Boys, Body Image, and a Better Story

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 guess you’ll just need to get the husky sized pants, honey.” This is the last thing you want to hear from your mom at the school uniform supply store – the place you loath more than any of the retail or grocery stores to which you are regularly dragged. Even so, an inevitable part of the private school experience is the routine purchasing of scratchy, starched-stiff, golden crested apparel. But there you are. And there I was – faced with the cringeworthy middle school realization that I was “husky.” What does that even mean?

Regardless of what the online dictionary says, “husky” has a negative connotation, at least to a middle school boy. It means chunky and overweight. It means the regular-sized clothes at the store are too small and you are shamefully out of place. No one likes their body that much in middle school and adjectives like “husky” don’t help.

The teenage years are fraught with awkward and shame-filled fumbling toward making sense of who God has made us to be physically – as “adults trying to happen.”[1] And this is true not just for young women, but also for young men. Whether the struggle is with weight, the onset of puberty and its effects, or how much your body aligns with the culturally-approved ideals of masculinity, issues of body image and insecurity are daily realities for young men. Shame is an all too familiar experience as they desperately try to make sense of what it means to be a man. Young men need our help as they navigate the shame-invested waters of the teenage years.

Body image is just as much a struggle for guys as it is for girls — and the gospel story speaks to both.

Boys and Body Image

Body image can be defined as how one thinks and feels about his or her body.  As boys grow and develop during adolescence, they are not only trying to make sense of their own development, but also society’s narrow and contradictory expectations of young men. Along with their female counterparts, teenage boys hear a variety of messages about their bodies. They’re told that their bodies are the prime determiners of social worth – that their appearance is everything. They’re told that their bodies are personal canvases for self-expression – that they’re fluid and can be self-determined. Furthermore, the combined force of digital technology, social media, and video games teach that disembodied living is the safer, more exciting option. Living through avatars and inhabiting online message boards, boys start to believe they can disconnect their bodies from their truest self.

On the one hand, boys are told that their bodies are of immense value – the key to social advancement and belonging. On the other hand, they’re told that bodies don’t matter and are fundamentally separate from the core of our personhood. These mixed messages about the body swirl in the heads of young men even though they are rarely identified or articulated.

But the mixed messaging about bodies is just half of the story. The other half is the inner experience that each young man has as he makes sense of his body. Typically, young men can waver to one extreme or another. The first is obsessive self-worship, and we see it in the compulsive over-exercising, protein-shake-drinking, and even steroid consumption in which many young men participate. To a lesser degree, we see it in excessive primping, hair-styling, and Axe-misting in front of the mirror, or in the meticulous selection of the right Jordan’s with the right jeans (or whatever is cool these days).

The other extreme is self-loathing, discontentment, and deep body shame. This can manifest itself in radical diets, binge eating and drinking, and poor hygiene. We witness it in self-mutilation as well as excessive tattooing and body piercing, or in baggy clothes, long hair that covers the face, and other concealing efforts.

Pulled to one extreme or the other, young men often come to see their bodies as either the path to experiencing “the good life,” or as a hindrance to it. Commonly, young men will vacillate between the two, being undisciplined and overindulgent at one moment and then hyper-disciplined and ruthless the next. All in all, our young men are confused about their bodies and how to make sense of them.

As in every area of life, when it comes to body image and our battle against confusion and shame, our help is in the name of the Lord (Ps. 124:8).  The story of Scripture, the gospel, reimagines and redeems the story we tell ourselves about our bodies. In general, there are four truths that God invites us to embrace.  Our bodies are…

Blessed with God’s Image

Obscured by Sin

Delivered in Christ’s Body

Yearning for Resurrection

Blessed with God’s Image

The initial good news about our bodies is that they have intrinsic value, dignity, and worth because we are all made in the image of God. Ponder this great truth: the God is who is “a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in His being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth”[2] has chosen to express His image in embodied beings like you and me. We display the radiance of our Father not just spiritually or rationally, but also in our bodies. What a marvel this is! God made us a “little lower than the heavenly beings,” crowning us with glory and honor (Ps. 8:5). Angels wonder at our unique, intimate relationship with our Creator (1 Pet. 1:12). Our bodies have been “fearfully and wonderfully made,” handcrafted in our mother’s womb (Ps. 139:13-14).  Every human being is blessed with God’s image, a profound and astounding truth.

