Mackenzie is a typical high school junior. Like most of her friends, she has a few favorite shows that she watches on Netflix, and she stays connected with friends on Facebook, and her Instagram feed allows her to follow her favorite celebrities and influencers. Occasionally, Mackenzie posts pictures of herself on her social media accounts--nothing inappropriate, mind you, just selfies of her wearing a favorite dress, sporting a new hairstyle, going somewhere cool, or showing off some makeup techniques. Usually, her followers respond with lots of likes, hearts, and thumbs-up. But one afternoon, a classmate sees one of her pictures, and makes a comment drawing attention to the way her ears stick out funny. Others chime in with online laughter, and similar comments. Mackenzie feels like she’s been punched in the gut.
If you are the parent of teens, it’s likely that your daughter (or your son) has been exposed to significant pressures related to body image. We are a visually-oriented culture, which means that our worldview is shaped by the images that we see, whether these images are magazine covers, billboards, movies, or TV shows. One study estimates that teens will see as many as 40,000 TV commercials each year, and that doesn’t include the advertisements in print media! Each billboard, each magazine ad, each TV commercial presents a carefully-crafted picture that defines our standard of beauty. The models are airbrushed, the images are heavily edited to remove any physical blemishes, smooth out the skin tone, reduce a waist size, and accentuate features. As a result, we have a carefully-crafted and often unrealistic idea of the ideal body shape, height, weight, bust size, hair color, lash length, eye hue, clothing style, and makeup technique. Social media amplifies this message “look like this if you want to be accepted!”
Our teens feel this pressure weighing down on them. Girls feel as though they must lose just a little more weight in order to achieve the ideal body shape. Teens criticize their peers for their appearance, usually as a way to feel better about themselves. Others share images on their social media account as a way to seek validation for themselves. These pressures can lead to anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and even attempts at self-harm.
What is a parent to do? How can you, as a parent guide your teen through these challenging waters? What is a biblical perspective on our appearance?
Watch for serious signs that need immediate attention. Since body image issues can lead to serious health problems, it’s important to watch for warning signs that might require immediate intervention. If your teen becomes increasingly withdrawn, or depressed, it’s important that you approach the matter with him or her. If you see signs of significant weight loss, or you notice a change in eating habits, this may require medical care from a doctor. And, if you see signs of self-harm, this too would necessitate immediate intervention.
I asked my daughter how to help those who feel the pressure of body image. Her response was immediate: compliment and encourage one another. Parents, youth leaders, and friends can make an enormous difference by speaking a kind word. This should not be empty flattery, but naming the things you appreciate. Such a compliment might be on a person’s appearance, but it might also be a compliment on their personality, their athletic efforts or creative abilities. A kind word is a simple thing to do, but it goes a long way in affirming a person who might otherwise feel unnoticed, or unloved.
It’s tempting to respond to the misuse of something by labeling it as bad or sinful. Some may decide that since our over-attention to beauty has harmed people, we should reject any idea of beauty out of hand. Yet, the biblical account of creation emphasizes that God’s creation, including human beings, was good, and that it reflected God’s character. The beauty of our world, including the beauty we can see in other human beings, is a reflection of our creator. The Song of Songs is filled with references to the joy of being physically attracted to the beauty in another person. It can be a God-honoring thing to enjoy the beauty of another person and enhance it in ourselves by wearing makeup or clothing that compliment our appearance.
Our problem is not that beauty itself is sinful, but rather that we make beauty into an idol. We use a person’s physical appearance to determine their value as a person, and we buy into the lie that if we could attain a certain standard of beauty, then we ourselves would be happy, loved, and valued. This is idolatry, and it will enslave us, and it can ultimately destroy us. Beauty is not the problem; idolatry is.
God’s solution is remarkable. In Isaiah 53, we read of the one who would come as God’s chosen servant to rescue his people, and he does this by embodying the ugliness of the human condition. In fact, Isaiah reminds us that Jesus “had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” and that he became “like one from whom people hide their faces; he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.” On the cross, Jesus, who as the Son of God is unimaginably beautiful, became too disfigured to even look at. Why? So that we could be made unimaginably beautiful in Christ. Peter explains to us that, "Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight” (1 Peter 3).
The message that we must emphasize to our daughters and sons is that our true beauty in God’s eyes is not found in in our style of clothing, the way we do our hair, or the jewelry that we wear. In Christ, we receive his beauty!
We live in a world saturated with images of beauty, and the pressure to measure up to these standards of beauty. It can be intimidating to know how best to help our teens how to face this pressure, yet the gospel gives us the hope that the beauty we desire is ours for the taking! In raising your teens, encourage them to live out of the beauty they have in Christ, even as you build them up with your words.
Rev. Dr. Steven Koster