What a Teenager Struggling with an Eating Disorder Needs from Her Youth Minister
As summer kicks off, many teenagers will experience heightened pressure surrounding body image, leading to disordered eating for some. Thankfully, the gospel provides good news for bodies: They are created by God for good, redeemed by the Incarnation of Jesus, and awaiting a resurrection like his. In this series of articles, Rooted writers discuss how we can help students navigate identity struggles in light of this gospel of grace.
“You look so good!”
“Have you lost weight?”
“Wow! How did you lose weight so fast?? You look incredible! You must be so disciplined.”
These were the comments made by well-meaning people that furthered my spiral downward with an eating disorder. These comments fueled my obsession with what I ate and how I looked.
For six years, I battled hard with an eating disorder, whether I was starving myself or throwing up after a binge. My battle began in eighth grade when my body started to mature. My friends were all still so small; I thought something was wrong with me. So, I started to eat even healthier and asked my mom to do diets with me (we’ve both learned better since then).
My freshman year of high school I lost 40 pounds. 40 pounds I did not need to lose. I became sickly thin, but it was never enough. Everyone was commenting on how much weight I had lost, so I had to keep going. I couldn’t afford to lose the constant comments because I had placed my worth in the hands of others’ approval. And it destroyed me.
Every time someone commented on my weight, it solidified in my mind that I must have been fat and ugly before. Weight and self-worth were becoming synonymous. Every time someone complimented how good I looked, I loved it—and I resolved to never gain weight so that the compliments would never end.
It got worse. The compliments continued, but now I needed more. I decided I needed to be the smallest in every room, so I would analyze everyone else’s weight and see how I compared. I wanted people to be jealous of me, because I had been jealous of others before.
But then, just as a pendulum clock swings, I couldn’t withstand the food restrictions anymore, I swung out of control in the opposite direction to binging. The weight came back rapidly. My attempt to keep it off by purging failed. I gained weight, but this time, I felt more worthless than I had before I had ever lost weight. Worthless because of that resolve I had made in my mind to never gain it back. Worthless because others told me how good I looked when I was so small. Worthless because now nobody would be jealous of me. Worthless because I had forgotten that my worth was found in Jesus.
The Diagnosis That Changed My Life
I started to meet with a nutritionist. I went every single Wednesday for the remainder of my time in high school. I owe my recovery to her, because she pointed me to Jesus. I will never forget, my first week meeting with her, she looked me in the eyes and said, “You know you don’t have a food problem, right?” I gave a puzzled look to which she replied, “You have a heart problem.” Those words changed everything for me. It wasn’t about food like I thought it was, it was about an idol ruling in my heart that needed to be dealt with. It was about a truth, my identity in Christ, that I had replaced with a lie, that my worth came from my size.
So, why am I telling you this? Because right now you have a student struggling with an eating disorder, or body image issues. I can almost guarantee it. These students can be difficult to detect because on the outside everything may seem put together and normal. It’s often messy to walk alongside someone who is struggling this way, but these students need you to create a safe place for them to hear the gospel. Knowing that someone in your group is more than likely struggling, I want you to be prepared.
A Safe Place to Receive Grace
First, I beg you to please never, ever make comments about weight—not about your own or someone else’s in front of students. If you do, someone struggling will instantly begin comparing. Don’t make comments about ‘feeling fat,’ and please don’t say things like, “Oh man, I am gonna have to run after this big meal.” The spaces I have felt the safest in have been the spaces where weight isn’t recognized; spaces where I have been free from thinking of myself. The well-intended comments about my weight loss only propelled me further down in my spiral of sin. So, just don’t comment.
Secondly, I urge you to dig deeper. If you see a student who has rapidly lost weight or disappears after meals or makes comments that raise red flags, do not sit idly by—talk with their parents and ask your student heart questions, because after all, it’s not a food issue, but a heart one. Probe at why they feel they aren’t enough, probe for the roots. Sin is always deeper than the surface. So, what is the truth your student has exchanged with a lie?
Finally, preach the gospel to struggling students. Not only that, but teach them to preach it to themselves in shameful moments, which will prepare them for the battle they face every day.
Preach to them of their worth and identity in Christ. That their worth has NOTHING to do with them; rather, they were chosen by God’s mercy to receive His grace. Psalm 103 tells us that as far as the east is from the west, so is our sin from us. Then in Romans 8, we read that there is NO condemnation for those in Christ Jesus. He has delivered us from our bodies of death. He has released the chains of food, body image, binging, purging, starving, etc. by his death for your student. I constantly have to remind myself that Jesus ate perfectly because he knew I would not. He knew food wouldn’t fulfill him like the Father could (Matt. 4:4). He lived that truth perfectly for me so that one day in the midst of my sin, I could walk in his forgiveness.
While I was struggling with keeping my food down, my dad told me to preach the gospel to myself the next time I leaned over the toilet. He encouraged me to remind myself that because I have been purchased by Christ’s death for me, in that moment God does not frown upon me, but has compassion on me. He sees a hurting child, not a disappointment. He loves me. He likes me. And He smiles upon me. Remind your students to live in that light. Teach them to remind themselves of that truth in the midst of their sin.
Your students struggling with eating disorders and body image need to be prepared for battle. Yes, Christ has already won the final victory! Still, in the meantime, sin and the flesh fight against the Spirit within us daily (for those who are in Jesus). 1 Peter 5:8 is my favorite verse because to me, it is a battle cry—a reminder of Satan’s craftiness and a charge to fight. It reads, “Be sober minded, be on the alert for your adversary, the devil, is like a roaring lion waiting for someone to devour.” A lion hunts its prey by singling out the weakest and isolating him or her from the pack. He stalks, then devours. If a student is struggling with an eating disorder, don’t let him or her eat alone. Those struggling with disordered eating need community. Prepare them to fight by surrounding them with community and reminding them of the truth of the gospel to combat the lies.
Your student doesn’t have a food problem, but a heart problem, and they’re in good company, because we all do. We all need Jesus, so point your student to the foot of the cross.