Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Escaping With Older Kids

Escaping With Older Kids

Fleeing abuse with adolescents and teenagers has unique challenges

Escaping With Older Kids
Escaping domestic violence when you have children is always difficult. Sometimes, there are certain challenges you’ll need to plan for if your children are adolescents or teenagers. Here are three, and how to plan around them.

1. Not all shelters accept male teenagers. While the Family Violence Prevention Services Act requires any program receiving its funding to accept all genders and ages, “Depending on how they’re staffed, some shelters may only take male children under a certain age—usually the limit is somewhere between 12 and 18,” says Anita Martin, MSSW, former domestic violence advocate and creator of Love magazine. “It really depends on the size and staff resources of the shelter.” Age limits on males aren’t meant to be a barrier to leaving, though it can make escaping more difficult.

What to do: There are many shelters that accept children of all ages. Start by calling larger shelters with more staff, as they’re most likely to accept male children. If one doesn’t, ask for a referral to a shelter that does. In an emergency, another idea would be to ask a close friend or relative to house a child until other arrangements can be made. You can also go to DomesticShelters.org and search for a shelter near you, then check its demographics section under “Populations Served.” This will indicate if they accept teens, but it’s always a good idea to call and double check.

2. Adolescents and teens have their own activities and commitments. More so than younger children, older kids are likely to have a network of friends, be more mobile and independent and be involved in extracurricular activities. They may even hold jobs. Escaping domestic violence can be especially difficult for them if they must cut such ties suddenly or have their freedoms reduced.
“Living in a shelter is challenging for children of any age, but especially adolescents,” Martin says. “They have a very high need for social interaction. Putting them into a shelter environment where they have to restrict that or build new relationships can be difficult.”

What to do: Remind yourself that no matter how painful it is to see your children sad to be away from friends, you’re doing the right thing by getting them away from an abuser. They’ll benefit in the long run.

Because every situation is different, it’s impossible to say whether your child will need to change schools, activities or work. In some cases, simply making arrangements for another trusted adult to take your child to and from these places is workable for you. In other cases, where safety of the child may be compromised, he or she will likely need to cut ties, at least temporarily.
Many shelters offer counseling to children to help them understand what is going on and to build their self-esteem. Teen support groups and activities are also helpful so they can bond with other kids in similar situations.

3. Technology can put them, and you, in danger. Once you leave your abuser, you’ll need to be extra careful about not letting him or her know where you are. In fact, most shelters have strict confidentiality rules to protect their guests. It can be difficult getting teens, however, to comply with such rules as they may not fully understand the extent of the situation or what might tip off an abuser to your whereabouts. Something as simple as a “find my device” app on your teen’s phone could lead your abuser right to you.

What to do: Talk with your kids about why keeping your location secret is important. Work with them to turn off all location-based services on their devices, including laptops, cell phones and tablets. And discuss not “checking in” at places or posting anything on social media about where they are and what they’re doing.

If you’re looking for a shelter for you and your children, you’ll no doubt have lots of questions before you get there. Check out, “ Important Questions to Ask” to get started.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Steps to Safety After a PPO

Steps to Safety After a PPO

When it's time to escape, make sure to have a plan

Steps to Safety After a PPO
About 20% of abuse victims file for a personal protection order, or PPO, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Issued by a civil court, a PPO forbids a person from doing something, such as contacting you, coming on to your property or harassing you at work. It allows the survivor to press charges should their abuser not obey the order.
While this piece of paper alone cannot guarantee stalking behavior will end (roughly half of PPOs are violated by the abuser), it can still be important to get one, since many abusers do respect the orders. Should an abuser violate the order, however, they can face fines or jail time. It is important to note that a PPO should be a part of a larger safety plan, and should not be replied upon singularly. WomensLaw.org offers some safety strategies for that are smart for anyone escaping an abusive situation to follow.[1]

