Because I am Created in the Image of God…

American culture has been and continues to be shaped by a powerful movement. It is a movement marked by merit certificates, pop songs communicating, “be yourself because you are already awesome”, and cheap little-league trophies. It is the self-esteem movement; it is the campaign that strives to show how everyone is special in their own way. The ideals of this movement were perfectly displayed in Lupita Nyong’o’s recent acceptance speech at the Oscars, in which she notably claimed, “no matter where you’re from, your dreams are valid”. (For a thorough consideration of this claim, see this article by Dr. John Mark Reynolds.)

The American Christian sub-culture is not exempt from the self-esteem movement. Having grown up in the church, I can recall listening to many talks on self-esteem at Bible studies, youth conferences, and youth camps. I should clarify that this is not a bad thing; these sorts of talks can be exceedingly encouraging. During our adolescent years, there is a lot of pressure to fit in and to define yourself. American Christians seem to be aware of this and are putting forth a great effort to establish a healthier perspective of the self. However, it appears that in our attempt to tackle this issue, we have unintentionally abused an essential doctrine: that of being created in the image of God.

In the aforementioned Christian self-esteem talks, the idea that man was created in the image of God is often used as a premise upon which we assert our self-esteem. We are often told that we are beautiful, unique, and worthy since we are created in God’s image. Yet, the knowledge that you are created in the image of God should not be merely utilized as a bolster for self-esteem. The image that we bear amounts to more than the temporal worth of being considered “special” here on earth.

To be created in the image of God is to know Him. In On the Incarnation, Saint Athanasius goes into detail on what it means to be created in God’s image. He writes:

[God] made [man] according to his own image and according to the likeness, so that understanding through such grace the image, I mean the Word of the Father, they might be able to receive through him a notion of the Father, and knowing the Creator they might live the happy and truly blessed life (Section 11).

God has created man rational, not for man to become great, but for man to know his Creator and have the blessed life. Athanasius goes on to describe how man turned away from God. After the fall, man began to look toward creation instead of the Creator. As a result, man tarnished the image as well as his rationality. Yet God, being good, redeemed man by sending the Word to become flesh and reconcile man with God. Someday, those who have put their faith in God will be able to know him and spend eternity as a happy, blessed being.

Being created in the image of God carries more weight than what is implied by the messages of the Christian self-esteem campaign. When we think about bearing the image of God, these three vital details should come to mind:

  1. Our ultimate purpose and fulfillment is to know God.
  2. We have tarnished the image through our own sin.
  3. We have been redeemed because of God’s love, and the image will be ultimately restored.

Christians certainly cannot ignore the self-esteem issues. It is almost inevitable that we will face feelings of inadequacy throughout our lives. I am not dismissing the occasional pep talk or practical encouragement. However, we must be careful how we go about such encouragement. It is certainly not helpful to misinterpret a a doctrine so that we might conform to our society’s standard of worth. This gives us a false picture of ourselves as well the gracious gift that God has bestowed upon us. We ought to recognize that earthly beauty, intelligence, and skill will never satisfy us as much as the knowledge of God. It is time to let go of earthly values and instead recognize our purpose, realize our sin, be humbled by the grace that God has shown us, and eagerly await the ultimate beautification of God’s image in us.

The Hidden Theology of ‘What Not to Wear’

Recently, while feeling sick and unable to sleep, I got out of bed around 2:00 a.m. and decided to pass the time with some Netflix, settling on a couple of episodes of TLC’s What Not to Wear from season nine. I initially picked it because I wanted something somewhat mindless to watch. After a while, though, I noticed how the show, in it’s own way, addresses some very important and deep human issues: issues regarding self-esteem, our inherent value as individuals, and how we think about and treat ourselves.

If you’re not familiar with the show, it follows two style experts, Stacy London and Clinton Kelly, who are summoned by concerned family members and friends to give a woman a style makeover. Her closet is purged, she is whisked off to New York City and given $5000 to buy a new wardrobe, and then she gets a new haircut and makeup consultation to top it all off.

It’s not the kind of show you’d expect to address deep, personal issues—after all, in many ways it’s just another makeover show, and on the surface it can seem quite shallow—but I think the host’s raise some valuable points about the psychology, and even spirituality, of personal appearance.

Take Jackie, for example, the subject of episode three’s makeover. A formerly single mother of four, Jackie is now engaged to marry a great guy. However, her wardrobe choices oscillate between the wild extremes of frumpy sweats and oversized tee-shirts to skin-tight, super low-cut tops and dresses. Stacy and Clinton, as they do to everyone who comes on the show, put Jackie in the intimidating 360-degree mirror to assess Jackie’s outfit choices from every angle (an admittedly excessive tactic, but it’s reality television, after all).

