Why Body Image is an Australian issue

Australian of the year 2023, Taryn Brumfitt, is a worthy winner who is fighting an issue that is literally aimed at saving the lives of children. Brumfitt came to prominence through her relentless work to fight for children who grow up hating their bodies. 

Brumfitt believes that issues surrounding children’s negative views of their bodies is “a paediatric health emergency.

“”We really need to help our kids across Australia and the world because the rates of suicide, eating disorders, anxiety, depression, steroid use, all on the increase related to body dissatisfaction.”

She argues that this relationship with our bodies results from ‘learned behaviour’. Key to her message is that “we weren’t born into the world hating our body”. In other words, our society is teaching and influencing our children to have negative thoughts about their bodies, which of course can lead to serious consequences. 

Brumfitt’s mission is to influence and encourage children to embrace their physicality, and not be defined by social influencers and so called culturally perfect images. 

Any parent with a daughter (and sons for that matter) is committed to the well-being of our children. Sadly, this isn’t always the case but it is true 98% of the time.  I imagine millions of parents, and Aussies more generally, resonate with and applaud the message from our new Australian of the year. We may or may not have first hand experience with body image disorders, but it is clear to most of us that Brumfitt is alerting us to a real problem that is capturing our young people. As Brumfitt testifies, it’s not only teenage girls who experience harmful views of their physical selves, but boys as well, and it is also present among young children, 

“It’s getting younger and younger I have to say, I only spoke to a six-year-old recently who was dieting”.

Photo by Nothing Ahead on Pexels.com

There is something right and beautiful about Taryn Brumfitt affirming the goodness of the human body.

Australia has an uncomfortable relationship with the human body. As I heard the news of our new Australian of the year,  it’s hard not to notice a massive disconnect, not in what Brumfitt said in her Australia Day speech but in the broader narrative in our society. You see, there exists a sizeable disjunction between the message Brumfitt is advocating and what is now mainstream thinking about the human body. 

I don’t know Brumfitt’s views about transgenderism and how she makes sense of this new and sudden wave of bodily denial, but one thing is for certain, her calls to embrace our physical body is at odds with the ideology that is now sweeping our society and being forcibly taught and embraced from GP rooms to school classrooms and TikTok ‘programs’.

Our culture has adopted a modern day Gnosticism, where the ‘truest’ self is divorced from the physical. We are taught that the real you isn’t the physical body you inhabit but the immaterial desire and feelings that one experiences in the mind.  Gender has been divorced from sex and personal identity cut away from physicality. We can’t of course reduce our humanness to physicality for we are spiritual and social beings and thinking and feeling beings. We are more than flesh and blood and DNA but we are not less than those things. 

We are witnessing a generation of young people who no longer feel comfortable in their own skin, but are now taught from school to TikTok that their physical bodies betray them, and they may well be living in denial of their true selves.

The end result is that now 34% of 18-24 no longer believe they are heterosexual, embodied beings attracted to the opposite sex, but rather they are spread across an imprecise and growing spectrum of self-defining and often bodily denying sexuality and gender. 

Many girls and boys now undertake psychological and medical pathways to transition away from their physical sex. The number of young people beginning hormonal medications, psychological treatments, and eventual surgical mutilation of the body, is skyrocketing. We are talking about an increase in gender dysphoria by 1000% in just the space of a few years. Call me, Wiliam of Ockham but this drastic and sudden increase cannot be explained by natural selection. There is something else in the water. Indeed, the iceberg that looms beneath the surface is rightly scary and we’re ill equipped to do little more than chip away at it. 

While gender related rejection of the body is deeply personal and impacts the individual, the worldview attached is fast becoming compulsory across all spheres of life.  For instance, in the United Kingdom, women are having to fight the government to prevent male rapists from being sent to women’s prisons because the man wishes to identify as female. The World Athletics body has agreed to let transgender women compete against women. The next women’s soccer world cup will be open to men competing (those who say they are women).  And when women speak up, they are ridiculed, ostracised and at times threatened. Take note of how the disgusting treatment toward JK Rowling. 