Safety After Escaping Violent Relationships

  • Stop all contact with your abuser. Responding to this person’s actions could reinforce or encourage his or her behavior.
  • Keep any evidence of stalking, such as voicemails, texts or emails for future court cases.
  • Always keep a cell phone with you and don’t hesitate to call 911 if you feel you are in danger.
  • Have a safe place to go in an emergency such as a police station, public area or the home of a friend of family member that is unknown to your harasser. If you feel like someone is following you, it’s not a good idea to go home.
  • Let your coworkers, friends, neighbors and apartment building personnel know about your situation. Give them as much information as you can about the person who is harassing you including a photograph of him or her and a description of their vehicle. Ask them to call the police if they see this person at your home or place of work.
  • Try not to go places alone. Ask someone to walk to your car, vary your routes to places you regularly visit and get an exercise buddy to go with you if you walk or jog outside.
  • Report all incidents and threats to the police as soon as they occur. Keep a log of everything that’s happening including the name of the officer in charge of the case and the crime reference number, if there is one. This can all come in useful for future court dates.

[1] http://womenslaw.org/simple.php?sitemap_id=178

Perspecticide: Erased by Your Partner

Perspecticide: Erased by Your Partner

The harsh reality of "perspecticide" in a coercive control relationship
Perspecticide: Erased by Your Partner
Living with an abusive and controlling partner can feel like living in a cult, except lonelier. Victims' own viewpoints, desires, and opinions may fade as they are overwhelmed by the abusers'. Over time, they may lose a sense that they even have a right to their own perspectives. This is called perspecticide; the abuse-related incapacity to know what you know (Stark, 2007). Perspecticide is often part of a strategy of coercive control that may include manipulation, stalking, gaslighting and physical abuse.

Erasing A Person’s Thoughts, Feelings and Perspectives
Abusers often try to confuse and destabilize their partners, to increase their control. They achieve this through physical or psychological means, or both.
  • Gail’s boyfriend worked part-time and slept during the day. She worked during the day. He frequently kept her up all night, criticizing her or insisting that she accompany him to bars, so she would be confused, tired, and unable to think clearly.
  • Sara’s husband deliberately preyed upon her insecurities. He told her that she had no friends because she was “book smart but not people smart.” In fact, she had lost friends because of his actions, but she came to believe she was unlikable.
  • Pat pushed his viewpoints on Chris and grew furious anytime Chris asserted separate views. Pat also frequently lied, and Chris felt obligated to go along with these falsehoods. After a while, Chris lost track of what was true and what were Pat’s inventions.
Deciding How You Should Spend Your Time
Abusers make their partners narrow their worlds. Once isolated, it is easy to lose one's sense of self.
  • Doug insisted that Val watch him play video games rather than doing what she wanted. He demanded that he be the center of her attention at all times. Gradually she accepted this as an obligation and could hardly remember her own hobbies and interests.
  • Corey’s husband only “allowed” her to socialize along with him, with other couples. He did not permit her to leave the house without him, even to shop for food. While at first this was difficult for her, over time he convinced Corey that she was a “homebody” and that couples should do everything together.
  • Whenever TeyShawn tried speaking on the phone or seeing friends or family, his boyfriend, Angelo, grew angry with him. After a while TeyShawn severely curtailed his social life. It just wasn’t worth the hassle.
Abusers insist on controlling minute aspects of their partners' lives. Over time, victims internalize the rules and forget what life was like when they were freer to make their own choices.
  • Herman drew up an extensive chores chart and insisted that Marta keep a detailed log of her activities.
  • Ken gave his partner, Steve, a list of expectations for his diet , workout routine, and grooming. Ken chose Steve’s clothes and implied that their relationship would be over if he did not comply.
  • Darnell expected Sara to dress modestly when outside the home but insisted that she dress sexily when they were alone together. He told her to stop speaking to the cat, reading magazines, or sleeping on her back. He chose her makeup, dictated her bedtime, and weighed her daily. He meticulously controlled the way their house was organized, down to how towels were folded and food stored on the shelves. To avoid explosive conflict, Sara followed Darnell's demands and began to see them as "normal."
  • Defining You
Abusers make their partners feel badly about themselves. Because they are isolated, people victimized by perspecticide begin to believe the negative descriptions of themselves and lose self-esteem.
  • Imani’s husband told her repeatedly that she was a gloomy, depressed person by nature . He told her that she was selfish to ask for changes in their marriage since she would never be happy anyway. Over time, she stopped asking.
  • Lori’s boyfriend told her she was oversexed and that he needed to keep an eye on her or she’d be out of control. He had sex with her at least once on most days, which was more than she wanted, but he told her it was what he needed to do to keep her “honest.” Over time, she stopped protesting the way he monitored and forced himself on her. She accepted the idea that the sex was “for her own good.”
  • Clarice’s husband, Dre, did not have a job for the first decade of their marriage. Clarice worked long days in a professional position and when she returned home, Dre berated her for “choosing work over family.” In front of the children, he defined her as cold, unloving, and non-maternal. Clarice constantly felt obliged to prove that she was a good mother. The children joined their father in blaming Clarice for “not being around much,” as if she was making a deliberate choice to be out of the home for long stretches.
  • Setting the Terms of Living as a Couple
Abusive partners create the expectations. The abuser demands certain acts as proof of love and over time, the person being victimized gives in.
  • Kelly’s husband insisted that they share a toothbrush and that they use the same water or wine glass at all meals. He couldn’t seem to tolerate her having anything that was hers alone. Kelly dreamed of being able to close the door when she showered but her husband wanted to be able to see her at all times.
  • Lily pushed her boyfriend to share all his social media and email passwords and when he refused, she secretly installed a keystroke logger so she could access them against his will. When he found out and confronted her, she replied, “Loving couples keep no secrets.” He gave up on the idea of Internet privacy.
  • Karen told Carmen that she should never say “no” to her; pleasing her should be her Number One and only priority. Carmen tried hard to follow this rule, and grew ashamed when she had longings of her own.
  • Julie who was exhausted from working full-time and raising four children while her husband stayed home, chronically unemployed--would wake up at night with her husband’s hands all over her. He told her that it was her duty as a wife to be intimate with him, or he’d have to look elsewhere. Soon she learned to give in quickly, so she could get some sleep.
People subjected to perspecticide often blame themselves, as they feel despairing and disoriented. It can be hard for them to figure out exactly what’s wrong. Controlling partners serve as a filter for the outside world, gradually forcing their victims to lose the support of family, friends, and coworkers. Isolated and controlled in this way, victims lose self-esteem and have trouble remembering what they once thought, felt, and believed. There is hope, however, for victims of perspecticide and coercive control. And recovering one’s own perspectives and life is mighty sweet.

