For the third week in a row, I watched a junior higher struggle to complete the conditioning course before track practice. I don’t know why I hadn’t noticed before, but his clothes were three times too big. The baggy wardrobe was slowing him down. After talking to him about wearing clothes that fit and even calling his home, nothing changed.
One day I asked the boy why he was still wearing such large clothes. I suspected it wasn’t a fashion choice. After getting only a shrug in response, I changed tactics and asked if he knew my son. Yes, he nodded.
“When my son was in fifth and sixth grade, he was a little chubby,” I said. “Even though he lost a bunch of weight in seventh grade, he wore clothes that were too big because he thought they hid his body—the body he wished was different. You can tell me if I’m wrong, but I think you might be feeling that way.”
The junior higher’s eyes widened as I hit the painful spot on the nose. “But your son is a beast,” he said, referring to the amount of time my sophomore works out.
“Let me tell you something,” I said. “He does that to help him feel in control of how his body looks. It took him until this year before he stopped wearing huge clothes. You’re athletic and work hard in track. I want to see you succeed, and as silly as it sounds, the baggy clothes are holding you back.” The next day the boy showed up in the same attire. One conversation wasn’t going to undo his poor self-image.
The struggle started for me in junior high, too, as my body changed and a mouth full of braces marred my smile. Each morning I stood in front of the mirror, mentally dissecting everything I wished I could change. Unfortunately, that habit lasted into adulthood. I worked hard to keep my insecurity to myself, but my daughters and son started doing the same thing. They told me everything that was wrong with how they looked, and they tried hard to hide.
Unfortunately, my young track star isn’t alone. Poor self-image is an epidemic among teenagers and adults alike. Although we might blame various underlying issues, it all started in the Garden. Before we learn anything else about Adam and Eve, Genesis 1:27 reveals that “God created human beings in his own image.” Then comes the familiar story of deception by Satan, as sin enters the world. Remember what happens as soon as Adam and Eve’s eyes are opened to knowing the difference between good and evil? “They suddenly felt shame at their nakedness. So they sewed fig leaves together to cover themselves” (Genesis 3:7).
Although sin separated us from God, his Son Jesus came to restore that relationship through his death and resurrection. Sin has yet to be eradicated on earth, though, so we continue struggling with what it means to be created in God’s image.
Paying Ridiculous Attention to Jesus Podcast: What Jesus Says About Your Body
How do we help teenagers (and ourselves) deal with body-image issues?
Recognize the real problem—The battle that started in the Garden plagues us to this day. Explain to teenagers that the root problem involves forgetting we were made to reflect the image of the living God. Our culture defines beauty and tells us how a body is supposed to be shaped. That view isn’t based in Scripture or on God’s thoughts of us. We can blame the media, Photoshop, modeling, Instagram, movie stars, and plastic surgery, but those are only symptoms of the disease. Be honest with teenagers about your own insecurities. Girls and boys struggle with different issues at different times, but both Adam and Eve felt shame.
Stop the platitudes—Resist the temptation to tell teenagers what to feel about themselves. It does little good to say, “You’re not fat” to the kid who doesn’t look like an NFL star, or “You’re pretty; don’t listen to them” to the girl who hasn’t been asked to prom. Discuss ways teenagers can feel more attractive, but also unpack with your group what it means to renew the mind. Help kids discern whether they’re basing their identity on compliments instead of what Jesus says. Show young people what Jesus really thinks about them and how to live that out.
Combat lies with truth—Evil isn’t the opposite of good; it’s the absence of good. Remind teenagers we can fight this. Teach them how to go to Scripture, the foundation of truth. Show them that reading Jesus’ words fills our empty spaces with what’s right and true. The devil is a powerful, prowling enemy who looks for people to chew up and spit out. He’ll do whatever it takes to make us focus on what we aren’t rather than on whose we are. Teach teenagers how to be honest and vulnerable with Jesus—and how to ask him for help.
Talk practically—God made each body to look different and be shaped differently yet still reflect his image. But our unhealthy choices can make us feel like crud. The goal shouldn’t be to change our body but to be a good steward of what God has given us. Don’t be afraid to teach healthy eating and exercise. Teenagers don’t have to be extreme athletes to be active and make wise food choices. Discuss the problems of binge eating, starving, or hiding behind food. Be willing to hold teenagers accountable. Model wise eating choices and be active with kids. That will benefit you as well as them.
With identity and body-image issues, there’s no quick or easy fix. But knowing the problem’s origin and combating it with truth is a good place to begin.