It’s safe to say our culture is obsessed with body image. We see it in magazines at the grocery store or scrolling through social media: you should change the way you look. Body image is a major topic for our generation, but it isn’t always positive. In fact, all this body talk has lead to a majority of the population struggling with body shame.
This article is part of our New You series, produced in partnership with Unite Health Share Ministries.
Jess Connolly knows the struggle is real. The author and speaker spent many years feeling shame about her body. She struggled with body image issues until she realized God has something more for her. And now she’s sharing that message with everyone she can. In her newest book Breaking Free From Body Shame, Connolly shares practical tips and an encouraging message to anyone who is ready to love the body God has created for them.
We sat down with her to discuss what healing from body shame looks like, how the Church can help heal the Body and more. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
When did you kind of first become aware of body shame, and when did you feel the need to start speaking out about it?
Jess Connolly: Great question. Genuinely, my earliest memory as a human is feeling body shame. It’s the farthest back I can go in my head. I had this memory of writing in the back of one of my parents’ cars, and like tracing my hand down my body and it’s the farthest I can go back in my memory. I can kind of remember that whole weekend and I can remember feeling like it was not right. Something was not. I wasn’t like anyone else around me or that my body was just not quite there. I grew up with that feeling.
And as far as jumping to when did I feel like the awareness of it, it was something I wanted to write about. I started writing books right before I turned 30 and I could kind of tap into this idea that my greatest weaknesses were going to be the most strength. There was going to be the most victory. And so right around the time I was starting to really write books and do broader ministry. In general, for me, was also the zenith of my issues with body shame, and so I knew, like if I could get some healing here, if I could get some victory here, I think I could write about this. I think I could talk about this, but the healing definitely had to go first.
You mentioned that you had to heal yourself first and, I obviously want to be very careful with this, but what did healing look like for you? What was that process like?
I’m glad you ask, and I love that caveat of being careful with it because it’s going to look so different for other people. To be totally transparent, in my writing and speaking about it, I am really intentionally vague and I do that on purpose because for me, a lot of my disordered behaviors came from other people sharing testimonies about how they experienced body shame and how it got worse and how it got better. That became kind of a tutorial for me like, “OK, well, I could dip my toe in these waters.” I’m pretty cautious about that,
But how I experienced freedom is that number one, I had this inkling of hope — that first thought of I don’t have to feel this way all the time. I actually think that God has something better for me. I have experienced these waves of purpose and passion and healing and freedom in all of the other areas of my life. There’s got to be something here.
Then I had to get a lot of help personally. I had to find a mentor, another human in my life, who subscribed to a kingdom-body mentality. I had to do a lot of therapy. I had to do a lot of journaling. I really needed just outside help to kind of come alongside and say, “Hey, here is a path of freedom. This is what this could look like for you.”
What do you mean by a kingdom-body mindset?
The first thing I tell people about a kingdom-body mindset is that the most important part is in the first word. I subscribe to a kingdom-body mindset, which means, first and foremost, I believe I have a king. That changes how I view my body. In particular, my king, Jesus, is a part of the triune godhead that made my body and made it good. He’s not disappointed or dismayed or frustrated or surprised at the state of my body. Even more so, He made me intentionally. He creatively made me not look like everybody else,. He’s a good loving, kind king and He makes good things.
More than that, I also believe that what’s unique about my king is that He has compassion over what’s broken. And so, while I live under the effects of the fallen world, that’s not his best life for me. That’s not the best case scenario for me, and He has compassion for that. So when my body actually experiences weakness and sickness and illness? He’s not like, “Get it together. Figure it out. Why’d you mess this thing up?” He actually has compassion for that.
Also, a kingdom-body mindset means my body isn’t just about what’s happening here on earth. It’s what’s happening in the kingdom, which is for all of eternity. That means that the purpose of my body is different. It’s not a trophy. It’s not a project I’m trying to fix or finish. My body is going to also somehow be impacted by what happens in eternity.
