Becoming body conscious

July 12th, 2022

A friend commented on stars depicted on social media wearing new outfits and stilettos to showcase their figures every day during the global pandemic when most people were sequestered at home in our sweats and slippers. It was a jarring disconnect to observe. We wonder: How do we absorb bodies’ messages that leave us feeling as if, somehow, we don’t measure up?

“You look good!” an older parishioner commented to a man several decades younger after not seeing one another in person for more than a year and a half. “Look at me, I’m so old!” Listening to interactions like this one may make us conscious of how we compare our bodies with others.

Body consciousness has come to mean something rather superficial in our culture. Instead of looking out for the well-being of others and ourselves, we lift up appearance and internalize self-judgment while leaving out what matters: genuine acceptance. It is easy to see how we get sidetracked: we are biologically wired to focus outside ourselves to guard against threats.[1] But when we look outside ourselves, we also take in harmful cultural messages (read: advertising) that relentlessly push us toward imitating others instead of being ourselves. It’s like we’re fashioning another body to inhabit, just like a hermit crab![2]

In this article, we focus on becoming body conscious as a spiritual practice, which benefits us as individuals and communities, too. We benefit from letting go of the notion that body consciousness is sinful. In fact, body unconsciousness leads us to ignore signs and look the other way. When we lack consciousness, it’s as if we sleepwalk through our lives. We leave ourselves open to being defined by and internalizing advertising and harmful cultural messages. God values our bodies. They are gifts for living out God’s divine image in the world.

The Image of God and the Body

The book of Genesis provides the basis for what it means to be created in God’s image. Humans are created on day six. The pattern for this day is different than the other days of creation; it is longer, and God speaks more than the narrator.[3] “Only humans are made in the image of God (Gen 1:26), and only they are given dominion (Gen 1:26-28).”[4] Dominion does not mean to plunder or dominate; it means to take care of. To be created in God’s image imbues us responsibility for relationship. “The royal use of ‘image’ in the Ancient Near East is democratized here. All human beings, male and female, and not just kings, ‘mirror God to the world.’”[5] In caring for our bodies, we reflect God’s image. God needs our bodies to fulfill God’s vision of the world. If we are busy copying others or trying to keep up appearances to fit in or please, we aren’t doing our part to make the vision into reality.

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Jesus is a model for being in his body and for our becoming body conscious. Mark’s Gospel portrays Jesus as a person with very human reactions: he gets annoyed with the disciples (9:19; 8:17f); groans and sighs (8:12); welcomes children for who they are, not as objects of teaching (9:36; 10:16); is full of compassion (1:41); loves the rich young man with mutual agape love (10:21); needs a cushion in the boat to sleep on (4:38).[6] Jesus is conscious of himself as a body person and lives out his call with this awareness. “Here is a Jesus who has a body, and the author of the Gospel of Mark has no problems about that.”[7] Jesus is a spiritual teacher who is also deeply body conscious. 

Jesus embraces his body and likewise connects with others’ body concerns and needs. This is good news for people on a spiritual path of love and awakening. There is no shame in being bodies. What is shameful are all the culturally conditioned thoughts and practices that make people, and thus bodies, think of themselves as “less than,” “not good enough,” or “inferior.” It is “a failed wholeness.”[8] Becoming body conscious helps gradually peel away layers of conditioned shame.[9] We embrace the goodness of our bodies. We welcome our wholeness and let go of negative shame-based messages.

Shaming the Body 

Do we say to our bodies and ourselves, “Shame on you for feeling that way!” “Shame on you for being that way!” Emotions can be tricky to work with because they seem to have a mind of their own. We can sometimes beat ourselves up for emotions that send valuable body signals. We tell ourselves: I am not supposed to be like this or feel like this. There must be something wrong here. This is especially the case for working with anger. “The capacity for anger is deeply imbedded in our brain and neurological system, and anger is activated when something in life threatens us.”[10] God created our brains and bodies with this capacity. We, of course, need to take steps to get to the source of the threat and determine its validity. But that we experience the emotion of anger does not in itself suggest anything is wrong with us. It suggests something is going right, if we can discern the source of the threat. 

We may have spent years in therapy and pursuing spiritual practice and still find ourselves being challenged with emotions. The ability to work with emotions may shift depending on the context. We might do fine when relating with friends and companions with whom we feel comfortable. But when we encounter difficult situations in contexts that are either unfamiliar or unfriendly, we feel less equipped. Becoming body conscious allows us to come from a place of self-love instead of self-shame. 