For more information on how to recognize perspecticide and reclaim your sense of self after a controlling relationship, please check out Invisible Chains: Overcoming Coercive Control in Your Intimate Relationship.

Article by Lisa Aronson Fontes, PhD, Senior Lecturer, University of Massachusetts and Author of Invisible Chains: Overcoming Coercive Control in Your Intimate Relationship.
Illustration by Liz Bannish.

Editor's Note: All survivor names have been changed to protect privacy.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

How to Thrive in the Church When You’re Misunderstood

How to Thrive in the Church When You’re Misunderstood

I don’t fit the Christian norm. I’m forty, single with children, and just finishing my 3rd degree Not exactly a Proverbs 31 woman. Life took a different route than I’d planned and sometimes, especially in Christian circles, I feel out of place. I’m not the only one, though. I have a gay friend who’s chosen celibacy and two others who’ve opted for heterosexual marriage. Then there’s the single mom, the childless couple, and the guy who’s unemployed. 

Most conservative churches have a definition of “normal” that my friends and I can’t live up it up. It can leave us feeling confused and isolated, because most of us didn’t choose our unorthodox demographics, we just found our lives playing out on the single, gay, childless, artistic, or job-wandering stage.

Tattoo guy stairsPhoto courtesy of Michael Furtig via unsplash.com

So, how do we navigate life in the church when we don’t quite fit in? During the last decade, I discovered four secrets to thriving in the church even when I’m misunderstood.

1. Remember that misfits make up the church.

While some versions of American Christianity imply that church is only for families with 2.2 kids, God disagrees. His started his church with a bunch of misfits — uneducated fisherman, social outcasts (a tax collector, demon possessed woman, etc.), and one terrorist named Saul.

