I work primarily with teenagers, and so I spend a lot of time hearing about, thinking about, and talking about bodies.
Young people are inundated with social media messages about what they’re supposed to look like, like all of us are, and are put under constant pressure to put images of themselves online for their peers’ consumption. Most of that sounds familiar to us as adults, except that teenagers are going through it while puberty is meanwhile making them feel like they are living in a stranger’s house. They wake up in this skin, like a body-snatcher, walking around in someone else’s suddenly too big feet.
So, I wanted to speak to teenagers, and to all of us who feel unsure, ambivalent, or even loathsome, towards these bundles of sinews and tendons and veins that we call home:
You deserve to exist simply because you were created. There is nothing you have to do or accomplish or become to deserve to take up the space you are sitting in. Take a deep breath. Feel your lungs fill, listen to your heart beat. Clench your fists and feel the muscles and sinews in your hands. Exhale, loosen your grip and notice the way your skin stretches around your fingers. Wiggle your toes, roll your neck. All of this is a part of you.
So when you hate this, when you starve it, cut it, stand in front of a mirror and pinch and pull at it and call it disgusting, inadequate, not enough, when you carve it up to make it acceptable to others, when you pathologize its normal variances, diagnose every flaw, seek to purge it of all about it that you find unacceptable… that matters. This is the only body you will ever have. And it belongs to you. God entrusted you to care for it, to have stewardship for it. In Genesis, God gives us humans dominion, stewardship, the responsibility for every living thing.
You are also a living thing.
And more than your pets, or your plants, or your family members, your children, or your parents, this is the living thing you are the most responsible for taking care of. And like your pets, your plants, your family members, “taking care of” doesn’t mean obsessing over to tweak it to peak performance, it doesn’t mean bullying it into perfection. It means to love it, just as it is right now, listen to it, give it what it needs, and learn where God is at work in it.
It isn’t your fault you have struggled with your body. There are entire systems in our world that are set up around the hierarchy of bodies, of determining exactly who is worth more than who. Systems around gender, skin color, disability, illness, sexuality, age, body size, that can give you an exact placement on a ranking of human worth. That system, and any system that asserts that some bodies are worth more than other bodies, is sin. It isn’t your fault you’ve evaluated yourself so harshly, you were taught to. When we can reject that system, though, we not only free ourselves, we make others around us more free as well, and we make the world more like the one God intended. But I won’t pretend it’s easy, we’re all on the path of unlearning our whole lives.
So all I can ask is this, to begin with this countercultural act: to have grace for the skin and bones you’ve been given. To forgive them for not being perfect, and take a moment to be grateful for the fact that you’re alive.
When you feel tempted to hate this body you’ve been given, to measure it up compared to other people’s, I want you to do a couple things for me:
- First, close your eyes, take a deep breath, and remember that you’re alive. Your body has done that.
- When you are tempted to negative self-talk, replace the “I’s” you’re wanting to say with the name of another living thing you care for – pet, friend, family member who you love. See if it is still something you want to say.
- Help each other out. Don’t create more of the same problem bringing others down to assuage your own insecurity. Don’t shame people who are smaller than you, or bigger than you, and help remind each other of your own worth. If it seems like someone is struggling, don’t appease them with “oh my god, no you’re so skinny” – actually talk to them about how their feeling, and remind them that their body is so much more that what other people think of it.
Have grace for the skin and bones that you live in. Treat them with love and respect. Eat vegetables, exercise, go on walks, if you want to, and have a donut when you want one, not because of how it will make you look, but because you deserve a reminder that you’re alive.
This is the only body you will ever have. You have been entrusted to take care of it and love it, and live in it. Don’t hate it, hurt it, and continue to perpetuate the myth of a ladder of human worth. He, she, they is always and already enough and is just waiting for you to make up your mind on whether you will love them back.