What I Would Say to a Student Struggling With Body Image
As summer kicks off, many teenagers will experience heightened pressure surrounding body image, leading to disordered eating for some. Thankfully, the gospel provides good news for bodies: They are created by God for good, redeemed by the Incarnation of Jesus, and awaiting a resurrection like his. In this series of articles, Rooted writers discuss how we can help students navigate identity struggles in light of this gospel of grace.
“I really want to have a thigh gap,” Sarah said casually after describing an Instagram picture she’d recently taken with a group of friends. She was a beautiful, blond, lightly-freckled, thinner-than-average 17-year-old. And her perception of desirability was heavily influenced by culture’s current highlighted trend: the thigh gap.
The thigh gap wasn’t even something I’d heard of before. And my mind began to spin.
How is it that the genetically-determined angle of our femurs and surrounding tissue on our upper legs has come to represent attractiveness?
If I’m honest, my gut reaction was a cynical and surprised, “Seriously? What is this nonsense?” But thankfully, the Spirit kept my mouth shut as I silently considered Sarah’s words and prayed.
A loaded question entered my mind: “Where in my life do I have a similar desire for a change in part of my body, that I might be beautiful to someone, that I might make myself more worthy of pursuit?”
I wanted to be able to empathize with Sarah, to have a grasp on both my own dignity and depravity in relation to my body image, before I responded. If I answered only with biblical truth, devoid of my own heart and experience, I would be circumventing the work of relationship, the invitation to connect with my student through Christ, instead of merely offering her words – even words of Truth.
Jesus came as the embodied Word, the One whose actions, words, and emotions displayed and conveyed the love of God. Granted, he could speak a word that changed the world, for he was God. But more often, we read accounts of him slowing down, seeing the person in front of him, and connecting with him or her in both grace and truth. Over and over again, we read in Scripture of the various ways he entered into messy, unfinished situations in order to love well. He drew near to the most vulnerable, whether they were outcasts like Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-9), the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-26), or the blind beggar outside of Jericho (Luke 18:35-43). His life displayed and epitomized God’s heart for his people: an ever-pursuing and life-reorienting love.
Back to Sarah: As I took an extra-long sip of coffee, I recognized my temptation to avoid vulnerability with Jesus and myself. I didn’t want to face that part of myself – the part that longed to be desirable, to be seen as beautiful. I would much rather have pulled out a Bible verse and moved the conversation along. But I was reminded of how gently and graciously a mentor had received my longings and insecurities when I was in high school. She had moved toward this tender part of me, bringing Christ to me through herself, instead of distancing herself with a “fix-it” approach.
Prayer and curiosity are two of God’s greatest gifts to us when we react internally with confusion and judgment toward statements like Sarah’s (“I really want to have a thigh gap”). Asking God for help and allowing ourselves to be curious creates a little bit of space for us to reorient to the Spirit, considering how we can move toward our student.
As I prayed, the Lord brought to mind the very basic questions of “What is a thigh gap, and how’d you learn about it?” And we moved into conversation about culture’s idea of beauty and how it shifts and changes through time. I then shared about my own desire, like hers, to be seen as beautiful and talked a little about imago dei and God’s design for beauty. I think it can be helpful to connect creational longings (Genesis 1 and 2) to the conversation about body image, since we were created by a God who gave us bodies intended to worship and enjoy him. He gave us a dignity and worth that can’t be shaken by the brokenness that entered the world through sin (Genesis 3).
As you consider what you may want to say in response to a statement like Sarah’s, I’d encourage you to ask how Jesus has ministered to you through Scripture in relation to your own body image in the past. It is good for us to have solid theological responses to topics like body image; however, we risk offering a detached, (ironically) disembodied answer when we don’t pause to consider where the Spirit has met us in own relationship to our bodies.
Has he brought you to Psalm 139, where we’re reminded that we were created beautifully and intentionally by a God who knows us more intimately than we know ourselves (13-16))? Has he broken into your negative self-talk with the Matthew 3:17 truth we get to receive in Christ (“This is my beloved Son(/daughter), with whom I am well pleased.”)? Has he started chipping away at the lies you believe about your worth through the wildly-amazing, Creator-connecting Genesis 1:27 words, “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them”? Does Jesus’ compassionate, tender way of moving toward those who seem most undesirable and unlovable (Mark 1:40-45) knock at the door of your fears that you, yourself are not lovely enough? As your eyes are drawn from yourself and your own body image insecurities back to Jesus, share that with your student. Allow his or her gaze to follow the path that leads back to the Author of beauty Himself.
In a culture that regularly sexualizes and commodifies women’s bodies, especially, we need a different story. We need the Truest Story, which begins with the dignity of being made as image-bearers and ends with the resurrection of our bodies in glorious form. We need the hope and redemption that Jesus brings as he draws near to those with broken bodies and broken perceptions of their bodies. We need redeemed eyes, through Christ, to see the beauty of imago dei in our students and ourselves beyond the world’s fleeting and sorely-lacking definition of beauty.
We need Jesus.
And so, I wish I could tell you this conversation with Sarah ended with her huge epiphany of discovering the glorious freedom of being a beloved image bearer whose beauty was created, seen, and secured by the God of All Creation. But let’s be honest: youth ministry is far more often a seed-planting venture than a harvest-reaping one.
We talked, we laughed, I prayed, and I attempted to connect with her through Christ. We began a conversation that I hope she will continue having for the rest of her life. And I was left with the reminder that my own beauty isn’t up for defining by a culture that tells me I need to have a thigh gap: it is given to me and seen by the One who makes all things beautiful. He is the One ever-at-work, healing our relationship with our bodies and our vision of ourselves and of others – thanks be to God.
Take a look at another youth pastor perspective here.