I HAVE spoken to many young people in recent months and asked them a question that many of us will have asked ourselves: “Are you happy with how you look?”
Almost all of them replied “No”. They wanted to be skinnier, or taller, or just different. When we discussed this further, it quickly became apparent that their idea of how they should look (and what should make them happy) was strongly influenced by social media, television, and advertising. What is worse, this unhappiness with their appearance was causing low self-esteem and, for some, poor mental health.
The anecdotal evidence I have gathered from these conversations is supported by recent research done by the YMCA for its campaign Be Real. More than half the young people they spoke to said that they often worried about the way they looked, and that the biggest impact of body-image anxiety was that young people were withdrawing and isolating themselves. This resonates with other findings from organisations such as the Children’s Society and Girlguiding. It is a deeply shocking wake-up call.
My response in the diocese of Gloucester has been to talk purposefully about these issues with children in schools, and to reflect with them on their personal experiences.
Last October, we launched the social-media campaign #liedentity to draw attention to issues of body image among young people (News, 28 October). Since the campaign began, many people from around the country have made contact with us and told us their stories, which resonate with what we are hearing and drawing attention to.
These stories include painful experiences that involve eating disorders, physical disability, orthodontics, and plastic surgery. Other contacts shared resources, which can be used in work with young people to address constructively issues of outward appearance and self-worth: for example, the YMCA’s Body Confidence Campaign Toolkit for secondary schools, and the Dove self-esteem project.
THE Church has a crucial part to play in addressing these challenges, since its schools and youth groups bring it into contact with millions of young people.
Good work is already being done. For example, Messy Church is in the process of creating a session on identity, providing churches with an easy and fun way of opening up conversations with young people.
Above all, the Church has the life-transforming truth of the gospel to share with young people. As a baptised Christian, I know that my deepest, truest identity is found in Jesus Christ, and this is the liberating truth that I want to share with young people — beleaguered as they are by messages of unworthiness.
Psalm 139.14 presents us with the beautiful truth that each individual is unique and “wonderfully made”. The common English translation of the first creation account tells of human beings made in the “image” of God. In the Septuagint, the word used is ikon: ikons of God.
An image is not about external appearance alone: it is about an artist-crafter attempting to reflect something more profound about real identity. God, however, is the perfect crafter, the Creator; so the image that God creates in humankind is good.
I want to communicate God’s desire for all children and young people to fulfil their potential and become the person they were created to be. I long for every child to discover that he or she is loved, valued, and known by God. I long for the young to realise that valuing who they are begins not on the outside, but deep within; and that what is on the inside will determine how they live on the outside.
This does not mean that there is anything wrong with taking pleasure and pride in our physical appearance. Nor should we advocate a sort of dualism that sees the non-material and invisible as being more holy, in some way, than the material and visible. The problem comes when our sense of identity is too reliant on physical appearance alone, which breeds insecurity. What we wear and how we look can be a wonderful expression of who we are — but they are not who we are.
IN RESPONSE to this interest, the diocese of Gloucester is starting to organise a broad-based conference for all those who support and educate children and young people, including teachers, youth workers, clergy, and health professionals. Our aim is for professionals in this area, and young people who have been affected by this issue, to share stories, resources, and practical solutions that we can take forward to help tackle body-image anxiety in the UK.
If the next generation is to engage with global issues — such as the refugee crisis, world food-poverty, and genocide — then they need to be confident in who they truly are, the God-given talents they possess, and how their unique contribution to our common life can make a difference.
The Rt Revd Rachel Treweek is the Bishop of Gloucester. For more information about the conference in February 2018, email Lucy Taylor, head of communications, at the diocese of Gloucester, at firstname.lastname@example.org.