Stacy and Clinton quickly dig up the underlying motivations behind the way Jackie presents herself. Jackie confesses that she has been cheated on multiple times in the past and has taken a blow to her self-esteem as a result, feeling like she’s “not enough” to keep a man interested. Motivated by this insecurity, she puts it all out on the table with extremely revealing date outfits in an attempt to ensure her fiancee’s continued devotion. On the flip side, she puts no effort into her day-to-day wear, throwing on ill-fitting tee-shirts and baggy pants to run her kids around and manage her own full-time class load, believing her daily personal appearance—and, by extension, herself entirely—to be less important than her other responsibilities. When asked if she believes she deserves to feel beautiful, Jackie is only silent. Stacy points out that both of her wardrobe extremes are inappropriate: “One says you don’t value yourself at all, and the other one says you’re giving yourself away for free.”

Heather is another example of someone with a dual personality caught between conflicting wardrobe identities.  At 6’1” Heather’s easily noticed, but she likes to dress in flashy clothing when going out on the weekends to get extra attention from men. When dressing for her office job (which she hates), however, Heather puts no effort into her appearance. Again, nothing can escape the all-seeing eye of the 360-degree mirror, and the truth comes out. Since she had her first child at the age of seventeen (and has since become a mother of two), Heather feels she was forced to grow up too fast, so she compensates by dressing provocatively and overly young for her age in an effort to recapture her youth.

This is par for the course in every episode. I’m fascinated both by the intensely personal, and sometimes heartbreaking, stories the women tell to explain the way they dress, as well as how adeptly Stacy and Clinton nail down the real issues at hand and then proceed to demonstrate how a revamped wardrobe can help lift self-esteem, establish a more appropriate identity, and even open up future opportunities for growth (both personally and professionally).

Dress for the life you want, not for the life you have.

But the message even transcends that; it’s more along the lines of “Dress for the life you do have: a life that is valuable and beautiful and worth respecting.” It’s beautiful, in a way, what these stylists do for people. When you get past the posh New York clothing boutiques, the $200 jeans, and the professional hair styling that’s impossible to recreate at home, you see that they’re giving people more than just an external, physical makeover. It’s also an internal makeover. Stacy and Clinton show these women that they don’t have to dress like a slob or a slut (their words) because they deserve to treat themselves better, because they are better. As Clinton says to Jackie at one point during her episode, “The first step of putting effort into yourself is…realizing that you deserve it…[that you deserve] to feel beautiful, just for being you.”

One could argue that the overall message of the show is that a woman must wear stylish clothes and lots of makeup in order to look and feel beautiful, and perhaps that is one message of the show, even if it’s a more subliminal one. I still think the show makes valid points about enhancing your self-esteem and establishing an appropriate perception of yourself through your appearance and presentation. How we present and dress ourselves matters because it’s an extension of how we feel about and treat ourselves; just as it is important for human beings to respect each other, it is equally important for us to respect ourselves. And the bottom line is that our external (physical) selves and our internal (psychological, emotional, spiritual) selves are all united as a single, complete human identity. In addition to everything else that makes us human, we are also physical creatures. God created us spiritual and physical, and we will continue to be such, even after death, once our bodies are restored in the resurrection.

Of course, the deeper truth is that all people are inherently valuable because they are valued by a loving Creator. Because God loves and values us, he became man, died, and rose again to redeem humanity, body and soul.

Considering What Not to Wear has made me realize that how we present ourselves (not only through our clothing, but also through our behavior) matters, not just because we want to make a good impression, or nail the job interview, or impress someone on a date, but because we as human beings are inherently valuable. We are image bearers of God—a God who became man and took on a physical body—and we ought to treat ourselves and each other as such. Physical presentation is one component of that.

This all is not to say that our physical appearance is the most valuable part of our identity (after all, those who have suffered physical injuries or malformations are not less valuable for it), but I think effort and thought put into our physical selves ought not to be discounted as entirely shallow or meaningless, as long as it stems from the right place. After all, our physical presentation not only cues others how they ought to treat us, but it’s also an indication of how we value ourselves and how we believe we ought to be treated.

It’s not about being stylish, or having the most expensive clothes possible, or conforming to a particular understanding of a “correct” appearance. It’s about recognizing our inherent value and acting on that recognition through the choices we make about how we present ourselves.

I’ve had my share of self-esteem struggles just like anyone else, and when I’m feeling down, my husband encourages me to look at myself in the mirror and remind myself that I am smart, valuable, beautiful, capable. The mere act of saying the words helps build up a better self-image, just like how the act of putting on a suit or a nice dress helps build up confidence or a sense of professionalism. We must hold the belief internally and act on it externally. Above all, we must hold firm to the conviction that we are children of God, worthy of the most powerful love in the universe.

My Little Monster

She told me to write 10 things I liked about myself. I had two weeks. My first response was a giggle. The idea felt gooey and sentimental, like giving myself a hug. Really? Ten things I like about myself? It felt kind of bratty, childish, dumb. It took a week just for me to sit down to write it. Ten words. It shouldn’t have been a problem. No big deal – just ten little words. So, what was this massive barrier holding my hand still? Continue reading My Little Monster