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May 26, 2011

Why the Church Needs to Teach about Body Image

A five-day church fast revealed a different hunger.



Recently, my church experienced its first-ever Five Day Challenge, an initiative launched several years ago by Willow Creek Community Church. The Challenge encourages people to eat only small portions of rice and beans at each meal as a tangible experience of the hunger that the bottom economic half of the world endures daily.

Like any good leader, I prepared my team in advance. We marketed the event, provided information and meal plans, We inspired our congregation and set a fundraising goal. With an expectant tone, I stood before my own ministry area, high schoolers, and asked, “Who will be participating in Meals With Hope?” Scattered hands tentatively went up, while one high schooler in the front thrust her arm in the air and shouted, “It’s a great way to lose weight!”

Oh. No.

A deeper hunger

This post isn’t about the global food crisis or inspiring students to get involved in justice projects. It’s about an issue that strikes closer to home for many of us: body image.

Up until recently, I liked to think that body image was being addressed effectively outside the church, like through the YMCA, Weight Watchers, and Dove Beauty ads, which have done a great job of teaching that our bodies are made for strength, resiliency and health. As a church leader, I’m too busy solving the global food crisis to develop a theology of female body image! There’s more important work to do than worry about people’s perception of themselves.

And yet this high schooler’s rallying cry to fast as a way of losing weight revealed a deeper hunger—one that I needed to be concerned about. For many people, women especially, achieving a healthy body image is the first step toward satisfying their deepest hunger: the need to be loved and accepted for who they are. For churches, tackling the body image issue is every bit as important as feeding the world.

We live in a culture that idolizes the feminine form as either an ornament to be adored or a sexual plaything to adulterate. As Christians we’re trying to make sense of how to treat our bodies with enough attention—but not too much; how to be sexy for our husbands, but not for our co-workers. How to teach our girls that true love waits—even if we didn’t. Body image is one conversation the church can’t afford not to join.

But how do we have an authentic, effective dialogue about body image with the women we lead? How do we listen to young women, like my high schooler, without judgment and provide a safe environment for people like her to explore this topic through the lens of faith?

In the past, churches turned to curriculum designed around making sure we got the “result” we wanted from our girls—modesty and the assurance of purity rings. But what about engaging in real discussion about the purpose of the body and a healthy understanding of sexuality?

Earlier this week I texted a twentysomething volunteer to ask how the five-day challenge was going. She responded, “I now know I think about, avoid, plan for, and dwell on food so much of my day.” This is the beginning of a good discussion.

There’s a need in leadership to not only reconcile our own personal understanding of body image, but to begin to address it among the women we lead as well.

Do you sense that body image is an issue among the women (and leaders) in your community? Do you address it with any program or curriculum? Is it working? Let’s begin a dialogue on this topic here so we can deliver a faith perspective in our churches that will satisfy a world starved for truth.

Nicole Unice is a contributing editor for GiftedforLeadership.com. She has decided to accept her status as a wrestler with God. Between raising her kids and working in Family and Student Ministry at Hope Church in Richmond, VA, Nicole likes to write and teach on the intersection of God's word and modern life. Her first book, "The Divine Pursuit, A Study of Jonah" released in Fall 2010. You can find her blogging at The Stubborn Servant.

Related Tags: acceptance, belonging, body image, culture, health, hunger, sex

Comments

I believe this IS a critical issue for girls and women today. I think self-esteem is such a crucial part of the decisions that lead to unhealthy focus on boys, bad choices about sex, caving to peer pressure, etc. I highly recommend Dannah Gresh (www.secretkeepergirl.com) as a resource for moms and tweens to explore these topics as girls begin to consider clothing choices, boys, popularity, and the like. I've also been blessed by Vicki Courteney's books as I consider all of the things I want to impart to my daughter.

Thanks for this great post! I completely agree that the church needs to be TALKING about this so much more than it does now. I love the sentence, "For many people, women especially, achieving a healthy body image is the first step toward satisfying their deepest hunger: the need to be loved and accepted for who they are." We tend to be afraid to talk about our health and body image because it seems selfish and disconnected from salvation issues but you have identified here exactly why this is not the case!

