Posted in ecclesiology & sacraments, reflections

Idols in the Church, Part 2: The cult of the beautiful body

Narcissus sees his reflection
Narcissus sees his reflection

The story of the handsome young Narcissus is cautionary. One day he came upon a pool and bent down to get a drink. There, he saw an image in the water, but did not recognize it as his own reflection. Enamored by the vision and instantly in love, he repeatedly reached into the water to touch the alluring face, only to have it dissolve each time in ripples. Narcissus stayed transfixed for the rest of his life, kneeling by the pool, withering away to nothing, frustrated by desire unfulfilled.

From the story of  Narcissus derives the word “narcissism,” whose first definition in Merrian-Webster’s Online Dictionary is “egotism” or “egocentrism.” The second definition is “love or sexual desire for one’s own body.”

In his influential 1979 The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations, cultural historian Christopher Lasch observed (p. 5):

“To live for the moment is the prevailing passion — to live for yourself, not for your predecessors or posterity.”

While there are many manifestations of narcissism that infect American culture, let’s look at just one, the cult of the beautiful body. We should ask: How as the People of God can we smash this idol that has been set-up among us?

The everyday media message that shapes how we perceive ourselves is insidious. While we admire the talent of the sculptor, it is dangerous and unrealistic to take the statuesque proportions of a Venus de Milo or Michelangelo’s David and expect everyone to conform.

Venus de Milo, at the Louvre (Paris, France) See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
A 50-ish mother past child bearing years was on nursery duty at church. One of the toddlers came up to her, put her hand on the woman’s tummy and said: “Are you going to have a baby?” Laughing, the woman replied: “No, dear, some of us are just shaped this way.”

The proverb reminds us that “beauty is only skin deep.” Yet every time we check out at the store, the magazines shout: “You should look like this!” There we behold the twenty-something belles and beaus who are the cultural icons of physical perfection. Those who are older are more resistant to the physical beauty drumbeat, but not so the young. While many think of anorexia nervosa as confined to females, one in ten males in the United States suffer from this disease of self-perception. The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders attributes this to “social norms for males, which emphasize strength and athleticism.”

Does our careless use of language contribute to our society’s fixation with physical beauty? In the ’70s, we complimented each other for being “cool.” Now, among the most overused word in the English language is “hot.” “Wow, she’s HOT!” Or, “He’s a hottie!” Seriously? Do we really want to reduce people to a one-word description carrying sexual overtones? Surely that’s beneath the dignity of a follower of Christ.

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