Imago Feminae: Image of Woman


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Body Image in Religion

The Female Body in Christian Theology

For women raised within a Christian context, Biblical and church teachings frequently play a role in the development of body image. Many traditional Christian teachings are based on the assumption, if not an outright statement of fact, that the female body is sinful and in need of control. A woman who is taught this way might internalize such teachings and come to view her own body as sinful. Thus the foundation is laid for poor body image, which in turn fuels disordered eating. These religious teachings are based on misinterpretations of Scripture passages. The same passages that have been used to subordinate women have been used to denigrate the female body. Subordination and denigration typically work together in the process of dehumanization. Outside of the Pauline and deuteroPauline writings, the main Scriptures used to support the subordination of women come from Genesis. The Genesis passages deal more directly with the female body than do Paul's and other writings, which are more concerned with the status of women in church and society. Therefore, the views of Paul and his contemporaries will be left to other authors, except as they relate to the Genesis passages.


Humankind first makes its entrance into the story of the Bible in the creation account. The creation story of Genesis is actually two creation stories, the first told in Genesis 1-2:4, and the second told in Genesis 2:5-25. In the first story (see sidebar, Genesis 1:26-27), humankind is created after the earth and its non-human inhabitants. Male and female are created simultaneously. In the second creation account (see sidebar, Genesis 2:18-19; 20b-23), man is created first, and woman is created from his rib. Genesis 2 has been interpreted as a subordination of women to men, in disregard to Genesis 1. The reasons given for this subordination are that man was created first, woman was created from man's side, woman was created to be man's "helper," and woman was named by man (Brown, 75).

Each of these reasons is inadequate for justifying the subordination of women. First, woman is not inferior to man because she was created after man; rather, man was incomplete without woman (Brown, 87). God was not yet satisfied with creation while the man was alone (Genesis 2:18). Furthermore, no creature yet created was suitable to complete the man (Genesis 2:20). Only after the creation of woman was the man complete: "Therefore a man...clings to his wife and they become one flesh" (Gensis 2:24; NRSV). Indeed, the Hebrew word translated as "helper" means counterpart or complement (Brown, 88). The verbal form of the Hebrew word is used in Genesis 49:25, where God is said to "help" humankind. So, the woman being created as a "helper" to the man does not make her inferior, unless God is inferior to humanity because God "helps" humanity. Nor is woman inferior to man because the story recounts her being formed from the man. The main point of both creation accounts is that woman and man were formed by God (Brown, 90). Paul writes in II Corinthians (see sidebar) that woman is formed from man, but man comes from woman. Thus neither is complete without the other. The naming of woman further indicates the unity of man and woman, rather than the superiority of man over woman. His name was the Hebrew 'ish; hers is the Hebrew 'isha (Brown, 91). In both Genesis creation accounts, man and woman are created by God and are unified by their common humanity. Neither is subordinate to the other.

Temptation, Sin, and The Fall

After the creation of the earth and humanity, the state of perfection does not last for long. Genesis 3 recounts the first sin (see sidebar). This passage, like Genesis 2, has been used to support the subordination of women in part because the woman is seen as being more easily swayed by temptation than the man (Brown, 101). The story might suggest that man in turn is swayed in order to please his wife; hence the story becomes sexual (Brown, 105). Genesis does not explicitly state that this is the case. However, the Genesis story came to be viewed as a story of "sexual corruption, human moral impotence, and a 'sexualized interpretation of sin'" (Tessier, 59). Both the man and the woman sinned. Both are equally guilty, and both are punished (Genesis 3:16-19).

Despite the equal culpability that God places on both the man and the woman, the woman takes more of the blame in Christian thought. Since the woman is seen as being more temptable, she is seen as being ruled by the sensual body, whereas man is ruled by the rational mind (Brown, 102). The first sin is a sin of the flesh over the spirit (Tessier, 60). The man and the woman desired the knowledge of good and evil, and followed that desire despite the spiritual consequences (death). Although both the man and the woman ate the fruit, thus attaining knowledge, the woman, and consequently, all women, is the one to whom the desire is attributed and is seen as being ruled by desires of the flesh. Since women are controlled by the flesh, they need redemption of their bodies (Manlowe, 70).

Redemption of the Body

The need for redemption of the so-called sinful female body arises from misogyny in religion (Manlowe, 59). Christian misogyny is charecterized by the values of suffering, self-sacrifice, repentance, sexual purity, redemption, and obedience to authority. These are called "feminine" values (Manlowe, 63). These values often are distorted, so that a victimization of the believer occurs, an effect that can be extremely harmful if the believer has been victimized in other ways (for example, by rape). This is especially true for women, since Christian values are acted out in relation to a male God and a male Savior (Malowe, 60). Since, in most churches, the clergypeople are male, women come to relate those values to earthly men, not just a male deity. Such a patriarchal basis of Christianity leads to objectification of the female (Manlowe, 61). Women thus come to be inferior to men within Christianity.

Inernalization of distorted Christian values has led to perfection being sought not in spiritual terms but in cultural terms (Manlowe, 74). Eating disorders often arise in women within this religious context and are fueled by cultural expectations as complex ways of self-redemption. As an act of redemption from her "sinful" female body, a woman with an eating disorder will seek to destroy the female characteristics of her body, including her round hips, stomach, and breasts (Manlowe, 74). She will achieve this through ultimate thinness, in the cases of anorexia and bulimia, or ultimate fatness, in the case of compulsive overeating. Eating disorders in particular and disordered eating in general thus aquire religious connotations as methods of redemption.

Genesis 1:26-27

Then God said, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth." So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (NRSV)

Genesis 2:18-19; 20b-23

Then the Lord God said, "It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner." So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name...but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, "This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken." (NRSV)

II Corinthians 11:11-12

Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman. For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman; but all things come from God. (NRSV)

Genesis 3:1-7a

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, "Did God say, 'You shall not eat from any tree in the garden'?" The woman said to the serpent, "We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said 'You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.'" But the serpent said to the woman, "You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and taht the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked... (NRSV)

Let's Rock the Boat

Body Image in Culture