In October I attended a virtual nutrition presentation on the topic of body image. I heard from three experts about the latest research related to body image. Of course, the whole time I was listening I was thinking about my friends at Rooted and how the information in the presentation might benefit parents, youth ministers, and adolescents. Furthermore, I was thinking about the hope offered to those who are affected by the suffering and sins related to body image when the gospel of Jesus Christ is joined with the research and best practices the presenters offered. I want to share the research, some practical takeaways, and add a spiritual perspective to the body image conversation.
Body Image Research
When it comes to body image, adolescents often establish a cycle they carry with them into adulthood. Individuals sense a weight stigma, which increases stress hormones, which affects physical activity and eating behaviors. Lack of physical activity and poor nutrition can then lead to an increase in stress hormones, leading to psychological distress that eventually will manifest into physiological distress. Weight stigmas that are received by adolescents are resulting in psychological and physiological health conditions in adulthood.
According to professionals, messaging channels, such as social media, the school environment, and the sports culture relay to youth a variety of messages about body image. A few examples of these messages are hypersensitivity, weight bias, fat shaming, and stereotyping.
A hyper focus on BMI from the healthcare community has not been all that helpful in recent years. In fact, the latest brain, hormone, and genetic research shows that BMI should be adjusted for race, gender, and obesity-related disease.
Weight-related teasing and bullying in adolescence leads to an increase in overweight and obesity in adulthood, having an affect even 15 years later. Adolescent girls are primarily influenced by messages they receive from peers and family, while boys are primarily influenced by peer messaging.
Two Takeaways for Parents and Youth Leaders
Two practical applications parents and youth ministers can derive from this research are (1) to acknowledge biases, and (2) to move from a weight-centric to a behavior-centric model of health.
First, we acknowledge our own biases, as well as the cultural biases to which the youth in our lives are regularly exposed. My son started playing lacrosse last year and it was a joy for me to see the benefits of every type of body size on the lacrosse field. The best teams were composed of players of all sizes and shapes. Every position seemed to benefit from a different body size and skill set, and victory came when everyone was “crying what I do is me; for that I came,” as Gerard Manley Hopkins so eloquently puts it in his poem “As Kingfishers Catch Fire.”
Second, we can encourage evidence-based healthy behaviors (for example, 60 minutes of physical activity; 1.5 cups of fruit and 2.5 cups of vegetables for females, and 2 cups of fruit and 3 cups of vegetables for males; and drinking plenty of water), rather than a specific weight goal or body size. And, then, model those behaviors by filling our refrigerators, pantries, dinner tables, family time, and youth groups with fruits, vegetables, water, and physical activity.
I am a dietitian, with a PhD and 20 years of academic and professional experience related to nutrition and health education—and I still struggle with these issues in my heart and household every day. Despite having the latest research, knowledge, and skills, I have not cracked the code on getting children to eat more vegetables or choosing a piece of fruit as a dessert myself. It took a decade to train my palate to prefer a non-sugar sweetened beverage and a cancer diagnosis to reduce my alcohol intake. As a Christian, of course, this bent toward what is not best is no surprise. After all, the heart is deceitful above all else (Jer. 17:10). And, if there is anything the food and beverage industries have succeeded in it is connecting ultra-processed foods, sodas, and alcohol to our hearts (I dare you to watch the commercial to see what I mean).
Biblical Language of Body Image
Perhaps an illustration from another realm of life can offer us a tool to think about our communication about body image from a biblical framework. My colleague’s son is growing up as a trilingual child, speaking Chinese with his mother, Arabic with his father, and English when they are all three together. According to research, benefits of learning a second or third language include better skills for solving tasks and problems, better critical thinking skills, more creativity, greater mental flexibility, and better memory. In a similar way, when we give teens a Biblical language about body image, we are giving them benefits that they can carry from adolescents into adulthood.
In America, the body image conversation is mostly bilingual. First, the language of body positivity focuses on fat-positive, self-love, and self-acceptance messages. Second, the language of body neutrality may feel good about the body one day and not as good about it the next day, and focuses on what the body can do rather than what it looks like. While there is nothing wrong with either of these languages about body image, the Bible offers us a third language—and a critical one.
Sinful man has always had a body image problem. Our Creator God made us in his image (Gen. 1:27) and instructed Israel, his people, to make no images of him (Ex. 20:4) because they themselves were to be image-bearers to the watching world. At the heart of the body image conversation is the (un)original sin, which we have all inherited, of deciding for ourselves what is good and evil, rather than abiding by God’s definition of good and evil. God’s people in the Bible constructed idols of gold (Ex. 32), God’s people today are constructing idols from our own bodies.
When Jesus arrives as the new Adam, he re-centers the body image conversation on the restored image of God. By the power of the Holy Spirit, the fruit of the Spirit produces spiritual antioxidants in us: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23). We don’t just strive for body-positivity or body-neutrality—we remember, “and God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Gen. 1:32). We steward our bodies in order to lean into the love and service we are called to in the name of Jesus (Mat. 20).
Christians, in our homes, churches, and schools, can teach the biblical language of body image as the restored image of God. The Old Testament gives us the picture of God’s image-bearers being gardeners, cultivating and growing families, neighborhoods, and communities through their work and creativity. The New Testament gives us the picture of God’s people living out this call as followers of Jesus in the fellowship of believers. By the power of the Holy Spirit, we carry on cultivating as image-bearers to the watching world.
In the places where our adolescents are given a narrow or shallow definition of an acceptable body, Jesus offers a message that is wider and deeper. Jesus’ broken body on the cross, raised and reigning as King, becomes our borrowed beauty and strength. The Spirit enables us to act “in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—Christ—for Christ plays in ten thousand places, lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his, to the Father through the features of men’s faces.”
We are lovely because Christ has made us lovely—and not just our bodies, but also the work and service we do with our bodies. As Christian parents and youth leaders, beyond simply feeding our kids more fruits and vegetables, we can feed them a message of hope with a Biblical language of body image.
Bible Project. (2016, March 21). Image of God. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YbipxLDtY8c
Cody Stanford, F., James, D., Tewksbury, C. (2021, October 16-19). Body Image and Cultural Compassion: Reimagining Nutrition Intervention [Conference presentation]. Food & Nutrition Conference & Expo, Virtual.