“Daddy, will people make fun of me?” I didn’t expect that question to come out of the mouth of my oldest child when she was 5 years old and one day away from heading off to her first day of kindergarten.
“Make fun of you for what?” I asked. “Because of how I look,” she replied.
My daughter asked me that question back in the late 1980s. That was 25 years ago, and already the culture and the peer group were pounding the youngest of the young with compelling and convincing messages regarding how necessary it is to look a certain way if you are going to be liked, accepted—and loved. My little girl was learning that the most important things in life are body shape, hair styles, clothing, fashion and skin tone. It was heartbreaking.
In the quarter-decade since, media, marketing and social media have been feeding a growing body-image frenzy that is literally consuming our kids.
Lest you think this is solely a youth culture problem, think again. Body image pressure hits us all, and the more we as youth workers bow to the pressure ourselves…usually without knowing it…the more we contribute to our kids’ struggle to find their identity in Jesus Christ rather than in how they look.
Earlier this year, researchers in Britain confirmed what we already know: Young children are experiencing dissatisfaction with the size and shape of their bodies that puts them at risk of eating disorders in their teens. My guess is the data is only exposing the tip of the iceberg in terms of age and intensity regarding these concerns. It hits younger and worse: According to the study, by the age of 8, 5 percent of girls and 3 percent of boys are dissatisfied with their bodies. That number rose with age until 14, when more than 32 percent of girls and 16 percent of boys experience at least moderate dissatisfaction with their bodies. In addition, more than 38 percent of the girls and 12 percent of the boys already were involved in eating-disordered behaviors by the age of 14. Kids arrive in your youth group with a load of body-image and identity baggage. The question is, how will you answer that?Kids arrive in your youth group with a load of body-image and identity baggage. The question is, how will you answer that? Click To Tweet
Through the years, it’s become increasingly important for youth workers to realize the bulk of this body image pressure comes from the media, media-influenced peer groups and adults, including parents and youth workers—two groups of people who should be teaching them something different. As youth workers, we are called not only to live counter-culturally as we find our identities in Jesus Christ rather than in the image in the mirror, but we also are called to nurture our kids into doing the same. Here are some suggested steps to take to help your kids manage the pressure.
Seek and find your own identity in who you are as a person made in God’s image and redeemed by Jesus Christ.
Contrary to what the world tells you, you are not how you look. Sadly, many in youth ministry today spend way too much time tending to their outward appearances, all in an effort to catch the eyes of kids and win respect through visual relevance. If that’s what we’re doing, we might be driving kids further away from Christ rather than drawing them to the message of the gospel as our actions confirm the cultural messages and wind up speaking louder than our words.
Teach your kids to spot the lies in marketing’s messages.
Point out where ads send messages that communicate that identity is found only in outward appearance. Regularly take time to sit with kids for the purpose of thinking critically and Christianly about the messages marketing sends. Look at and discuss online ads, TV commercials and the multitude of print ads that appear on billboards and in magazines.
Do not criticize yourself, your kids or others about weight or body shape.
In today’s world, we tend to talk a lot about what we have or should be eating. We judge and value people based on appearance. Take stock of when and where you are doing this in reference to yourself or to others—and stop!
Take stock of how much time and money you spend on tending to your outward appearance.
Make adjustments where necessary. Let’s face it: Many of our youth group kids adore us, and they want to be just like us…for better or worse. Make sure you leverage the power of modeling in ways that point kids to values, attitudes and behaviors that bring glory to God rather than bringing glory to what Scripture calls “the world, the flesh and the devil.”
Compliment your kids on their character traits and God-given talents rather than appearance.
They live in a social media world where they spend countless hours a week curating their online personas. The payoff is the social capital of likes and comments such as “OMG! You look so hot!” Our validation should target the things that matter rather than the things that derail and stifle character development and spiritual growth.
Spend time with your children, reading and talking about God’s Word, looking to see how God’s values differ from what the world values.
Nothing—nothing—is more important in this battle than introducing kids to their Creator and His will and way for their lives. Exposure to Scripture and the truth of God’s Word are what the Holy Spirit promises to use to bring about change.
There are so many compelling and convincing voices out there summoning our kids to “come and follow.” When it comes to matters of body-image, identity and value, the voices are all about the outside. We need to help our kids hear, embrace and live the same corrective words God spoke to Samuel in 1 Samuel 16:7: “Man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”