst form my inward parts, thou didst knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise thee, for thou art fearful and wonderful. Wonderful are thy works! Thou knowest me right well; my frame was not hidden from thee, when I was being made in secret, intricately wrought in the depths of the earth.
Psalm 139:13-15

Many of us have struggled too long to be something we are not or ever going to be. We have forgotten that God formed us on purpose to look like ourselves. His works are wonderful. His works are beautiful. When we become discouraged by how we look, we forget this. We forget to have gratitude to God for his wonderful works. He made is in secret, in the depths of the earth, in our mothers’ wombs. And He makes beautiful things. So, if you are having trouble accepting that you are beautiful, if you are feeling weighed down by the images that bombard you in social media, I encourage you to step back and look at some beautiful art. Learn to see the beauty in these paintings and ask God to heal your heart so that you can see the beauty in his creation of you. Praise him for you are wonderfully made.