It is a Gospel Issue
As I approached writing this blog post, I asked my 18 year old daughter for input. I asked her what she would like counselors, youth workers and parents to consider on this topic. She said this:
“Body image issues are common, all girls struggle with it. Some of the prettiest, thinnest, and most attractive are the ones who have the most discontent with their bodies.”
Then she made this important point:
“A girl will never achieve what she feels is a perfect body now, but she need to realize that her body is made for greater purposes than just looks or sex. It is made for childbearing, and for taking the gospel forward.”
My daughter hits a key point - this body image struggle is a gospel issue.
It is a Matter of the Heart
Psalm 139:14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well.
The conventional thinking is to blame “self esteem”, the fashion industry, culture, social media, poor parental examples, etc. Although some of these things are the external factors, they are not the real culprit of our teen's body image issues. The real culprit is: the heart of the teen.
The heart of body image issues in teens reveals the FEAR OF MAN. That fear manifests as perfectionism, insecurity, and peer pressure. The teen will strive hard to achieve the impossible, and they are dissatisfied because they never reach the perfection that they think will make them more popular, more acceptable, or more worthy.
No one will ever be satisfied or content with their body if they are not completely satisfied in Christ. Our souls thirst for satisfaction, and we are prone to search for it in idols rather than in the gospel. Both believing teens and those who do not know Christ struggle with this dissatisfaction (as do adults!) For the believer, though, the satisfaction they long for is already in their possession because they are in Christ. It boils down to the sin of unbelief. Does the teen truly believe that their identity in Christ is enough, or do they believe that they need to strive to earn approval? Unbelief must be repented of regularly. This is where a teen will find victory over the idol of perfectionism and be truly satisfied in Christ.
It is Not a Hopeless Struggle
Matthew 6:19-21 Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
There is hope and help for teens with body image struggles in the gospel. As we disciple teenagers, we must focus on identity in Christ rather than focus on human standards. The goal is not body-change. The goal is heart-change.
Hope for all people is found in God’s Word - regularly reading it, meditating on it, memorizing it, and studying it deeply in order to go to the root of heart issues. This is the only way to renew the mind to bring about true heart change.
The teen must also be encouraged to grow spiritually by being involved in a local church, engaging with strong adult influences (mentors, youth workers, parents, teachers, counselors and others.) They must be taught to choose their friends wisely. They must become good stewards of their bodies and engage in good healthy habits (which is different than obsessing over appearances.) They need help to minimize (and sometimes completely disengage from) the most negative influences that have tempted them towards an improper view of their bodies (social media, entertainment, unhealthy peer relationships, etc.)
Above all else, they must have clear gospel-understanding. Heather Davis Nelson in the Journal of Biblical Counseling says it well:
“In pursuing worldly beauty, we strive to become this elusive image in place of who we really are. You and I are created in the image of the living God. Our purpose is to reflect His image to the world. But since the fall, we let the world inscribe its image on us. It is the very picture of sin and ultimately death. Instead of being transformed to God's image, we conform to the world's image. We are hopelessly stuck in a lifeless cycle, exchanging God for the creature as our object of worship. But God in His mercy rescued us! In love, God sent Jesus Christ to take on the consequences of our idolatrous affair. He became sin so that we might become righteous. In Christ, God gives us freedom from sin's power now and hope for its eradication in heaven. God makes you beautiful with the beauty of His Son, Jesus. It is in gazing at God's image in Jesus Christ that you are transformed. Romans 12:1-2 says, “Therefore, I urge you, (sisters) in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not be conformed any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”
It is Your Titus 2 Challenge
Titus 2:1 But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine.
We are all called to teach the younger generation, according to the second chapter of Titus. Counselors, parents, mentors, youth workers, teachers: reach out to struggling teens. Be intentional about getting past the surface behaviors and go deep in to the heart of a teen. Begin with evangelism if needed, and then deeply disciple youth for the sake of the gospel. In discipleship with teens, adults are tempted to focus on externals rather than the heart. It can be helpful to utilize gospel-rich resources to keep your discussions deeper than the surface so that the teen might be changed at the heart-level.
This topic is far bigger than a limited blog post, so I share here with you some resources to get your conversations with teens started:
Recommended Scripture to unpack with a struggling Christian teen:
What Do You Think of Me, Why Do I Care, by Ed Welch
Quick Scripture Reference for Counseling Youth, by Keith R Miller and Patricia A. Miller, chapter on “Eating Struggles”
For eating disorders: Redeemed From the Pit: Biblical Repentance and Restoration From the Bondage of Eating Disorders, by Marie Notcheva
Additionally, be sure to seek a Biblical Counselor for a teen or parent who needs further help with this or any other struggles they are facing.
Join the Conversation:
What challenges do you have in your interactions with teens who struggle with body image? What other resources have you found helpful?
NOTE: A version of this post first appeared on the Biblical Counseling Coalition blog.