“Beauty is an opinion”

Actress Hayden Panettiere has revealed recently that she struggled mightily in her later teen years with body dysmorphia. According to an interview in the most recent issue of Women’s Health, Panettiere says the struggle stemmed from a picture of her published in a magazine when she was only 16. The photo showed her from behind, a the magazine printed the word “cellulite” over the photo. Panetierre’s reaction? “I was mortified,” she said. Of course she was; who would not be, to see a photo of themselves published for all the world to see, with such a demeaning and critical comment made about her body?

Panettiere was, at the time of publication in question, the star actress on the hit television show Heroes. Panettiere is all of 5 foot 1, and never have I seen any photo of her in which anyone with an appropriate and realistic understanding of a healthy body would consider her overweight. No human body is perfect; even those who are in top physical condition have flaws and imperfections and, yes, even a bit of fat.

The International Business Times quotes the Mayo Clinic as providing this definition of the disorder: “Body dysmorphic disorder is a type of chronic mental illness in which you can’t stop thinking about a flaw with your appearance. Treatment of body dysmorphic disorder may include medication and cognitive behavioral therapy.”
The article goes on to cite the Christian Post as reporting that between one and two percent of the U.S. population is affected by this disorder.

As I have seen numerous outlets reporting on the revelation that Panettiere has suffered from body dysmorphia, however, I was reminded of some research I have done myself. When I was the administrator of a children’s home, I conducted workshops for educators on teenage behaviors. Probably the most popular one was entitled “Troubling Teenage Trends,” and one of the areas that I discussed in that workshop was body image.

Some of the data that I shared in that session included these stats:

* The average American comes in contact with more than 3,000 advertisements per day
* Corporations spend $250 billion per year on advertising
* The super-tall, super-thin idealized female body consistently portrayed in advertising exists in less than 2% of the U.S. population.

Now, those figures came from a 2004 article; I imagine the reality is even more startling now.

Another troubling revelation, this from a 2006 article:

* Mediafamily.org conducted a study of Saturday morning toy commercials which found that 50% of ads aimed at girls spoke about physical attractiveness, while none of the ads aimed at boys referred to appearance.
* The number one wish for girls ages 11-17 is to be thinner.

The result? As of 2004, approximately 80% of 4th grade girls claimed to be dieting!

The influence of the media is rarely used to promote a healthy body image, and the prevalence of web sites that allow users to submit photos of themselves to be “rated” certainly does not help.

Another serious side effect of such unhealthy self-perception is the large number of girls and women who suffer from eating disorders, often brought on by a desire to obtain the perfect body. My research from 2006 indicates that there were, at that time, more than 500 web sites that dealt frankly and, in most cases, approvingly with anorexia and other eating disorders. According to a professional presentation I attended in 2007, eating disorders have the highest death rate of any psychiatric disorder. This is not something that parents, educators or anyone else can take lightly!

From the Christian perspective, it is important that we remind young girls, teenagers and even women, that we are each “fearfully and wonderfully made” according to Psalm 139:14. It is not trite to be reminded that God Himself put each of us together exactly the way He wants us to be. And while there is nothing wrong or sinful about physical beauty, that is not the standard or goal toward which girls should strive. Proverbs 31:30 says, “Charm is deceitful and beauty is passing, but a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised.”

Some people like to make fun of Mr. Rogers for regularly telling children through his television show, “Each of you are special just the way you are. You are special just because you are you.” But there is tremendous truth in that message. No person is more special than any other because of physical attributes or beauty. Each person is special, and worthy of love, because each person was made in the image of God and is loved by God.

One of the ways in which Panettiere says she has overcome the challenges of body dysmorphia is this: ” I [remind] myself that beauty is an opinion, not a fact, and it has always made me feel better. … People can tell when you’re happy with being you and when you’re not. It’s only cheesy because it’s true.” This is part of a healthy body image, as well.

Please note that I am not suggesting that being healthy is a bad thing; it is not. The Bible is just as clear that self-discipline is important, including in the area of appetite. Children should be taught to eat healthy and in moderate amounts. We do have an obesity problem in the U.S., and it should be taken seriously–but not by pressuring girls to be stick thin without the least bit of fat or “cellulite.”

So, may each of us who is in a position to do so take seriously our opportunity to shape the self-image of young women, and actively counter the predominant message of the media and contemporary culture that screams at our daughters and sisters that their value, their worth and their merit comes in fitting a ridiculous mold of an unhealthy and unrealistic body type. As opportunity arises and the relationship makes it appropriate to do so, remind the girls and young women in your sphere of influence that they are beautiful.

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