As the church spread to places like Corinth, it picked up adulterers, people in same-sex relationship, drunkards, and thieves. “And that is what some of your were,” Paul wrote to them, “but you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Corinthians 6:11). Not only that, later in the same letter Paul suggested that, when it comes to serving Jesus, singles have the edge on married folks (7:38).

So, when we feel like we’re not “church material,” we need visit the New Testament again. No matter how unconventional our lives or how dark our past, we’re just the kind of people Jesus wants in his church.  

2. Find someone to be vulnerable with.

Conversations can get awkward when your life doesn’t follow the usual path. Well meaning people — straight folks, people with kids, or with great jobs — can say things that leave us feeling dumb, hurt, and angry. We can get focused on doing whatever it takes to avoid another awkward conversation, pulling out plastic smiles and superficial answers or sneaking out of church before the service ends. Maintaining a safe distance, though, can leave us feeling lonely. We need to find someone who is safe and be vulnerable with them.

If someone seems sympathetic and open-minded, we need to put in the work of getting to know them and risk being vulnerable; not all at once, but little bits at a time. As we start to verbalize all the messy contradictions of being single, gay, childless, or jobless, we’ll feel less alone. We’ll have someone to call on the gut-wrenching days, on the fabulous days, and on the days where we want to turn our backs on God. Being a member of Jesus’ church means that we “rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15). Not everyone may be able to do that for us, but we need to find at least one person who will.

3. Pray honest prayers.

Too often, we limit our prayers to safe subjects, like the rain, stomach bugs, and busy schedules. We offer God a flimsy version of life while we crumble on the inside, or we stop praying altogether. I’m not sure where we got the idea that God wants our prayers dressed up in a Sunday suit and tie. Jesus didn’t pray that way. Even when he knew the outcome, he begged God to change his mind, pleading so hard that he drenched himself in sweat. David didn’t pray that way, either. He told God to attack his enemies and accused him of neglect and abandonment, and these prayers got recorded in the Bible.

God knows how hard it is, not fitting into a mold. He sees when we ache be different, when life feels too heavy us, or when we’re angry at him for not intervening, and he invites us to wrestle with him. Being brutally honest with God might feel dangerous or unspiritual, but God wants our truthfulness (Psalm 51:6).

4. Find someone to love.

We might feel alone in our singleness, same-sex attraction, infertility, or unemployment, but we aren’t. There are other Christians hurting just like us, feeling disenfranchised from the church, and they need to know that Jesus loves misfits, too. They need someone to be vulnerable with, someone who will tell them that God wants their honest prayers. Our pain, if we’re willing to look past it, can be a gift to them. 

While we might not fit the norm, we’re exactly what Jesus wants for his family. He chooses the most unlikely people for his church and that’s good to remember when we’re misunderstood. It also helps to find someone we can be vulnerable with, to pray honest prayers, and to love someone else who needs it just as much as we do. After all, Jesus was celibate, childless, and misunderstood, and he’s the one we’re following.

* This piece first appeared on ConvergeMagazine.com.

Friday, April 15, 2016

New Social Worker Networking

One way to become successful as a social worker student or on the job is to find other social workers to network with. Much of that networking needs to be local, so you have resources available to help you help others. But staying on top of trends in the industry is important too. As a student especially, learning about new legislation, theories, or insights can help generate discussion and put you at the top of the class. Online journals and forums designed specifically for social workers can provide those resources you need to be the best in your field. The following twenty online journals, forums, and social media outlets offer information to help you attain your goals.


