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.
In the early 2000’s I imagine most people would have described me as an outgoing – albeit awkward – middle school student. A quick look at photos from that stage of life would show you I could care less what others thought of me. I had an affinity for comfortable clothes and my only request to the hair dresser was that she cut it just long enough for me to pull back in a ponytail each day. I had never given much thought to my appearance or weight. Not until one defining moment on a bus ride during a field trip in the beginning of eighth grade.
On our way home from the trip, a girl in my class turned around in her seat so that she was facing the rest of us huddled in the back of the bus. She told us that you were considered skinny if you could fit your thumb and middle finger around the wrist on your opposite arm. Sitting in the back of the bus, all my friends and I tried it. I’m not sure where this girl came up with this measurement of weight, but as an impressionable middle schooler, I still remember the feeling of embarrassment when the tip of my thumb and the tip of my middle finger did not connect. In this small incident, my perspective of body image and even my self-worth was forever changed.
As youth workers with a front row seat of what God is doing in the lives of teenagers, we have been tasked to listen to what the voices of culture are teaching them. It is not very often that the voice of culture and the truth of Scripture line up. The “wrist test” that I experienced in my middle school years comes in different forms today, and the voices of culture shout louder than ever before. Teenagers are daily influenced by messages about body image through Instagram ads, magazines in the grocery store check-out line, commercials on TV, and many other sources. Over time, these pervasive messages about body image can end up being where our students turn for their identity and self-worth. There are three specific truths in Scripture that I pray will speak louder to my students about their identity and self-worth than the insidious lies of our culture.
John 1:3 “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” There are many attributes that describe who God is, including creator. Think back to Genesis with me. Our God is the one who took an earth without form and created the heavens and the earth! He created light, darkness, land, vegetation, and living creatures. He also created man, in His own image! This verse in John 1, as well as the creation narrative in Genesis, remind us that it is the God of heaven and earth who created us. He is the grand artist of creation and each one of us, and He is perfect. I pray my students know that God’s Word confidently reminds us that our worth is not found in our reflection looking back in the mirror, but is found in being God’s beautiful creation.
1 Samuel 16:7 “But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.’” While some of Jesse’s sons were strong, tall, and seemed to Samuel to meet the standards in outward appearance as the next King of Israel, God reminded Samuel that he does not look at man’s outward appearance, but rather to the heart. David was not Samuel’s first choice, but he was who the Lord called! I pray my students know that God’s Word says our outward appearance will never qualify or disqualify us for a task that He has called us to!
1 Peter 3:3-4 “Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear—but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.” This is a countercultural verse, considering the billions of dollars that are spent on beauty products each year. When our identity and self-worth are mistakenly placed in our appearance, we miss the calling that God has put upon our lives to live as those adorned with the beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit. I pray my students know God’s Word speaks boldly about the calling of an imperishable beauty in our spirits!
As I reflect on these verses, I am reminded of the many ways I am still pressured to seek to find my identity and self-worth in things outside of Scripture. I’d be lying if I said I never felt like that eighth grade girl sitting in the back of the bus these days. The voices of culture are still loud sometimes, even at thirty years old. When I reflect on these Scripture verses above, as well as the many passages about our identity in Christ found in God’s Word, I am comforted by a God who never disqualifies us based on our outward appearance for what He has called us to do.
For other articles from this series, please see What I Would Say to a Student Struggling With Body Image and Boys, Body Image, and A Better Story.