Easy to define but harder to understand, body image is a complex issue saturated in lies that affects all of us.

No group is more caught up in the body image struggle than our youth. Today’s culture makes it impossible not to focus on how we look, how we dress and what bodies are accepted or not. It’s not just girls either. More and more boys are feeling the pressures around the ideal body. They spend hours in the gym, obsessed with muscle tone and protein shakes. All of us are bombarded daily with the photo shopped images of models, holding us to an unrealistic and unattainable standard.

So how do we help the young people in our lives navigate the difficult terrain that is body image and self-worth?

Model self-acceptance

We cannot teach the young people in our homes, schools and churches that they are enough as they are, perfectly created by a perfect God (Psalm 139:13), if we constantly moan about our own bodies. Do not underestimate how much our children notice. If you constantly put yourself down, highlighting your own flaws, they will learn to do the same. This is a difficult, but important, journey for all of us to take. Start teaching them to highlight their strengths, to point out the things they like about their bodies, and model that behaviour yourself.

Talk about it

Whether as a family, at your youth group, at camp or in your schools, body image needs to be spoken about more. Young people are in it; they understand the pressures that the world places on them to look a certain way. It is vital that we bring a biblical view and Godly truth to the situation. Because of Jesus, we are enough. We are worthy. We are invaluable. This is what we need to teach young people. Ask them where they get their self-worth from? Is it from God and all He has created them to be? They need to be reminded of this daily to help combat the lies they are hearing. Encourage them to use a devotional like WordSpace to help them connect with these truths.

For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do (Ephesians 2:10).

Shift their focus

Think about book characters we love and admire. We admire them for their words, their heart, and souls, and don’t care about their appearance. We need to teach each other that there is far more to ourselves than a body. People are brave, funny, kind, smart and courageous. Try to use words that speak to young people’s character when complimenting them, instead of using words about their appearance. 1 Peter 3:3-4 says:

‘Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewellery or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight’

Helping to remind them, and ourselves, of the kind of people we want to be, instead of what we want to look like, will go a long way in helping young people shift their focus from attainting the perfect body, to accepting themselves for who they were created to be.

Get active

Although we want to help shift the focus off of our bodies, sometimes it really helps to get outside and go for a walk, or join some gym classes that we really enjoy. Getting active not only helps to keep our bodies strong and healthy, but the endorphins released when exercising are great for lifting our moods! Make sure that the attention isn’t on trying to work out to look a certain way, but rather as a way to make us feel better.

Exercise should be seen as a celebration about what our bodies can do. Not a punishment for what we’ve eaten on how we look.

Body image isn’t just part of the human experience that most of us struggle with. It can lead to serious issues such as eating disorders, anxiety, depression and a host of other mental health problems.

Warning signs to watch out for

Some of these signs might alert you to issues that need to be sensitively but urgently addressed:

  • Substance abuse: many people try to lose themselves and their worries in substances
  • Sexual promiscuity: unfortunately, a desperate desire to feel loved, accepted and beautiful can lead young people to throw themselves into sexual relationships
  • Attitudes of materialism: in order to make themselves feel better and earn the acceptance of others, some people try to hide behind as much ‘stuff’ as they can. It might be worth speaking to that person or child about why they feel the need to have all these things
  • Dress sense: I don’t need to tell you how short shorts are getting and how promiscuous fashion has become. The young people in your life are bound to be caught up in trying to look fashionable, but at what cost? It might not help to preach about modesty in a way that makes them feel judged and makes you look out of touch with the times. Talk about the way people dress in a way that shows them that you understand the pressures, but draw attention to the dangers that come with dressing a certain way. Then try to get to the root of why they want to dress promiscuously. Chances are high it’s all about self-esteem and body image. It may take some time to convince them that they are beautiful even if they are more covered up than their peers.

Fighting for this generation

Ultimately, we need to be fighting on the front lines with our young people. We are fighting an enemy that is trying to break them down with the lies that they are not enough, they were not made with perfect purpose and their bodies don’t measure up. Our God is one of variety; look at the different flowers, the array of birds in the sky. Each one perfectly made in its uniqueness.

Psalm 139:14 should not be just another fridge magnet, but our battle cry and deepest stronghold in the assault on our body image:

“I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well”.

Start to change the way you think and talk about your body today. Encourage the young people in your life to do the same.