Obscured by Sin

The story of creation is one of good news. But that news is shrouded by evil tidings. When Adam and Eve sinned in Genesis 3, it had physical, bodily effects in addition to spiritual realties.  God’s discipline manifests itself bodily – we now decay, experience great pain, and will inevitably die. Shame becomes the fundamental human experience when it comes to our body. We hide from God. We hide from our spouses. Our nakedness has been made shameful and we make great effort to cover ourselves and make ourselves appear better.  We are locked in the prison of our own shame and personal disdain. The goodness of our bodies is obscured by sin.

Delivered in Christ’s Body

But the good news is not just found in the story of creation. It is also in the story of Christ’s Incarnation. The good news is that Jesus “became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn. 1:14).  In Jesus, God redeems our bodies by taking on a male body Himself – giving it honor.  Furthermore, He honored the female body by being born of a woman. Through Jesus, humanity was “assumed and resumed, restored to its pristine wholeness and reset on the path to the maturation and fullness of that wholeness.”[3] We can have hope for our bodies because, through His own body, Jesus is making us new – body and soul. We are not doomed to our personal prisons of shame. Jesus liberates us and endows us with dignity once more. We are delivered in Christ’s body.

Yearning for Resurrection

And yet, the good news gets better! Jesus redeems us bodily through His bodily work on our behalf – a fully obedient life and a quintessentially obedient sacrificial death on the Cross – which culminates in His resurrection. Through His Spirit, He grants us the promise and hope of our own resurrection. We will not always be as we are: broken, decaying, limited, and sinfully desirous. As the Apostle wrote, “Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven” (1 Cor. 15:49).  Soon and very soon, we will follow our Lord Jesus in His path of resurrection. Like Him, we will still be “us,” but we will be better and we will be new!  Death will no longer hold us: “For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality” (1 Cor. 15:53). What good news!  This is our hope now as we find ourselves yearning for resurrection.

In light of what the gospel story says about our bodies, here are a few ideas of how we can encourage our young men:

  • Be keen observers of their daily, bodily habits. I don’t mean this in a creepy way, but habits tell you the story of how a young man views and relates to his body.How do they care for their bodies? How do they neglect or mistreat themselves? Look for areas of impulsivity, imbalance, insecurity, and obsessiveness.
  • Help students to identify the story and messages beneath the surface of their shame and body image issues. When did they start assigning those words to themselves? Who amplified their experience of shame in the past? Locker room experiences and other potentially humiliating situations could be fueling some of their self-conceptions and habits. Pornography use can have a significant effect. Family dynamics play a big role too. Untangling these competing stories about our bodies is challenging and takes time. Teenagers often need all the help they can get. Wise youth workers will discern when it is beneficial to refer students and their parents to professional counseling resources for additional support and care (often in cases of addiction, high anxiety, or other ongoing issues).
  • Highlight the gospel story as it pertains to the BODY acronym as you encourage students. The Church has largely suffered from an atrophied theology of the physical body. This can only be remedied by parents and church leaders recapturing a fuller biblical theology of the body. Everything we do we do in our bodies – as ensouled bodies or embodied souls. We don’t have a body; we are a body. Jesus, the God-man, is restoring us after His image, which means the bodily life in every way matters to Him and will be enjoyed in eternity. Help prepare students for a fuller life by teaching a fuller gospel.

[1] Dr. Walt Mueller of the Center for Parent-Youth Understanding (CPYU) has often used this phrase.

[2] Westminster Shorter Catechism Q&A #4

[3] Clapp, Rodney. Tortured Wonders: Christian Spirituality for People, Not Angels. (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006), 40.

For more Rooted resources, check out Alice Churnock’s talk from the Rooted 2017 Conference. 

Greg Meyer (MDiv, Reformed Theological Seminary; BSE, Mercer University) serves as the Assistant Pastor at Trinity Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Tuscaloosa, AL. Prior to this, he served in youth ministry for over a decade at churces in Missouri, Mississippi, and Georgia. He is the author of A Student’s Guide to Justification and has served as a conference speaker with Reformed Youth Ministries. Greg has written for the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding (CPYU), Modern Reformation, and Orthodoxy Orthopraxy, Covenant Theological Seminary’s blog. He also blogs on his own site Moment-By-Moment. Greg and his wife, Mary Jane, have four children.

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