We cultivate healthy body consciousness by watching ourselves and letting go of negative shame-based practices toward emotions. These tendencies may be so ingrained and bound up with other cultural and spiritual messages that we may not realize how we are relating with emotional selves. Consider how you engage in and can let go of:

  • belittling (“It’s not that big a deal.”);
  • analyzing (“It must be related to an incident in my childhood.”);
  • facing down (“I’ll stuff it and move on.”);
  • lecturing yourself (“If you would only learn to speak up.”); and
  • drowning in the feeling (“I feel really awful that I can’t stop myself.”).[11] 

“Let my people go,” Moses implored the Pharaoh of Egypt. Like the Pharaoh, we can hold our bodies and emotions hostage. We can also set them free. 

Engage emotion-freeing practices with the body: 

Say “yes” to our bodies. 

Notice and resist negative cultural messages about our bodies. 

Create connections with people who practice healthy relationships with their bodies. 

Acknowledge bodies; do not render others “invisible.” 

Instill children, youth, and young adults with positive body messages. 

Becoming body conscious is not selfish or self-centered. It is, actually, just the opposite. In an interconnected world, any step we take toward wholeness has positive effects for ourselves and others. An image from Buddhist and Hindu cosmology captures this reality. “Indra’s Net” pictures every aspect of creation as an intricately interconnected net. At each intersection in the net is a jewel that reflects every other jewel.[12] Any change or shift to one part reverberates throughout the net. Beauty is reflected and refracted endlessly in the jewels. Imagine a spider’s web shimmering with water drops. Envision a web with crystals sparkling with color. The image casts a purpose for the practice of becoming body conscious. We come to see ourselves not in a narrow, self-centered way but as part of an expansive vision and reality in which all bodies reflect divine image. We become body conscious in order to mend the net of God’s creation by caring for all bodies.

Body Practices

Self-centered statements and practices come in a variety of forms. Notice what happens in your body when you: see people text mindlessly and talk loudly on phones; overhear a person talk about “being old” when he is much younger than others; endure someone complaining about “being taken advantage of” when they have significant economic means. 

Now, observe your body response when you listen to an elderly neighbor share his joy of sitting on the patio to “take in the greenery” when he used to sit inside; see a one-year-old take his first steps; learn of a friend needing surgery for a back injury; interact with a community member who is flourishing in his forties after a sudden cardiac arrest in his late thirties precipitated by a congenital heart defect.

We recognize we’re on a path of growth and awareness as we yearn to devote more time to reflective body practices. Even though we may get discouraged and feel impatient once in a while, we can own the experience and move through it with the support of others.

Practice: This is an exercise in becoming conscious. How are you discouraged and/or impatient in your life right now? Can you own it? Rest in your own truth. Rest in your own integrity. Receive the truth and integrity of others.


Excerpted from Body Connections by Michael S. Koppel. Copyright © 2021 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

[1] Bessel van der Kolk describes how the “most important job of the brain is to ensure survival, even under the most miserable conditions. . . . The brain is built from the bottom up” with the “evolutionary older” parts devoted to “moment-by-moment management of our body’s physiology and the identification of comfort, safety, threat, hunger, fatigue, desire, longing, excitement, pleasure, and pain.” In Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (New York: Penguin, 2014), 55–64.

[2] I credit this metaphor to my colleague and friend, Denise Dombkowski Hopkins.

[3] Denise Dombkowski Hopkins and Michael S. Koppel, Grounded in the Living Word: The Old Testament and Pastoral Care Practices (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 32.

[4] Dombkowski Hopkins and Koppel, Grounded in the Living Word, 33.

[5] Dombkowski Hopkins and Koppel, Grounded in the Living Word, 33.

[6] See Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel, I Am My Body: A Theology of Embodiment (New York: Continuum, 1995), 47.

[7] Moltmann-Wendel, I Am My Body, 47.

[8] Dombkowski Hopkins and Koppel, Grounded in the Living Word, 41.

[9] Shame has both positive and negative functions that we learn about in relationship with others. Positive shame helps us to learn boundaries between self and other and to know and follow rules. Negative or conditioned shame has made us feel inferior and insignificant. For a theological resource on connections among wounding and shame and sin, see Andrew Sung Park, From Hurt to Healing: A Theology of the Wounded (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2004).

[10] Andrew D. Lester, Anger: Discovering Your Spiritual Ally (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2007), 29.

[11] Eugene T. Gendlin, Focusing (New York: Bantam Books, 1981), 42–43.

[12] For a useful resource on this image, see Rajiv Malhotra, Indra’s Net (San Francisco: HarperCol- lins, 2016).

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