The launch of a report entitled Reflections on Body Image this year has encouraged discussion about the need for the Church to do more to tackle body dissatisfaction. Produced by the all-party parliamentary group on body image, it discusses topics such as problems among children and young people, cosmetic surgery, eating disorders, and the media, proving how serious and wide-ranging these issues have become.
Some years ago, when I was struggling with the body image issues and depression that plagued me during my teens and early 20s, I attended a Christian event for young people. I spent several days feeling miserable because I felt like a terrible person next to all the other young women there. They seemed so happy, so radiant, so secure in themselves – and then there was me. Of course this was just my perception; countless other young women there were probably dealing with body image worries or disordered eating. But I felt alone.
In more recent years, with these issues a thing of the past, it has always struck me how much the young women I’ve known through church have been worried about their weight and appearance. Yes, they’ll have heard the teaching on being made in the image of God, on being worthy and loved and precious – but for many, it doesn’t ring true.
I know that for me, hearing those things never made much of a difference. I’d understand everything I’d been told, but couldn’t believe it. I knew how God supposedly saw me – but I didn’t feel the same.
It’s a difficult situation to be in. You go to someone at church, looking for advice. At best there might be people who are well-equipped to offer help; at worst, you might find a lack of understanding, a reluctance to discuss such a ‘difficult’ issue as mental illness, or even judgemental attitudes, that see such problems as a consequence of sin, selfishness, or bad parenting. There’s a great need for church leaders and pastoral teams to step out of their comfort zone and to equip themselves to help Christians with body image issues.
Undoubtedly, the way the media influences public perceptions of such issues doesn’t help matters. They are often portrayed as a consequence of silly young girls wanting to look like celebrities. There is little analysis of their complexity and causes, which can foster a lot of misunderstanding.
According to the report, 42 per cent of girls and women said that they believe the most negative thing about being female is the pressure to look attractive. Around 60 per cent of adults say they feel ashamed of the way they look. Girls as young as five are concerned about their weight and appearance, and by the time they’re teenagers, half of them will have dieted, as will a third of boys. It’s not hard to figure out that this means churches are full of people who struggle with their body image and that like I did, they might feel alone, judged, or misunderstood.
It might be a challenge to educate ourselves about such problems, but tackling them could have a huge impact on the well-being of young Christians.