What Price, Physical Perfection?

Wintertime, and the snacking is easy. For many, so is the stressing out over what America's favorite indoor pastime might do to the figure.

No one feels more pressure to measure up than teen-age girls. In myriad ways overt and subtle, the culture tells them at every turn to slim down and shape up — or else. The messages find a way to get through even to girls raised in homes where entertainment media is carefully screened.

“Unfortunately, attractiveness equals happiness for many girls,” says Lindsay Boever of Tahlequah, Okla. She knows because she's been there.

As a young college student a few years ago, Boever struggled with an unhealthy, immoderate concern for her physical appearance. Though she never had a weight problem, she found herself unduly influenced by media images of physical perfection and became excessively anxious about her body and her physical appearance.

Boever reports an unpleasant feeling of intense competition and scrutiny among her peers, particularly with regard to maintaining a thin figure. She believes being considered thin or attractive can become such a great source of pride and obsession for young women that they will go to extreme measures to attain physical perfection.

“I was more consumed with what I looked like when I went to Mass than I was with what was going on there,” she says of her younger years. “I think [obsession with appearance] is a great tool of the devil in our society.”

Boever learned a more balanced approach to her body through her Catholic faith. She discovered that, despite the popular culture's drumbeat of self-worship, true happiness and self-worth comes through accepting God's immeasurable love and focusing on loving service to others.

Today, as a mother herself, she says, “If I can teach [my children] anything, I hope to teach them that it's not all about yourself. It's about serving others.”

Get Real

Patricia Murray, a pediatric nutritionist in Manchester, N.H., says she's seen an increase in the number of young women with serious eating disorders — particularly anorexia and bulimia. She is alarmed by the current trend of teen-agers striving for bodily perfection, often at great cost to their physical and emotional well-being.

What she finds most disturbing, however, is that even very young children from otherwise healthy, intact families are not immune to the influences of the popular culture in this area.

“I see 8-year-olds who tell me they are on a diet,” Murray says. “Something is definitely wrong with that.”

Murray believes that mothers who use a practical approach to the issues of physical health and body image with their daughters can combat the negative influences of media images of female perfection. She encourages parents to teach their children not to diet but to eat a variety of nutritious foods in moderation and to get adequate exercise. And she emphasizes the importance of helping children to distinguish between fantasy and reality.

“Moms can point out the differences between pictures in magazines and real bodies,” she says. “Even if they are not overweight, most people do not have 'perfect' bodies and they need to accept what God has given them.”

Murray adds that a young woman's difficulty accepting her body is often symptomatic of a larger problem.

“Something is missing,” she says. “They hope that, if they are perfect, they will be loved and accepted.”

Suzanne Fowler, founder of Light Weigh, a Catholic weight-loss ministry, agrees that magazines, advertisements and television images encourage young women's dissatisfaction with their bodies.

“It didn't used to be required that women be so thin,” Fowler says. “Women today are bombarded by images of false perfection. Models' bodies are enhanced by surgery or computer editing and they give us a false ideal.”

Through her work with Light Weigh, Fowler encounters many women who have risked their health using trendy diets in an attempt to lose weight and achieve physical perfection. “Ultimately it's an attempt to be accepted,” she explains.

Fowler believes that young girls are especially vulnerable because “they've got a tremendous spiritual hunger.” Through her weight-loss program, she attempts to teach people that “God loves them with an intense, unconditional love, right now, no matter how much they weigh.”

Once people recognize the value of God's immense love, she says, they are less likely to seek love through food or physical perfection and are better able to maintain healthful, moderate eating habits.

Fowler recommends that parents, especially those raising girls, should be aware of their children's attitudes and actions toward food and their bodies.

“They should watch for changes in their children's eating habits, which might indicate a problem,” she says. “It is important to teach our children that their bodies are a gift and they are to be cherished.”

Father Robert Matya, pastor of Catholic Campus Ministry for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, echoes Fowler's thoughts.

“The No. 1 thing that influences how people feel about their bodies is what the media tells them they are supposed to look like,” he says. “When young people find that their own bodies don't meet this ideal, it creates many problems and can even lead to depression.”

Rather than looking for worldly acceptance and seeking self-worth through physical perfection, young people need to recognize that, irrespective of their outward physical appearances, they are made in the image and likeness of God, Father Matya says.

He is quick to point out, however, that this does not mean our physical bodies are unimportant.

“We must be good stewards of our bodies,” he says. “This means eating well and getting proper rest and exercise.”

Pope John Paul II agrees. An avid hiker and skier in his younger years, the Holy Father likes to repeat with St. Paul, “Glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:20). He's often pointed to recreational sports and healthful exercise as good ways of doing this. “Sports are an important moment for guaranteeing the balance and total well-being of the person,” he once said in an address to an international convention held during the Jubilee for the World of Sport.

And, although the Pope encourages young people's involvement in sports, he cautions that “a true athlete must not let himself be carried away by an obsession with physical perfection.”

Father Matya, too, stresses the importance of finding a balance between physical fitness and empty obsession with material perfection. He warns that young people who seek acceptance and happiness through physical attractiveness will always be disappointed.

Instead, he advises, we can all find true happiness and personal fulfillment through a relationship with our Creator.

“Know that you are a child of God,” he says. “That is where your true identity is found. That is where you will discern your self-worth.”

Danielle Bean writes from Center Harbor, New Hampshire.