Family Social Work
  1. Child & Family Social Work: With a focus on children and families, this journal provides social workers with current issues and archives of the most recent issues. They also offer an online availability for “call for papers.”
  2. Clinical Social Work Journal: This journal publishes leading, peer-reviewed original articles relevant to contemporary clinical practice with individuals, couples, families, and groups. It also presents innovations in theoretical, practice, evidence-based clinical research, and interdisciplinary approaches. You can find downloads of articles online, as well as the opportunity to submit work.
  3. International Social Work: This is a scholarly peer reviewed journal designed to extend knowledge and promote communication in the fields of social development, social welfare, and human services. You can find the current issue and forthcoming articles published ahead of print at this site.
  4. Journal of Social Work: This is an international peer reviewed forum for the publication, dissemination and debate of key ideas and research in social work. You can find online articles here that promote, debate and analyze current themes and issues in social work theory, research, policy and practice, sometimes before they’re published in print.
  5. Journal of Social Work Values and Ethics: This journal examines the ethical and values issues that impact and are interwoven with social work practice, research, and theory development. The current edition is available online, as well as an archive, and a way to submit manuscripts.
  6. Qualitative Social Work: This journal provides a forum for those interested in qualitative research and evaluation and in qualitative approaches to practice. Look for the current issue online, as well as forthcoming articles published ahead of print.
  7. Social Work & Society: Social Work and Society (SW&S) is an international network of social scientists and political activists in the fields of social work and social policy. You can find current issues and archives available at their site. They have an “open access” policy.
  8. Social Work Today: This journal tackles topics such as addictions, mental health, children and family, aging, healthcare, and professional practice. They hold current issues and article archives online as well as a “Digital Edition” section.
  9. The British Journal of Social Work: Published for the British Association of Social Workers, this is the leading academic social work journal in the UK. It covers every aspect of social work, with papers reporting research, discussing practice, and examining principles and theories. This journal offers online access to the current issue as well as archives.
  10. The New Social Worker: This online magazine has been in operation for almost two decades. They carry job listings, a forum, and articles that keep social workers updated with their careers.


HIV Prevention Dialogue
Beyond this list, take look at university and college websites for social work or social worker forums. Many higher-education institutions that maintain social work programs also provide forums for students to talk about social work issues across the spectrum. You often need to be a student in a given program to gain access to those resources.
  1. Socialworkhelper.com: This is a professional online magazine  where users can engage listen to podcasts, share information, comment on news stories, view archived twitter chats, and much more.
  2. CareSpace Social Work Forums: Learn more about the social work profession, children’s and adult services, the practice, careers, and residential care, among other topics at this forum.
  3. Council on Social Work Education Discussion Forums: This is an electronic mailing list community that requires registration to join in the conversations. You also can join as a Council on Social Work member.
  4. Social Worker Jobs Forum: This job site provides a way to communicate about social work jobs from around the country and the world. Topics include PhD degrees, new graduate stress, career change, and other issues.
  5. The GradCafe Social Work Forum: You must register before you can comment, but feel free to browse topics such as information about various college programs, college woes, and field placement interviews, and more.

Social Media

As forums are becoming more and more a thing of the past, most people are connecting and interacting with social media now. While there are many outlets you can follow on Facebook and Twitter, here are a few key sites that can be a stepping stone toward developing your online identity. As always, be aware of what you post publicly online and consider the ethical implications of what you post.
  1. LinkedIn Networking and Discussion Forum for Social Workers: Connect with other social workers in this professional social media format. You can also promote your business and skills by posting articles, questions, and answers. You must be a LinkedIn member to participate.
  2. This Twitter list of social workers: Twitter is great tool for real-time interaction, even if on a microlevel. This list of over 300 social workers and institutions is filled with a variety of people you can add to your following list.
  3. Twitter chats: Another way to talk in real-time about specific issues at a predetermined time. Social Worker Helper does a great job of organizing these chats, and archiving them as well.
  4. Reddit: Essentially the modern online forum, the social worker subreddit goes more in depth than twitter’s character limit allows. Many questions you probably have about MSW programs and social work in general will be asked and hopefully answered here.
  5. The National Association of Social Workers Facebook: It’s always a good idea to stay up-to-date with the NASW. They post frequently on Facebook, as well as longer posts and an archive on their blog.
Article originally found  at MSWOnlinePrograms.org

Important Questions to Ask a Shelter

Important Questions to Ask a Shelter

To find the best housing alternative, some things you should consider
Important Questions to Ask a Shelter 
In an ideal world, leaving an abusive partner would involve a carefully thought out plan that ensures the utmost safety of the survivor, as well as any children and pets also caught in the situation. Of course, in an ideal world, domestic violence wouldn’t even be an issue, so this point is moot. However, when you’ve decided it’s time to leave, there are some things you can ask an advocate or a shelter that can help you find the safest and best shelter option possible to meet your needs – unless of course the need to leave is of a life threatening nature.
First, says Ruth Glenn, executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, make sure you’re doing your research on housing options away from home. Leaving is notoriously the most dangerous time for a survivor of abuse and, as clandestine as it sounds, survivors need to be careful not to leave any clues as to where they’re going. “Perpetrators will do everything they can to find them [their partner],” Glenn says.

