Perhaps one of the most popular themes of the second half of the twentieth century was the concept of self-image. People began thinking about how they perceived themselves and how important a positive self-image was. This began as a psychological idea, but has expanded in the twenty-first century to involve a large number of concepts. How one sees oneself, how one thinks of self has grown in importance until it has eclipsed almost all other considerations. For the existentialism of the day, we can easily see how the quest for a positive self-image interfaces with the need to define worth and reality for oneself.
Today, we do not wish to retread the ground of existentialism and nihilism as philosophical concepts. Rather, we want to analyze one particular phenomena that results from their shared presuppositions. Today, we face the politically correct virtue of body image along with the politically correct vice of body shaming. What one does with ones body becomes a matter of self-definition, a matter of self-actualization.
We will not retread the ground of gender identity politics and the like, as we have already demonstrated its sinful roots. Instead, we wish to address the manner in which we as believer ought to relate to a world that is obsessed with image, body image, and the way in which we adorn the bodies given to us by God.
Any cursory observation at advertisements will inform you that body care products join legal and medical treatments, alcohol products, and automobiles as one of the most prevalent use of advertising space. Hair care, skin care, and jewelry find their way to premium advertising locations. We spend time and money making ourselves look "better" and smell "nicer".
People are motivated to engage in these practices for a number of reasons. Modern, secular, evolutionary psychology attempts to convince us that this is an evolutionary and biological drive to perpetuate the species. More existential analysis argues that some engage in these practices for personal identity reasons. Consider the rise in the acceptability of tattooing and piercings. We may speculate about this phenomena from an evolutionary perspective, but can easily see how a self-image theory will explain the interest.
We must first develop a Christian understanding of body image. In I Timothy 2, we read, "that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works." (9-10, ESV) Here, Paul directs his comments at women, but the same reasoning applies to men. The principle enumerated here is that the outward appearance and adornment does not matter as much as the inward beauty, a beauty that originates from obedience to God. Body image for the Christian matters little compared to good works and obedience.
Nevertheless, there is a place in the Christian's life for bodily care. Consider the number of times the Old Testament speaks about washing as necessary to remain in the camp. (Ex. 19:10,14; 29:4; Lev. 8:6; 11:25,28,40; 13:6,34,54ff; 14:8ff; 15:5ff; 16:4ff; 17:15f; 22:6; Num. 19:7ff; 31:24; Deut. 21:6; 23:11) Within the temple and tabernacle, the laver stood to remind the people that it was necessary to clean themselves in order to stand before God. While "cleanliness is next to godliness" never appears in the Bible, the importance of cleanliness is not absent.
What we do with our bodies matters to God. Paul reminds us of this in his letter to the church at Corinth. "What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s." (I Cor. 6:19-20) From this we understand the principle that what we do with our body matters. Unlike the world, what we do with our body is not an act of romantic attraction or self-actualization. It is for the glory of God.
With this in mind, let us address a few cases. We can break down the efforts of physical "self-improvement" to those which are quasi-permanent and those which are temporary. Of the temporary, not much need be said. The general principles faces the conflict between the good creation that the Lord has made in us, and the effects of sin upon us. While these principles are easy to comprehend, they are not so easy to discern in practice. Where do we draw the line between the effects of sin needing correction and the good way in which we were made. It is obvious that washing ourselves to remove our offensive dirt is not contrary to God's good work. That the Lord commands it of His people justifies this practice. This would also seem to justify the combing/styling/cutting of one's hair. What do we then make of dying one's hair? Are grey hairs a sign of the curse, since it gives evidence of the degenerative nature of man's mortality? What then do we make of the scriptures which teach, "The hoary head is a crown of glory, if it be found in the way of righteousness." (Prov.16:31) What about the changing of one color to another? What about highlights? We ought not devolve into legalistic interference, but we can question the approval of these practices without reflection.
The styles of fashion and clothing also have a bearing on these temporary adornments. We again ought to remember the Lord's instruction about modesty. Further, there is another scriptural principle involved. "The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the LORD thy God." (Deut. 22:5) Distinction between the genders ought to be maintained. Women should look like women, and men, men. While others have used this to draw bright lines in the sand, these divisions have been culturally arbitrary. Nevertheless, the general principle still applies. It should not be necessary to assert that the norms of modern culture ought not define the Christian's practice in style and fashion.
For the permanent image modification procedures, we draw more closely to the danger zone of trampling upon God's good creation. The piercing of the ears has a long history and one that appears in the Bible. (Gen. 24:22; Ex.35:22) These are not in connection with the practice of slavery. (Ex.21:6) Arguments against this practices due to its connection with Israelite slavery miss the fact that the practice predates this text. We may say, on the basis of I Tim.2, that simplicity and modesty apply to the wearing of earrings.
Tattooing does not draw from the tradition of God's people. Note the prohibition in Leviticus. "Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am the LORD." (Lev.19:28) This prohibition kept Israel from following the religious rites of the pagan nations in the surrounding area. They were not to copy them in the mourning rites or tattooing as part of the religious worship. While the argument can be made with some justice that these practices no longer have their pagan associations, this warning ought to cause us to pause and reflect. Should the Lord's temple be adorned in this permanent manner? (I Cor.6:19-20) Is this practice glorifying to God?
Finally, a word about plastic surgery. In some cases, plastic surgery may be used for health reasons, to prevent disease. In others, it may be used to repair injury or other bodily damage. I suggest that these uses find their justification in the Christian duty to counter the effects of sin, the brokenness of the world. Nevertheless, most of what we see in the industry does not arise from these necessities, but from pure vanity. Again, we must ask, "Does the use of this ability bring glory to God?" Am I using plastic surgery to repair what sin has broken, to glorify God, or for some selfish purpose?
In the end, we rely upon the principle of the first question and answer of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Our chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever. In our self-care, our goal, as in everything is to glorify God. This is fundamental to living as Christian in an unchristian world.