Use and Shame in “Love Yourself”: How Justin Bieber Teaches Theology of the Body

Use and Shame in “Love Yourself”: How Justin Bieber Teaches Theology of the Body February 6, 2016

John Paul II at 1995 World Youth Day
John Paul II at 1995 World Youth Day

[Editor’s Note: Some will say it is a stretch to extend a Theology of the Body interpretation to an artist who has so obviously fallen prey to the most degraded aspects of pop culture.  The author writes, however, from the intuition that there is something more going on in Justin Bieber’s new album–an intuition with which JPII likely would have agreed.  In Crossing the Threshold of Hope, JPII responded to a series of questions from a news reporter, one of which cut right to the heart of this matter: “Is There Really Hope in the Young?”  He responded,

“…young people are always searching for the beauty in love.  They want their love to be beautiful.  If they give in to weakness, following models of behavior that can rightly be considered a ‘scandal in the contemporary world’ (and these are, unfortunately, widely diffused models), in the depths of their hearts they still desire a beautiful and pure love.  This is as true of boys as it is of girls.  Ultimately, they know that only God can give them this love.  As  a result, they are willing to follow Christ, without caring about the sacrifices this may entail.”

If young Augustine’s heart was restless, why not Justin Bieber’s?]

Justin Bieber’s new album Purpose has reached paramount success as he has come to mature. Whether you like the album or not, Justin Bieber’s music has evolved over the past two years since his last album was released, and his newfound honesty has definitely gained the attention of a more mature audience. Most avid radio listeners will have at least heard of his songs “What Do You Mean” and “Sorry”as they were immediate successes, but following slowly behind is his song “Love Yourself,” a personal favorite of mine now in the #2 spot on iTunes. What makes this song different from the others is not just the slow beat or soft acoustics, but the vulnerability and truth to the lyrics that he sings.

The song is addressing an ex-lover who seems to have mistreated him for some time, even as he “didn’t see what was going on.” He now laments that his lover often “rain[ed] on my parade” and got into clubs by “using my name.” Bieber didn’t want to “write a song ‘cause I didn’t want any one thinking I still cared,” but he swallowed his pride and bid that his lover “go and love yourself.” Although it can definitely be interpreted as Justin verbally “flipping the bird” to his ex, an all-too-common insult used today, the significance lies in the fact that he didn’t. Despite the fact that Bieber most likely does not have a background on theological teachings, it is true that God has placed within all humans the need to know love. Beneath the lyrics, Justin seems to expressing exactly that need.

The request he repeats in the refrain “you should go and love yourself” must be understood within one of the most important elements of the Catholic faith and Theology of the Body: the opposite of love is not simply hate, but use, or more specifically, the abuse of a thing. To use someone undermines a person’s dignity and his or her right to being loved and respected. Use reduces persons to things, essentially the underlying meaning of hedonism. This principle relates to our bodies, of course, since lustis not a display of love for a man or woman, but a love for pleasure which is only achieved by using another as an apparatus for such pleasure.

That said, however, the crossroads between use and Theology of the Body is not simply lust, but anything that exploits another human’s dignity. Such an example is seen in the opening stanza of “Love Yourself” as Bieber points out that his lover frequently used his name to benefit her social status and gaining access to certain clubs. This abuse is deeply damaging and undermines a person’s inherent dignity through other actions, such as telling Bieber his “opinion was wrong,” leaving him to feel “small,” “low,” and “vulnerable.”

So, why do we use people? Of course there are a multitude of reasons why we allow for use and the absence of love to fester. It is an inevitable reality for we who live in a postlapsarian state (after the Fall), but a theme that caught my attention while reading more on St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body was the idea of shame. It is a concept that, in my humble opinion, too often goes unexamined. Shame, as defined by Fr. Mike Schmitz, is “the awareness of having failed in someone else’s eyes. It always involves others.”

Whether felt in the eyes of God or someone else, shame occurs when one’s own dignity has been compromised in some way. Humans are made to know love—both in giving and in receiving—and shame damages a person’s ability to engage in both of these aspects. While I am unaware of the circumstances in which “Love Yourself” was written, we can assume that the ex-lover had some sort of shame being carried around, a misunderstanding of love, that caused her to wound another; to violate what Theology of the Body teaches us about love and to settle for use.

In St. John Paul II’s twelfth chapter “Fullness of Interpersonal Communication” in Theology of the Body, he says that shame is “substantially fear for one’s self” which “manifests…the need of affirmation and acceptance of this ‘self,’ according to its rightful value.” He adds that a person suffering from shame “experiences it…both within himself, and externally, before the ‘other.’” Shame, contrary to what the secular world might think of it, affects both our own selves and those around us.

How, then, do we to fix this shame? In the words of transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, “The only remedy for love is to love more.” For a more theologically grounded answer, Fr. Mike Schmitz in his video blog Shame vs. Guilt says it is to be welcomed into a community where wounds can be exposed and healed, as man “is made to be akin to himself” or in ipso, in communion with one another; to exist as person for the other person.

So, yes, I would say Justin Bieber is spot on in realizing that his ex-lover has no idea what love truly is and therefore had simply been using him as a result of her shame. What she is truly seeking, to love in its purest form, is something she must first attain herself.

So, as Justin says, “you should go and love yourself.”

Go! Run and find where it is you can trustingly dispose of your shame and heal the wound that you have been carrying around. Entrust it to another in communion with persons who are capable of loving you in its purest form and without reservation. And love yourself. Immerse yourself completely in this love, in proper communion, so that shame and use can be rid of and to give love can become possible again. This new love which can be properly given and received allows for, as JPII says, “the new consciousness of the sense of one’s own body: a sense which, it can be said, consists in a mutual enrichment.” It is necessary at all times to remain conscious of one’s own doings and behavior and the reasons behind them.

By running to the Lord or to someone we can trust, shame can be prevented and the dignity of love can be maintained. John Paul II even tells us what God actually demands from man:

“he should be aware of the internal impulses of his heart, so as to be able to distinguish them and qualify them maturely. Christ’s words demand that in this sphere, which seems to belong exclusively to the body and to the senses, that is, to exterior man, he should succeed in being an interior man. He should be able to obey correct conscience, and to be the true master of his own deep impulses, like a guardian who watches over a hidden spring.”

In other words, we have the moral duty of forming our consciences to what is right and true so as to preserve the teachings of Christ, thereby allowing us the fullness of experiencing the love of man and woman as it was meant to be.

On shame, St. John Paul the Great says, “You are not the sum of your weakness or failures or sins, you are the sum of the Father’s love for you and your capacity to be an image of Jesus Christ to the World.” To this, I’m sure Justin Bieber would add “you should go and love yourself.”


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Ellen Petersen is a sophomore at Benedictine College studying Journalism and Mass Communications.  In her free time she enjoys discovering new and eclectic coffee shops around the area, as well as baking, running, and watching The Lord of the Rings Trilogy on repeat.


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