Do we see the confusion? Here I say confusion because one wants to think the best of people‘s intentions. Parents who see their children in torment will do anything to find relief. And so if a doctor or counsellor says transition, then I understand them trusting the advice of the professionals. But surely there is also an ear of hypocrisy as well. How can we preach on the one hand, be comfortable in your body, and then insist on the other,  reject your body and have it mutilated and permanently damaged in the name of this Gnosticism?

In her book Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters, journalist Abigail Shreier explores the transgender phenomenon. She blames an ideology that has captured the heart of western cultures. It’s what Carl Truman refers to as ‘expressive individualism. Gender expression has become the trend, and because it’s now described in terms of human rights,  no one is allowed to question, doubt or help adjust a child’s sense of identity. 

In today’s Australia even questioning a child’s ‘felt’ gender is paramount to the worse kind of blasphemy. In Victoria, parents, teachers, pastors,  and pretty much anyone can find themselves charged by the police and imprisoned should they not fully affirm and support a person’s preferred gender identity. We are now forcibly required to ignore the physical body and appearance. 

Leaving aside the elephant in the room, it is a good thing when our Australians of the year highlight important social issues that impact the lives of real people. It’s one of the gains in recent years that has been awarded to us through this prestigious accolade.

Those living with discomfort and disconnect with their bodies need our care, not hatred, our kindness not our complicity with a dehumanising project. As much as awareness of these issues helps and as much as positive thinking and imaging may benefit youth as they learn to live in their body, I think Christianity has something to add.  The Bible gives us what I believe is an even better message, one that is more secure. The ultimate resolution doesn’t lay in the self, for the self is existentially unstable. If the best of me can fail and disappoint, what about the rest of me? If this was not the case, we wouldn’t have a generation of Australians journeying down this dangerous and harmful pathway to physical destruction and mental anx. The Bible gives us a better story and greater hope. 

Psalm 139 exclaims, 

“For you created my inmost being;

    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;

    your works are wonderful,

    I know that full well.

My frame was not hidden from you

    when I was made in the secret place,

    when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.

Your eyes saw my unformed body;

    all the days ordained for me were written in your book

    before one of them came to be.”

Grounding our personhood in the knowledge that we are wonderfully made by God, is liberating and securing. The Bible’s story doesn’t end there. The Scriptures also acknowledge ways we often hide from ourselves (and from God). The Bible points out the realities of the darkness in the world and in our own hearts. The story however doesn’t end with darkness and despair, for the Scriptures move us to the culmination of the story, 

“Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—  and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” (Hebrews 2:14-18)

There is a constancy in our world of body image flaws and troubles. There is an anchor for all the spiritual and material wants and sins. This Jesus, the eternal Son of God, didn’t abandon the body; he became human for us. He entered the physical and spiritual turmoil that fills the world, taking its sins and shame in order to bring redemption and life. He understands. He makes atonement. He helps. That is a good news message for Australians today. 

Essendon apologizes to Andrew Thorburn

Religious freedom received an early Christmas present this year with Essendon Football Club today issuing an apology to Andrew Thorburn. 

The forced resignation of Andrew Thorburn in October, following less than 24 hours in the job as Essendon’s new CEO, was one of the biggest stories in Victoria for 2022. After journalists dug into his church’s website, they found sermons where both homosexual practices and abortion were referred to as sinful. 

It was a classic case of cut and paste; find something controversial and ignore the rest. There was one insensitive analogy contained in one of the quoted sermons, but otherwise, the views expressed by Thorburn’s church are what you will find in any Christian Church across Australia. City on a Hill, is a mainstream Anglican Church that preaches the sermon Gospel that is common around Australia and which is deeply embedded in historic Christianity. In today’s age of tolerance and diversity, classical Christian views are considered today’s heresy and worthy of public humiliation and even loss of employment. Thorburn’s sin was that he attends COAH and until recently served as Chair of the Council. 

