Over the last few weeks on the Women in Youth Ministry Blog, I have been exploring the overwhelming reality of eating disorders, mental health, and body image that is present in our society – and the effect they have on us as Women in Youth Ministry, on the youth we work with, and beyond. In the first part of this series, I shared how eating disorders have affected my life and transformed me as a Youth Leader. In the second part of the series, we dove headfirst into the world of Body Neutrality and how to create Body Neutral spaces for our youth, along with resourcing you for further education. Now, in the final part of this series, I want to encourage you to take this to the youth in your context, working to empower and embrace themselves exactly as they are.
The world around us is obsessed with telling us that we are not enough as we are. Yet, as Christians, we know that God tells us we are made in God’s image. This tension is where we live our lives, trying to balance these views. This battle of understanding oneself in the world when it comes to our bodies crosses all genders, races, sexualities, abilities, socio-economic classes… it is pervasive. This is why the discussion around radical body neutrality (not love) is so necessary.
A constant mirage of media surrounds youth with contradictory messages. Media intake by teenagers has surged in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic, one study finding that 63% of parents have seen a major increase in their teen’s social media use during the pandemic. With teenagers spending more time at home, on social media, away from social settings and activities, an already existing issue has been made worse. Eating disorders thrive on seclusion, privacy, and false information – all of which youth have more access to as a direct consequence of the pandemic. The National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) helpline has seen an increase in calls of over 40%. Youth are more susceptible to these pressures, attempting to balance school, extracurriculars, societal pressure, relationships, and of course, beginning to ask who they are and how they fit into the world around them. It is in this reality that I frame the following steps/tips for you to do with your youth group. You can do this as a lesson or sprinkle it over a few weeks within a different discussion – but have these conversations!
Bible Study: Cloudy Mirrors all Around Us
Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13 about love. Most of us have heard this passage; it’s used in weddings, funerals, inspirational stickers, and more. But, this passage is about the agape-type love of God, a love that is unconditional and never-ending. Paul is describing God’s love for the people of Corinth and us in relation to our gifts and talents we have. Paul writes in one of the last verses in this passage saying:
“Now we see things imperfectly as in a cloudy mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God knows me now.”1 Corinthians 13:12 (NLT)
Paul knew, even then, that the world has a way of showing a facade, a false reality. This false reality in Corinth was causing major division among Christians in this community – divisions that focused more on each other’s differences rather than their commonalities. Paul writes this letter in the hope of explaining to the Corinthians to see the beauty of their individual strengths and gifts and how each of those can be used to glorify God. How relevant that is to our world today – each of us surrounded by a facade of society, tricked into believing perfection exists here. Social media showing only the glimpse into a world that influencers want you to see, Hollywood masking the reality of fame, and an inability to see how each of our unique qualities, including our bodies, equips us to thrive. And people say the Bible isn’t relevant…
Paul, even then, was calling for us to live into ourselves, exactly as we are. Just before this passage, in 1 Corinthians 12, Paul explains the importance of each person in relation to one another and God. Writing:
“Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose.”
Each of us was created with purpose, but beyond that, we were made as a person, a body, to exist in this world. We weren’t created in a vacuum, separated from one another, God, and the world. Rather as a necessary piece of the space in which we inhabit. Your body, my body, all of our bodies – serve a purpose. They are not separate from us; they are us – we live into them.
This acknowledgment is the first step, but how do we create the space for us to continue this process? In a world that wants to tear us down, how do we build ourselves up? Below is a list of some ideas to try with students. Start asking hard questions and see where it takes you!
Clean up your social media together!
Take a moment and have your students take out their phones and open up Instagram (if they have it).
Have students scroll through their follows’ posts and pause when they see something that doesn’t spark joy (lets Marie Kondo our social media together)!
When students come across a post that doesn’t spark joy, have them pull up that person’s page. Does every post do this? Is it just a one-time thing? Would your feed bring you more joy without it? If so, encourage them to unfollow them, especially if it’s celebrities, companies, etc.
Recognize all your body does for you each day.
Put a flipchart up and ask the youth, “What is one thing your body does that you’re grateful for?”
If they are hesitant to start here are some ideas:
- My lungs breathe for me every day.
- My legs allow me to walk my dog.
- My eyes allow me to see my friends.
- My ears make it so I can hear my favorite music.
Go until you have a strong list – then have a moment to reflect on what this means to them.
Do a Plate Smash Night
Have students write every negative thing they have ever told themselves or have heard from outside sources on a ceramic plate. Then [in a controlled environment] smash the plates – give them a chance to literally break what they’ve heard.
You could also do this with paper and burning, filling plastic Easter eggs and hitting them with a plastic bat off a tee, or writing on rocks and chucking them into woods or water!
Unlearn: Address Painful Theology Around this Topic
I’m not the first to write about this – and there has been some harmful theology put out there around our bodies. For example, ideas such as:
- My body is a temple, so I should keep it pure (healthy foods and purity culture is very linked).
- If I just love God more, I will love myself more.
- Negative body image is a sin that we should ask for forgiveness for.
- If we don’t love ourselves, we cannot love God fully.
- By finding God, I found myself and magically lost weight.
- Larger bodies, “unhealthy” bodies, are due to a lack of self-control and therefore rooted in sin (the basis of the sin of gluttony).
- God wants us to be thin.
Ask your students where they first heard these ideas, then unpack these beliefs, encouraging them to ask questions about them. These ideas often come from someone who benefits monetarily from someone believing them (purchasing a product, watching a show, liking their post). Encourage youth to consider if these are voices that are actually worried about your body or just about their own gains from it?
To unpack some specifics:
The phrase “my body is a temple” has been adopted by the Diet/Health/Wellness Industry, but it is from the Bible. But, it has nothing to do with eating “healthy” or staying fit. It is focused on this idea that the Holy Spirit lives within you and around you. For thousands of years, Jewish faith practices believed that God only existed within the Temple. Upon the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus and the existence of the Holy Spirit, there is a new understanding that the Holy Spirit is in us. Purity was more focused on death and life, not health.
Diet culture and the Diet/Health/Wellness Industry wants to make money off of us. They will use our beliefs to get us to buy their products or watch their shows. Warping religious beliefs to make you feel “Christian guilt” is a common practice. There are diets rooted in the Bible (Daniel Diet), and fasting has become common diet practice.
The “7 Deadly Sins” (including gluttony) aren’t Biblical – they were pushed by the early Roman Catholic Church and have become societal norms. Cravings aren’t sinful, your body is telling you something.
God Created us and Loves us as we are.
God created us and loves us as we are. It is often society that makes us question our relationship with our bodies, not God. These discussions around bodies are not always easy, and we can be hesitant and uncomfortable being vulnerable in them. But, when youth have a trusted adult to work through these questions with, they can only benefit. I want to again encourage you to know your limits as a Youth Worker. If you suspect a larger issue surrounding food, mental health, diet culture, etc., open up the conversation with parents and resource them to a professional. I have linked a few resources below. Creating a space where youth can ask hard questions, reconsider societal norms, and feel comfortable is one step we can take as Youth Leaders to show God’s love here on earth.
If you would like to have further discussions around these topics or ask me questions – please feel free to reach out. You can find me on social media @binafletch on all platforms!
This blog is the last 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.
NEDA Helpline: Call, Chat, or Text
Call: (800) 931-2237
Crisis Text Line: Text NEDA to 741741
National Alliance on Mental Health
National Institute on Mental Health
Offers resources on finding providers.