It’s not easy being a teen in the Internet age. When I grew up, all we had to compare ourselves to were the pop stars and movie stars on TV or in magazines (anyone remembers those, magazines?). Nowadays, teens have to deal with the entire Internet.
Sadly, that means putting up with a lot of body shaming. Body shaming means putting down a certain body type, appearance, or weight—whether someone is too skinny, too fat, too pear-shaped, or whatever.
And we live in a culture where it has become normal to comment on other people’s bodies. I mean, I’m not a Kardashian fan, but Kim’s pregnant body being discussed on every single tabloid made me honestly feel sorry for her.
Girls are most affected, obviously, but don’t underestimate the effect on boys either. The pressure to have a ‘six pack’ is enormous and has led more than one guy to use steroids.
In theory, we all know all bodies are different and that it’s impossible to all adhere to the same beauty standard. But the reality is, that body shaming has led to a pervasive culture, especially amongst teenage girls, of how they are supposed to look. Here are some statistics:
- 81% of 10-year olds are afraid of being fat, even more afraid of becoming fat than they are of cancer, war, or losing both their parents. Yeah, let that one sink in…
- In a survey of girls 9 and 10 years old, 40% of them had tried to lose weight.
- 91% of women are unhappy with their bodies and resort to dieting.
- And only 5% of women naturally possess the body type that American media show as the standard.
What does this mean for us in youth ministry? Obviously, we cannot change this body shaming culture by ourselves. But, we can do our part to teach our teens to love their bodies. There are three crucial ways in which we can do that.
1. Love Our Own Bodies
We can’t convincingly tell others that they’re perfect the way they are without loving our own bodies first. This hits close to home obviously, for me as well since I’m a fat girl myself (which I mean as a descriptive statement, not a judgmental one).
Research shows time and again how much influence moms have on their daughters when it comes to loving their bodies for instance. If moms tend to make negative comments about their own bodies, this will affect their daughters’ self-confidence in a negative way.
As youth leaders, we have great influence on our teens. How we talk about our bodies matters.
2. Affirm Teens with Words
The second way to counter body shaming and teach body loving instead, is to discuss it specifically. We talk about a lot of topics in youth ministry, but we rarely talk about bodies in much detail. Sure, we tackle topics like image, or being good the way you are, and of course sex, but we need to be way more specific in affirming teens’ bodies.
Teens need to hear from us that they are good the way they are, that their bodies are good. Now let’s be honest: this is hard for us to say, because we ourselves have been deeply affected by body shaming. I mean, do we honestly believe the body of a ‘fat’ teen is good? Or do we secretly feel they should lose weight? We may need to work on this long and hard before we’re able to find body love and acceptance ourselves.
3. Watch Our Words
The third thing we can do is to watch our words when we talk about bodies. We may me body shaming and not even realize it. Think of comments like “She’s way too thin. That can’t be healthy.” Even songs that look positive at first glance have body shaming in them, like Meghan Trainors’ ‘All About that Bass’:
“Yeah, it’s pretty clear, I ain’t no size two
But I can shake it, shake it, like I’m supposed to do
‘Cause I got that boom boom that all the boys chase
And all the right junk in all the right places”
This may look like a positive message, but she’s saying that when you’re not a size 2, you need ‘boom boom’ and ‘junk in all the right places’, which mean’s she’s effectively putting down thinner girls. She does so more specifically later on when she calls them ‘skinny b*ches’.
Now, you may think that you would never do that, but let me share with you something a speaker recently said from stage to a few hundred teens. She was talking about how much she hated running. Now, this lady had the perfect Marilyn Monroe figure, I must add. But she described in detail how she’d once seen a fat hippo run and that’s what she looked like when she ran.
I was sitting there in the audience and I have to tell you, I’m not easily offended. No, seriously, I’m from The Netherlands and the Dutch are as direct as they come so you develop thick skin. But that comment was really, really offensive to me. And stupid, because she just put down every girl and woman who did not have a figure and goes running. Like me.
Body shaming: you may do it without even being aware. ‘Cause I’m pretty certain this speaker wasn’t trying to make others feel bad about their bodies. She was trying to be funny, except she really wasn’t.
What are your experiences with body shaming and what are you doing to counter this culture in your youth ministry?
(All stats were taken from Things no one will tell Fat Girls by Jes Baker. It’s an empowering book, that sadly has an incredible amount of very crude language in it, just so you know.)