Earlier this month, on the Women in Youth Ministry Blog, we began a series discussing the relationship between our bodies and the work we do. In that blog, I shared pieces of my own story with an eating disorder and how it has impacted me as a leader in Youth Ministry spaces. You can read it here!
Over the last few years, the Body Positivity movement has been making waves on social media, marketing campaigns, and more. For many, it has been a long-awaited moment where individuals of all sizes, abilities, and backgrounds are being represented. But, body positivity can feel like a reach for many people, especially youth, as their bodies are constantly changing, feeling foreign and awkward. From this reality, another movement has emerged: Body Neutrality. But you may be wondering, what exactly is Body Neutrality?
Body Neutrality is the space between disliking our bodies and loving them – for so many of us, loving our body can feel like a stretch. One of the main goals of neutrality is to lessen negative self-talk about your body and living authentically and peacefully in the body you have. It focuses on everything your body does for you every day, rather than what it cannot do. This can feel immensely more attainable than loving your body every day because the reality is putting on a smile doesn’t change our relationship to our bodies. Body positivity can be a beautiful thing, but it often takes years of work to truly learn to accept then love the bodies we exist in. Body Neutrality takes away what can feel false about the body positive movement and allows us to be real with ourselves about how we’re feeling while still recognizing our body as good.
But why does this matter, and what does it have to do with Youth Ministry? How does seeing our bodies as strong and capable affect our and our youth’s mentality? I want you to sit for a moment and think about any ads you may have seen today for diets, or if you’ve heard anyone speaking recently about getting that “summer body” they’ve been desiring… When we are wrapped up in negative body image and body talk, we are more likely to feel bad about who we are. The obsession with our bodies and how they are received in the world starts from a young age and impacts self-esteem, which directly affects mental health, suicidal ideation, substance abuse, and more. And let’s not forget that the diet industry is using this negative self-talk against you to make money; currently, it is a 50 billion dollar industry.
So how do we, as women in youth ministry, create spaces for all youth, leaders, volunteers, and more to come and feel comfortable to be themselves and not fear body talk?
Here are some actionable steps you can take to make your youth ministry space more body neutral:
- Focus on Language | Our society is a little obsessed with commenting on other people’s bodies, diets, and food choices. The first big step we can take is to just try talking about something else, anything else. When you want to compliment someone, talk about their intelligence, their humor, their joy – and avoid talking about their body. Words such as healthy, fat, diet, heavy, thin, etc., can be incredibly damaging to youth. Even more sublte coded language (“you’re looking so fit!” “I’m just trying to eat clean”) can have an impact.
- Redirect Body Talk/Shaming | This may take some practice and patience. We have become so accustomed to body talk, we may not even recognize it happening in our groups, but it most likely is. If you hear someone say, “I’m on a diet so…” or, “I feel fat…” or, “This shirt looks stupid on me…”, or anything else like this, offer a redirection. Attempt to change the conversation away from body talk and towards something else.
- Speak 1-on-1 with Youth | If certain youth have a habit of chronic body talk about themselves or others, pull them aside and check in with them. Youth may feel pressure to look or act a certain way. By walking alongside them to change these behaviors, you can offer support. If you feel there is something larger happening that is beyond your purview, it may be time to speak with their guardian. Most eating disorders and body dysmorphic disorders start in adolescence, and some studies suggest that 10 in every 100 youth struggle with an eating disorder. As you check in with youth, resist the urge to fight fire with fire. Responding to negative body talk with positive body talk (“But you’re so skinny!” “You shouldn’t feel bad about your body, I would never fit in those clothes”) doesn’t do the crucial work of unrooting the issue itself.
- Watch “Diet” Talk at Meals/Snacks | Youth Ministry is centered around food at times; we bring snacks, eat meals together around the table, but this time can be when most negative talk around food occurs. Avoid speaking about “healthy” options or certain diets – diet culture is rooted in our society, so breaking this habit can be difficult. Remember, no food is truly good or bad, food is just food, it doesn’t have moral value. Also, keep mental notes if you notice youth who avoid eating around the group or eat just a few bites and play with their food. If this becomes a concern, make sure you connect with them and possibly their guardian.
- Ask Questions and Keep Learning | Creating body-neutral spaces takes time; if you feel like it’s not working, keep at it. Also, keep learning! There are so many people working in this space to promote body neutrality. Below is a list of Authors to Read, Documentaries to Watch, and Podcasts to Listen to!
- Ayla Freitas Ghibaudy – Body Neutrality: The Liberating Practice of Accepting Your Body Exactly As It Is
- Autumn Whitefield-Madrano – Face Value: The Hidden Ways Beauty Shapes Women’s Lives
- Kelsey Miller – Big Girl: How I Gave Up Dieting and Got a Life
Remember, youth pastors are not therapists, so if you see behavior around food that you think might be dangerous to a young person’s well-being, help parents find the resources they need to get professional help for their children. For many people suffering from eating disorders, there is a gap of years between when the disordered behavior begins and when they receive treatments. This is particularly true for those who don’t fit our mental image of eating disorders, such as men, non-white folks, LGBTQ+ people, and people in larger bodies.
This work isn’t easy, but it is important, and it is worth the effort we put into it. Every time we make our youth spaces safer and more inclusive, we invite more people into experiencing the love of Christ.
This blog is the second of a three-part series that will talk about how we as Christians, leaders of young people, women, and humans, relate to our own bodies in a way that is healthy and life-giving for both us and the people we serve. We’ll be talking about practical steps for creating more body-positive spaces in youth ministry and how to help our young people see their bodies as what they are: not problems to be solved, but gifts from their Creator, given endless worth, and made in the very image of God.