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How Church beliefs, practices and cultures contribute to body image


Teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints lead to a more positive body perception and relate to more positive outcomes, according to new research from Brigham Young University. 

“Generally, spirituality and religiosity tend to be related to better body esteem across all religions,” said Sarah M. Coyne, a professor of human development in the BYU School of Family Life. “We wanted to break it down to see why. What are some things that are beneficial, and what can we do better at?”

Coyne’s research team interviewed and conducted surveys with active members of the Church in Utah, the broader United States and other countries. They found that beliefs such as Christ’s Atonement and divine nature, practices like the Word of Wisdom and modesty, and cultures on the ward level all contributed to body image and esteem.

Beliefs

The research team asked questions about the following beliefs: divine nature, the plan of salvation, the Atonement of Jesus Christ and perfection.

They found that a belief in the Atonement of Jesus Christ was strongly related to better body image. “Then, a belief in divine nature — the idea that I’m a child of God and the plan of salvation and the purpose of my body — was all related to better body image,” said Coyne.

In the reflecting pool just east of the Salt Lake Temple, the baby Jesus; Mary, His mother; and Joseph appear to be floating on the water. Due to precautions associated with COVID-19, Temple Square visitors will be able to drive by or view the traditional Christmas light display from the sidewalk.

In the reflecting pool that at one time was just east of the Salt Lake Temple, the baby Jesus; Mary, His mother; and Joseph appear to be floating on the water.

Credit: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

The research paper quoted several of the study participants. An international middle-aged woman described her gratitude for the plan of salvation, which helps her take care of her body.

“I think any harsh negative thoughts I have about my body can be dispelled if I really think about the [belief] of eternal spirits, and why we’re here on Earth, and I’m just so grateful I have this knowledge,” she said. 

Some of the participants discussed how belief in Christ’s Atonement helped them move beyond a self-focus on their own body. Another participant, an older man from Utah, shared: “I don’t fully understand why, but there was something extremely important in the Savior getting a body and having that body go through unimaginable suffering. … It provides some perspective when things aren’t going as well in your body.”

Another participant, a young woman from the group in the United States, told researchers about the importance of her personal divine nature when thinking about how she felt about her body.

“I knew that I had heavenly parents and I was made in their image, and if I was made in their image … I could feel their love,” she said. “And if they loved me, then I should love myself, and that includes my body. And so, I think that [belief] really helps me to have like a positive image about myself.”

The teaching of perfection impacted body image more negatively. “We as a Church culture unfortunately hold ourselves to this unrealistic standard of perfectionism. A lot of the people said that the way we teach and talk about it was associated with them feeling worse about their own bodies,” said Coyne.

She pointed out how the study participants said focusing on functionality instead of physical appearance allowed them to appreciate and value their bodies more.  

Practices

In this section of the research, Coyne asked about Church practices of modesty, the Word of Wisdom, teachings to multiply and replenish the earth, and wearing of the temple garment.

Coyne said feelings about modesty and body image varied among the study participants, based on how they were taught this practice. Some had a fear-based, shame-filled approach, while others said modesty helped them feel respect for their bodies. 

“Modesty is such a beautiful principle, and people are taught about it in all sorts of ways,” said Coyne. “Unfortunately, a lot of the ways we teach it tend to objectify women’s bodies, leading to men objectifying women’s bodies.”

For example a young woman participant from the Utah group, told researchers that how she was taught about modesty made it feel like it was her fault if someone else was looking at her, depending on what she was wearing. 

But another young woman from the group in the United States, said: “Modesty and the way it’s been taught to me is basically just showing respect for this body that Heavenly Father’s given me. … I have found that dressing modestly makes me feel more comfortable.”

Following the Word of Wisdom has been associated with positive health outcomes, said Coyne, and in this research, participants felt it gave them a better body image. 

A woman picks out apples at the grocery store. New BYU research shows Church teachings such as the Word of Wisdom help people have better body image.

A woman picks out apples at the grocery store. New BYU research shows Church teachings such as the Word of Wisdom help people have better body image.

Credit: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

A young man participant from Utah explained in the research paper that the Word of Wisdom helps him “keep a healthy body and [to] know that my body is like a gift from God is a good motivator to exercise and eat well. … It makes me more grateful for my body and makes me respect it.” 

Coyne said many people brought up the commandment to “multiply and replenish the earth” in a positive way. “They talked about how pregnancy and the postpartum period was really important to them, and developing an appreciation for their bodies for that time, and recognizing how vital it was to bring children into this earth in a spiritual sense.”

One of the women she interviewed, from the Utah group, described having children as “part of our purpose.” She said, “I think it’s pretty amazing that I’ve carried babies, that I can grow babies in my body. The doctrine of the Church has helped me view that as part of our creation.” 

Meanwhile Coyne pointed out that others also talked about infertility and how it may be associated with poor body esteem.

The study also asked about wearing the temple garment. A young man from Utah said to researchers, “As far as my body goes, I think [the garment] reminds me, or at least it’s made me feel more connected to God, I guess. And it gives me that reminder what my body is, it’s a vessel, it’s sacred.”

Culture

The research looked at how culture in the Church affects body image, perception and esteem. But Coyne stressed this isn’t broad Church culture, it’s individual ward culture. The research looked at locations of congregations and cultural practices. 

“Every ward has a different culture around it,” she said. ”You can go from one ward to the next and see a difference. … Ward culture does vary, and there are certain wards that are far more supportive — and are associated statistically so — with better body image than other wards.”

She said wards that are generally supportive around conversations of body image and acceptance of different shapes and sizes had high diversity in any of these three areas: body shape and size, race, clothing.

“But if you have a ward with higher levels of comparison, especially around appearance, higher levels of judgment, and a culture of looking best all the time, or higher cultures of cosmetic surgery or physical fitness, that all tends to be related to negative body image for our Church members. And statistically so,” Coyne said.

A young woman from outside of the United States said comments specifically about her appearance made her feel negative about her body. “Obviously, if you’re getting compliments in the moment, it feels good, but then you’re also like, you just start feeling way more self-conscious because you realize that’s what everyone’s focusing on even if you’re getting a ton of positive feedback.” It made her feel a lot of pressure and comparison, she said in the research paper.

Conclusion

Religious practices that are related to taking care of and respecting the body may help religious individuals experience better body esteem, said Coyne. Closer, more secure connections to God and a strong understanding of the doctrines of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints give one a better body image or perception.

“We have this beautiful doctrine around the body,” said Coyne. “When we really internalize it, that yes, our bodies are part of the plan and are designed after heavenly parents that love us, and that Jesus Christ sacrificed so we could have a body — when we truly internalize it, it tends to pay off in how we feel about ourselves.”

The study findings will be released in a series of scholarly papers. Coyne’s first research paper from this study is titled “Beliefs, Practices, or Culture? A Mixed Method Study of Religion and Body Esteem.” It will be published in the Journal of Psychology of Religion and Spirituality.

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