What the Gospel Says to Teens About Food and Body Image
“I can’t eat that, there’s too much sugar.”
“I wish I could eat whatever I want like you do and still be your size!”
“Ugh, I can’t believe I just ate that many M&M’s. I am the worst!”
If you have been in Youth Ministry for even a short period of time, I’m sure this is not unfamiliar language to you. Of late, I have been saddened and shocked by the prevalence of such language amongst my students, most notably the females. Gone are the days, it seems, of blissful ignorance and freedom in what young girls eat. In its place has emerged a new language around food and body image that begets shame, guilt, and fear. As youth ministers, we can resist this new vocabulary by pointing to the gospel and how it offers a hopeful route amidst the anxiety and chaos of diet culture.
We can remind them that God cares about their health and their bodies.
One essential caveat to keep in mind when combating the language of diet culture: encouraging our students in Christ with relation to food and body image is not an invitation to throw caution to the wind and completely dishonor the bodies God has granted them. Obsession over food/exercise or a total disregard for health are not the only two options for our students.
Freedom in Christ can and should change the way we all relate to food and our bodies, but it does not merit apathy for what we eat nor how we use our bodies physically. In fact, a complete disregard for our bodies, or what Paul refers to as “temples of the Holy Spirit,” does not mirror the way Christ relates to them (1 Corinthians 6: 19-20).
When we hear our teens begin to make negative comments about their bodies or the food they eat, we have a unique opportunity to remind them that Jesus also cares deeply about their bodies. He, however, unlike us at times, is completely enthralled with them and has a gracious plan for their redemption and to “transform our lowly bodies to be like his glorious body” (Psalm 45:11, Philippians 3:21).
When diet culture language rears its ugly head, may we remind our students that their bodies are indeed important – and Jesus, the One who lovingly crafted them, is interested in their well being and ultimately, their complete restoration.
We can demonstrate that food is a gracious gift from The Lord.
The more I have been made aware of this pervasive issue in teens, the more God has shown me the prevalence of food in scripture. While diet culture whispers lies that food should be carefully chosen and restricted, Jesus reminds us that food is among the many manifestations of God’s goodness towards His people.
Jesus’ ministry was filled with food. His first miracle occurred at a wedding feast (John 2). He multiplied fish and loaves and fed a great crowd (Matthew 14). He used bread and wine as tangible signs of our union with Him (Matthew 26). He even promises us that one day, we will enjoy the perfection of His presence forever. And where will we be? At a feast (Revelation 19:9).
Just like our bodies, food matters to Jesus. God created our bodies to need nourishment and, in His kindness, He has made such nourishment possible through the goodness of food. How awful would it be to have tasteless fuel for our bodies? What if we never knew the life-giving joy of sitting down to a meal with people we love? How can you deny the perfect provision of our Father when we live in a world where pasta and Chick- fil-A milkshakes exist? I am convinced that if Jesus did not want us to experience the freedom and enjoyment of food, He would not have utilized it so often in His ministry—and would have been far less creative with its taste.
Perhaps, we as ministers are also granted an opportunity to perform a moral inventory and repent of our own relationship with food and our bodies. Are we celebrating the goodness of food with our students and thanking The Father before we share a meal with students? Are we expressing discontent with our bodies while in the presence of young ears? Let us too remember that because of Christ, we also are freed to enjoy the beautiful way God has chosen to help us nourish our bodies. Together with our students, we can even learn to thank Him for the lovingly creative ways in which He has chosen to feed his children.
Respond to shame and guilt with the Message of the Gospel.
Of course, the most effective way we can swim against the tide of diet culture and negative body image is to continually preach the gospel to our students. When I hear students beat themselves up for eating that second slice of pizza or lamenting over the size of their thighs, what I ultimately hear is shame, guilt, and a thirst for satisfaction.
I believe our students turn to this language because culture has taught them that eating x food is “bad” and they therefore feel as if they are engaging in immoral behavior when they eat said food. While there are foods that have undeniably more health value than others, no foods are inherently “bad.” And there is certainly no food on earth that could make our students worthy of condemnation, because they have been cleansed by the blood of Christ.
Similarly, our students’ discontent with their bodies emerges from a shame that they are not enough. They have believed the shouts of the evil one that their bodies need to be amended. They believe that if they just begin to “eat better” they will then find satisfaction with their bodies. Enter comparison and envy, and our students’ shame and discontentment with their bodies only multiplies.
Yet, thanks be to God that the gospel is the perfect Truth in the face of the lies of diet culture. Indeed, it is the only Truth that boldly speaks into the guilt and shame that many of our students feel. When they voice regret as to their food choices, let us remind them that Christ has taken all the shame and guilt they feel upon Himself because of His work on the cross (Isaiah 53).
When our students hold themselves to an impossible standard of perfection when it comes to food or exercise, let us remind them that Christ has met every standard they could ever dream of, and they are now free to enjoy the abundant life Christ calls them to. Food and exercise can function as a type of law for our students, and the gospel assures them that: “the law of the Spirit who gives life has set [them] free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:2).
As much as diet culture will tell them otherwise, there is no condemnation for them in Jesus Christ. He invites our students to enjoy the beautiful and unique ways He has crafted their bodies. He offers rest from their striving to live up to the world’s impossible beauty standards. And in Him, our students can find the freedom to experience the full enjoyment of food and their bodies. Despite the growing force of diet culture, the Holy Spirit grants us the strength to stand firm, speak Truth, and to encourage our students to “taste and see that The Lord is good.”