To find a shelter near you, you can search DomesticShelters.org for shelters near you, or in another desired area.

Important questions to ask any shelter: 

  1. Do you have room available when I am ready to leave my abuser?
  2. How close are you to my home? (You need to consider what is safest for you and your family — being as far away as possible from your abuser or staying within a familiar neighborhood.)
  3. Can you take my kids?
  4. Can you take my pets?
  5. Are you within my children’s school district or do you offer schooling options?
  6. Do you have any childcare options available?
  7. Can you help guide me safely out of my home? (Most shelters should provide assistance with making a safe escape plan, but if they don’t have the resources available, you can also contact an advocate at the 24/7 National Domestic Violence Hotline, 800-799-SAFE to help you.)
  8. Do you offer legal services? (This is helpful if you need to file for an order of protection, start divorce proceedings or want to apply for sole custody of your children.)
  9. Do you offer substance abuse counseling?
  10. Do you have support groups or any other types of counseling support options?
  11. How long can I stay at your shelter? Do you offer assistance with transitional housing after that? (If facing homelessness, some organizations can help a survivor transition to another temporary housing option for up to 24 months.)
  12. Do you provide any job assistance?
Glenn adds that these questions don’t necessarily need to be asked prior to fleeing an abusive partner. “Once you’re there, you may begin to ask these things,” she says. It all depends on how quickly a survivor needs to flee a situation. 

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Packing Your Bags

Packing Your Bags

Contemplating leaving an abusive partner? Here is how to start preparing

Packing Your Bags
If you are not in immediate danger and are considering leaving your abusive partner, there are several things to keep in mind. First, connect with an experienced domestic violence advocate to create a safety plan. You can find a local advocate at DomesticShelters.org by entering your ZIP code.

Also, you know your abuser best, so think carefully through your situation and circumstances and do what is safest for you, when it’s safest. The suggestions below may help you plan ahead and are things to consider having with you when you are able to get away from your abuser. Consider hiding them in a secure, private place, or leaving them with a trusted friend. If you’re in danger and need to leave immediately, only take what you have time to grab, if you are able.

Keep in mind that you may not be able to return home again safely once you leave and should never do so alone. Again, talk through a safety plan with a domestic violence advocate or ask to be escorted by law enforcement if you do need to return home after leaving.

If you are able, think of other items you may need in addition to those on this list as you go through your daily routines.

Important Paperwork
● Birth certificates and social security cards for yourself and your children
● Driver’s license and/or passports
● W2s and paystubs
● Work permits
● Government benefits card
● Green card or immigration papers
● Marriage, divorce and custody papers
● Legal protection or restraining orders and records of any police reports you have filed
● Health insurance cards and medical records
● Your children’s school records
● Immunization records
● Financial records and bank account numbers
● Apartment rental agreement or lease, or house deed
● Car title, registration, and insurance documentation

Tip: Keep photos of these documents in a secure digital file. In some cases, photos will be sufficient proof of documentation, and in other cases, the photos will make it easier for you to replace the document if you need to leave without it.

● Cash and prepaid credit cards that can’t be traced
● Credit cards and the PIN numbers you need to withdraw cash
● ATM card
● Checks
● Small valuables you could sell if need be

● A post office box or safe address where you can forward your mail
● Phone calling card
● Prepaid cell phone or a cell phone with a new contract and number
● Your address book or cell phone contacts

Tip: If possible, secure new doctors, dentists, orthodontists, veterinarians, schools and other locations for yourself, your children and your pets so your abuser can’t find you in those places and make a list of the contact information for each to take with you.