The Essendon board clearly thought that were acting with the backing of the new moral majority. Certainly, there was plenty of outrage found in printed media and Premier Daniel Andrews was quick to grab the footy and run with it. Perhaps the more accurate metaphor was that Andrews tackled the man without the ball! He said,  

“those views are absolutely appalling.”

“I don’t support those views, that kind of intolerance, that kind of hatred, bigotry, is just wrong.

“Those sort of attitudes are simply wrong and to dress that up as anything other than bigotry is just obviously false.”

Business columnist for The AgeElizabeth Knight, argued that the Thorburn case is proof that religion and business don’t mix and Christians holding to, you know, Christian things, should be excluded from the business world.

“Business doesn’t mix with religion in the same way it doesn’t mix with pleasure. Some would argue that AFL is a religion among its legion of fans, but first and foremost it’s a business. Andrew Thorburn and Essendon’s management that stupidly appointed him as the chief executive should have understood this.”

“A decade or two ago, corporations and their stakeholders may have tolerated Thorburn’s association with a church with strong views on the homosexuality and abortion. But not today.

Whether Thorburn personally holds those extreme opinions is irrelevant, Essendon is a valuable and highly recognised brand, and it cannot afford to be tarnished by any proximity to views that are deemed offensive by a big chunk of its fan base and the broader community.”

At the time, Andrew Thorburn released a statement in which he fairly summed up the situation,  

“ today it became clear to me that my personal Christian faith is not tolerated or permitted in the public square.”

While Essendon FC initially responded in tune with the public cheer squad, they almost certainly acted outside the law. Legal experts have for months suggested that Thorburn has a case against the football club for unlawful religious discrimination. 

Andrew Thorburn engaged with lawyers and has now engaged with Essendon. Today, the football club has formally apologised to him and donated an undisclosed sum to an ethics institute. Thorburn has agreed to drop all legal action against the club. 

Will others follow suit and apologise for their role in this unnecessary saga?

This is a welcome outcome. One, it communicates to the business world that you can’t push out Christians (and people of other faiths) from the workforce on account of their religious associations or beliefs. More importantly, as someone who has been watching at some distance, I am thankful for the way Andrew Thorburn has responded throughout. I didn’t read or hear any vindictive words or slanderous retorts, as did fill much of the discourse surrounding the story. Rather, he approached the club and offered to help on a volunteer basis. He didn’t demand financial recompense as he might have done, instead, the agreed sum is going to a charity. 

The Bible verse that comes to mind as I learn of how Andrew Thorburn has behaved is 1 Peter 3:9.

“Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.”

While the law may have come to Thorburn’s defence in this instance, Victorians are very much aware of how religious freedoms have diminished somewhat in recent years. And given the Government and current cultural preferences, these freedoms are likely to further narrow in times ahead. So while we were shocked by the appalling treatment Thorburn received by Essendon, our Premier and others, I’m grateful for the gracious way Thorburn has responded, and it’s one that we may do well to consider for ourselves when that day arrives. 

You see, Christians can hold to Jesus’ teaching about marriage and about life, and treat others with kindness and grace. Accepting the Bible’s vision for human life and human sexuality doesn’t breed bigotry, but a profound desires for the best for others. Holding these things together may be anathema to our zealous culture, but they can and do belong. Christians don’t choose between truth and love, or between grace and goodness. Indeed, this is one of the wonders of the Christmas message.

When it comes to Christmas, once we’ve unwrapped all the pageantry, presents, and tinsel, we find the message of God come to earth. The infant born in Bethlehem was the universe’s maker, true God from true God. God didn’t leave heaven to experience the most ordinary of beginnings because his view of the human condition is one of a premiership winning footy team. God saw helpless, hopeless, sinful people breaking all the rules of the game and thumbing their noses at the umpire. Knowing this, God determined, in love I want to redeem them.

The Bible text for my Christmas Day sermon puts it this way, 

“ we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.” (Hebrews 2:9)

Today is a good day for Victoria. Christmas Day points us to an even better day that can be known every day regardless of how the wind is blowing in old Melbourne town.