While the world attempts to promote ideas of healthy body image, we must also be very careful in our evaluation of them. Yes, the Dove campaign promotes "real beauty" but it's parent company also owns Lynx, which utilises almost exclusively the distasteful 'sex sells' model of advertising. The barely-clad models in their ads completely contradict the Dove campaign. (I've blogged about this in detail here.)
The Church needs to join the conversation about body image because what the world says is often contradictory and in the case of Dove, at the end of the day, only concerned with the bottom line.

Nicole, great article! Body image is a huge issue not only in America, but right in the pews of the Church as well... God says come as you are to church, but I'm sure the average church goer (male and female) wakes up each Sunday morning thinking about what am I going to wear to church... or goes through the week worrying about how they should style their hair, if they are too "fat", or if the guy we pray is our husband (lol) thinks we're cute too... I mean, it's def not as important as feeding the hungry and sharing the Good News around the world, but if not addressed with spiritual parameters, it just continues to be a big distraction... We have to start talking about and turning self-image into understanding/ valuing our self-worth... don't mean to go on and on, but I am very passionate about this and I've even started a Christian empowerment group for girls and women called "Visions of Virtue". I challenge today's generation to put their confidence in Christ (period)... Visit www.visionsofvirtue.org for more : ) Please support! Blessings- Debs

I think part of reason we (teachers of women and girls) are not effectively addressing the issue of body image is that we are not effectively addressing the issue of womanhood. Our culture has so tied femininity to sexuality that we can't see any other purpose in the gender God gave us. Purity is important, but that better not be the sum total of what we teach girls about godly womanhood. What about loving God with our minds and strength, as well as with our hearts and souls? What are the unique contributions that women bring to the body of Christ? If a woman doesn't marry or have children, does she still have value to the kingdom?

It would be foolish to tell girls that appearance doesn't matter, but they desperately need to know that something besides appearance and their sexuality matters as well.

love that perspective Anne. It's so true...it starts with a whole new concept of identity in Christ...and that's why I wrestle with *just* the modesty/purity issue...because it's so much more!

Great article and discussion! My wife and I are the International Directors of a ministry for people in the fashion industry, called Models for Christ (ModelsforChrist.com). We go out into this fashion world to reach these young guys and girls with the love of christ and hopefully develop a friendship with them and invite them to our weekly Bible study. We occasionally are invited to speak to youth groups by using our platform of fashion modeling because the youth sometimes want to listen to what we have to say about body image and identity:)
You wrote about identity and I wanted to share about a piece that we created called TheVisualGospel.info, that allows someone to "see" their IDENTITY in Christ. We have had such great responses from both unbelievers and believers. We have seen believers begin to cry and tear up when they got a deeper understanding of their new IDENTITY in Christ through the cross. The youth really seem to respond well when they see how God sees them! As you realize, our culture is very visual. I am excited to already get to see the impact of drawing people to Christ.
God bless you,
Shane & Christina Nearman

thanks Shane! I'll check it out.

This is such an important issues. Body image, biblical values on sexuality, proper dress, etc are vital. WE are literally in war with a culture that is directly opposed with the values taught in the Bible. The church should be the leaders in this battle. There is so much negative pressure on our young people and they need our help.

Sorry this comment is almost a month after the blog post, but I couldn't agree more!

The church (meaning us....not just the pastor, teachers, etc) MUST do a better job of addressing issues like this. We leave far too much up to the secular world and mental health professionals. I believe churches (this time I mean pastors, teachers, administration, etc) would invest some money in establishing a lay counselor ministry.

Youth need adult FRIENDS to talk to without feeling the stigma of seeing a professional counselor. (I know that the stereotype shouldn't exist, but it does, especially among youth.) That's why secular mentoring programs exist and have waiting lists longer than the Great Wall of China.

Great post! I hope we use it to start something in our individual congregations.

Woops! I meant "should."

"I believe churches (this time I mean pastors, teachers, administration, etc) SHould invest some money in establishing a lay counselor ministry."

Excellent post. Nowadays, many people are experiencing hunger due to over populated and continuing growth of unemployed people. I agree that church need to teach body image. Many people would truly inspire to that teaching.

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