Recently, I met with young women, ranging in ages from 11-18. More insightful than anything I shared with them about the steady growth of negative body image in today’s culture were the responses they shared with me. Specifically, their response to one question keeps coming to mind.
In two different breakout sessions, I asked, “What words have you heard that negatively describe a girl’s body?” and these were the first two responses. In both groups.
In that order.
Now, those answers didn’t come immediately after I asked the question. In fact, I waited a long quiet minute before anyone spoke up. In both sessions, the group of chatty girls were initially silent after hearing the question. No one wanted to speak the words that they had either said about someone else or had heard about themselves.
And these two words, spoken aloud, fat and ugly, opened the floodgates of discussion concerning negative body image talk. How hurtful it is. How deceiving it is. How destructive it can be, if believed.
If our young people wake up in the morning thinking they are fat or ugly, if they go to the restroom and see fat or ugly as they glance at the mirror before walking out the door, if they believe they are fat or ugly as they brace themselves to stand in the ever-changing opinions of their peers, if they believe they are fat or ugly as they return home and sink into their beds for some much needed reprieve, then they live overwhelmed by lies.
From the moment they wake up until they close the day with some shut eye, our precious young people need to hear the truth from us. The twinkle in their eyes and the smiles on their faces are beautiful. The growing statures of their bodies are strong and can serve in life-changing ways. These growing people need to hear that their bodies are good.
As adults, we are challenged to love the bodies that God has given us. Paul states what this call to love looks like, quite matter-of-factly in Ephesians 5:29. “For no one ever hated his own body, but [instead] he nourishes and protects and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church” (AMP).
Adults and young people, BOTH, are called to love our bodies, not to hate them. We must operate from a place of love for the bodies we live in, not a place of hate, so that we can act on behalf of the bodies that live in.
How do we act on behalf of the current bodies we indwell? It’s here, in Ephesians. We start by fostering love.
The Bible invites us to love the bodies we live in, and as adults, we must heed the call.
And other areas of study call us to do the same. Current scientific research and psychological study prove that parents’ language around body image can profoundly affect a child’s body image perception, for bad or good. “Children learn how they should think and feel about their own bodies from listening to the adults around them,” asserts Renee Engeln, author of Beauty Sick: How the Cultural Obsession With Appearance Hurts Girls and Women. In other words, our kids learn, by the way we speak, if we love our bodies or hate our bodies. And choosing to love our adult bodies will communicate compassion — for ourselves, our growing kids, and their peers.
I venture to say that we foster love by showing respect for all different kinds of people — no matter their gender, race, size, or sexuality. Rebecca Puhl, the deputy director for the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut, asserts that adults have a responsibility to “communicate respect for people of diverse body sizes,” especially when fat talk and ugly talk become part of the family conversation.
When it comes to adolescence and our early teenage years, most of us don’t look back and say, “Yep, those were the best years of my life.” When we reflect on our middle school and early high school experience, we remember how insecure and awkward we felt in our skin.
For almost all of us, we fought the good fight of adolescent change. We hunkered down in the trenches of product consumption, reading the labels and watching commercials that promised beauty. I clearly remember sitting in the dilemma. Do I choose Cetaphil or Neutrogena? Am I normal or oily skin? If I go to school with this thing on my face, how will I ever survive the humiliation?
Appearance was everything. And not much has changed for adolescents. If anything, our young adults are more likely to fall victim to unrealistic “beauty standards” than ever before.
But when I look at my growing teenagers, their growing-tall frames and their shiny, oily faces, I have hope.
They will be teased and heckled and name-called and criticized in these years, but I will be truthful and confident and prepared and assertive in how I respond to the kids who call them fat, ugly, and even worse. They will hear, at least in our home, that the negative words that threaten to tear down their beautiful, growing bodies are not true because the God of the universe does not make mistakes.
He sees them and I see them, as worth loving and nourishing and protecting and cherishing, at all costs.
Link here to read a great article that influenced this essay; it’s by Caroline Bologna: 10 Everyday Ways to Foster a Healthy Body Image In Your Child.