All of those things just kind of fit into this picture for me. That brings a lot of freedom and a lot of hope, even while I experience weakness and brokenness in my body.
I feel like for a long time mainly people outside of the Church were talking about body image and it wasn’t really discussed in the Church. Would you say you would agree with that?
A hundred and ten percent.
Why do you think the culture was talking about it but not the Church? Do you have any theories about that?
I have so many theories, but I’ll stick with two.
My first theory is I think we’re scared. I think that in general, talking about freedom freaks us out a little bit. I say this as a person who is knee deep in Christian culture. I think that we’re scared to talk about freedom. I think that when we talk about freedom, we feel as if everybody’s going to start to get wild. I think that scares us a little bit. I can’t tell you how many women have expressed their nervousness to me about freedom. But freedom isn’t standardized. That’s called legalism.
Reason number two, and I’m gonna just say real words if you don’t mind. I think we’ve cosigned on a lot of cultural strongholds, one of which being the objectification of women. I think we have kind of cosigned as a Christian culture on this idea that women should be tidy, pretty trophies. So to break ties with that shakes our foundation. I think we’ve even kind of rewritten it into the narrative of Scripture in a way that I do not believe at all is God’s heart. I also think that a woman’s purpose on Earth is to fulfill her God-given calling, for her to enjoy God, for her to use her gifts for the good of others. God really breaks ties with a lot of strongholds.
What do you think the Church can do to change that narrative and take hold of the conversation?
After I came out with a book, I had a lot of pastors — specifically male pastors — reaching out telling me they were going to do a series on body image. And I would tell them to slow down. Remember everything we’ve learned from 2020 and 2021 and now 2022, and that right when you notice an issue, you actually don’t have to teach about it.
Stop and take a pulse on how women are doing and how they’re feeling about their bodies, and I don’t think we’re going to like what we hear. I don’t think it’s going to be enjoyable for us to learn that 97 percent of women inside the church also genuinely hate their bodies. I think it’s not going to be pleasant for us to realize that’s a theological issue. If we’ve got 97 percent of the women in our churches not loving their bodies, then we’ve got 97 percent of women in our churches not appreciating what God has done or will do or can do in their lives. That’s a really big issue.
I think we’re going to have to listen to how women’s bodies have been mistreated or discounted. I think we’re going to have to listen to how women feel distrustful towards their bodies, in regards to sickness and how we’re of either told to get it together use the right oils and take the right vitamins and that that’s the same thing as godliness, or go hide in a corner while you’re sick. I think we’re going to have to slow down and really listen to how women are feeling.
I also think we’re going to have to slow down and listen to how men are feeling about their bodies because apparently 95 percent of men have body image issues. I think we’re going to have to take a hard look at the problem first. The very good news is I do believe healing and hope is a breath away. I don’t think it’s decades away. I think as soon as we air the problem, I think we are going to find a lot of encouragement in God’s word.
You mentioned how men also struggle with body image, which I feel like, you know, as much as we’re not talking about body image with women, we’re definitely not talking about it with men. I feel like that’s such an important conversation to have because I think we can’t just heal half of the body, we need to heal the whole body. Do you think there should be a different approach to how we talk about men with body image issues?
This is something I’ve thought about but I don’t have any answers. I completely agree with you that I don’t think we should just heal half the body. I actually feel a ton of compassion for men about this.
I think for the most part, the pain points are the same. I think women have a few different offshoots that men may not obviously relate to in the same way. But when I hear men talk negatively about their body, nobody catches it. It doesn’t tickle anybody’s ears in the wrong way. When I hear them talk negatively about their body, it’s all aesthetic. It’s all cultural. Think about “Dad Bod” jokes. It’s all aesthetic in the same way that I think women have really been sold the same lie. I actually don’t think that the approach has to be that much different. I just think they might have to decide it’s a problem.