● Current medications and prescriptions for yourself and your children
● Eyeglasses, contact lenses, hearing aids and any other medical devices you or your children need
Other items
● Pets, their records, and any needed items like food, a leash, bedding and medication
● Keys
● Clothing
● Small toys or books for your children
● Any keepsakes you would like to have
Tip: Leave a spare set of car keys with someone you trust in case the abuser takes yours to try to prevent you leaving.

It may feel like an overwhelming list, but do the best you can. Womenshealth.gov offers a printable list of items to bring and important phone numbers to have with you once you leave.

For more information on getting help and staying safe, you can also visit the Get Help page on the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence website.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Your Body Is a Gift, No Matter What You See

Your Body Is a Gift, No Matter What You See

America has body-image issues — everyone knows that. But, when, I complained once to my boyfriend-at-the-time about the pressure on women to be beautiful, sexy, and the size of a Starbuck’s straw, he responded that men feel pressure, too. Since women now earn PhDs, make six figures, and head into their thirties both single and respected, it’s not enough for Mr. Darcy to be rich. He also needs a six-pack and a full head of hair.

Back croppedPhoto courtesy of Olenka Kotyk via unsplash.com

According to research, my boyfriend was right. Men claim nearly one in four cases of anorexia and bulimia. Pop culture also testifies to the growing number of men concerned about their bodies—from actor Jamie Dorian, of Fifty Shades of Grey, who admits to having “massive hang-ups” about his body to last spring’s media flurry over the virtues of having a dad-bod.

So, while Dove®, BuzzFeed, and MTV tackle the body-image epidemic in our country, I keep wondering when Christians will pipe in. Our story, after all, affirms the goodness of the human body from beginning to end. Consider any of the Bible’s climaxes—creation, incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, or Jesus’ future return. God’s best work plays out through the human body.

So, even though the heavyweights in the body-image discussion may not be coming from the Christian corner, I’m cheering them on. One such person is Caroline Heldman. Her TEDxYouth Talk, “The Sexy Lie,” reveals how our culture trains girls to view their bodies as “projects in need of constant improvement.” Boys, on the other hand, learn to understand theirs as “tools for mastering the world.” Heldman challenges the audience to envision a world where men and women are both valued for their contributions to society, rather than their bust or bicep size.

Heldman’s talk taps into the Christian doctrine of imago Dei—that God created humans as his image-bearers in the world. Even with zits covering our chin, extra fat hanging over our belt, or a car accident breaking off our legs, God designed our humanity—including our physicality—so that we could reflect his presence and activity in the world. When Heldman describes our bodies as “tools for mastering the world” she echoes Genesis 1:28, God’s commission for humans to “fill the earth and subdue it.”

While this is where Heldman leaves off, Christianity has more to say. Since God is love, the imago Dei is, first and foremost, about love. The first man and woman would experience deep relationships like God does—through love. They would care for and cultivate the earth like God does—through love. They would trust and submit to God like Jesus does to the Father—through love.

Reflecting God’s love in these ways required fingers, vocal cords, and fat cells. Adam and Eve needed their bodies to name animals, cultivate trees, and enjoy sex. Their bodies were more than tools for mastering the world, they enabled Adam and Eve to enjoy God’s creation and participate in his love. Their bodies were gifts.

Sometimes, though, our bodies don’t feel like gifts—or, they feel like that ugly sweater our aunt gave us for Christmas. We wish we could get a refund. That’s because we inherited more than the imago Dei from Adam and Eve. We also inherited their brokenness.

Adam and Eve’s rebellion against God shattered their bodily bliss. Suddenly, they felt embarrassed by their nakedness. They pointed fingers and used their voices to blame. Their bodies—meant to be gifts—became objects of shame and tools for self-promotion.

We’ve inherited this body-brokenness. When we compare ourselves to a Victoria Secret model, worship our muscles at the gym, or loathe our sexuality after being abused, we forge a link between our bodies and our self-worth in a way that God never intended. We struggle with body-image issues and eating disorders, because we’ve lost track of the giftthat God gave us our bodies to enjoy his world, through acts of love.

*This article first appeared at Converge Magazine on March 20, 2016.