"Heavenly Bodies" is what Diane Spangler called a talk she gave recently a title that sums up the push-pull of faith and flesh. People want to look divine, sometimes in both senses of the word. Some of us wear burqas, and some of us use Botox. We worry about both the here-and-now and the hereafter and try to figure out what matters. We think of our bodies with both shame and delight.
An associate professor of psychology at Brigham Young University, Spangler has spent a lot of time considering the relationship between religious doctrine and the body. In her talk last week at a University of Utah symposium on body image, she reported on research showing that Mormon college students have significantly better "body satisfaction" than students from other religions or from no religion.
Her thesis: Mormon theological doctrine about the body in general is what leads those LDS students to be happy with their own bodies in particular.
That's not to say that most men and women who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints like everything about their bodies. Spangler herself does research on eating disorders, and some of the women in treatment are from BYU. Like most Americans 80 percent of women and 60 percent of men, according to one national study many LDS women look in the mirror and are at least mildly unhappy. Still, Mormons are more satisfied than most, she says.
The studies seem on their face to be counter-intuitive. Spangler's own studies, as well as two Texas studies, included women at BYU a university well-known for its high percentage of women in the market for a spouse. Wouldn't they be even more prone to fret about their looks?
Two of the studies, conducted by Jody Oomen-Early at Texas Women's University, surveyed women age 18 to 30 about a related issue eating disorders. Oomen-Early, who did her graduate work in health sciences at BYU, wondered if religious devoutness was correlated with increased eating disorder behaviors, a question that first occurred to her when an anorexic student at TWU told her that she felt she was "good" when she denied herself, and sinful when she ate.
Oomen-Early's research found that the more devout a Baptist or Methodist woman, the more likely she was to have eating disorder behaviors. But and this surprised her more devout LDS women were less prone to eating disorder symptoms. "Religious devoutness seemed to be a protective factor in LDS women," says Oomen-Early.
"Correlation does not equal cause or effect," Oomen cautions. "It just tells us that there is some kind of relationship there."
Eating disorders are complex, caused by a multitude of factors, she notes. "However, religion plays a significant role in the way one views the body in general and can play an important role in shaping a woman's feelings about herself."
Spangler's theory is that LDS theology about the body influences women's attitudes. Like Mormonism, other Christian religions believe that the body is eternal, but Mormon doctrine, she says, is unique in saying the body is also "progressive," becoming "perfected" forever. For Mormons, she says, the creation story about Adam and Eve sees Eve not as a temptress but as a facilitator, who helped Adam and humanity enter into the mortality they needed to progress toward godliness.
Across many religions, there's a long history of unease about the body, Spangler notes, and a long line of religious people who have tried to "overcome" their bodies in the pursuit of piety, through ascetic practices. The traditional Adam and Eve story, she says, can lead to the belief that the body is sinful and that control over the body is virtuous.
And that belief, she argues, has been incorporated in the modern secular quest for a "better" body, even if people don't realize it. Theology isn't the only influence on body image, says Spangler, "but I don't think you can ignore the legacy."
In Mormon doctrine, though, the body is not inherently a "vexation for the spirit," and it doesn't need to be tamed, she argues. To those who might argue that LDS rules regarding dress (longer shorts, higher necklines, etc.), tattoos, body piercings, multiple earrings and sex are all about taming the body, Spangler disagrees.
It's about modesty, not shame or control, she says. "The body is a gift, and modesty is practiced out of respect for this gift."
So, if you're content with your body, do you therefore tend to get lax about weight gain and exercise?"The findings are paradoxically the other way," says Spangler. "Religion aside, one of the things that is starting to emerge is that the more respect people have for their bodies, the better they treat it. The more likely they are to eat well, take vitamins, use a seat belt, exercise, not smoke. The more at peace they are with their bodies. And the less they're preoccupied with body transformation."