A Gathering Voices post by Lynne M. Baab
Last year, Missy Lein, a youth group leader at a church in Seattle, had a conversation with one of the young women in her group. Missy asked, “If you could ask God to do just one thing in your life this next year, what would you want?”
The teenager responded, “I would want God to teach me to love myself, because I don’t.” She went on to talk about how her lack of sense of worth is connected to the negative messages she receives about her body.
Missy began dreaming with another youth group leader, Becca Borgh, about creating a safe space for teenage girls at the church to talk about body image. Becca wrote an email to the parents of the girls in the youth group:
“Body image, media messages, eating disorders, cutting, sexuality - all of these things are huge issues for the students; issues that are very difficult and come with a lot of shame, fear, and anxiety. As youth leaders, we can't solve these issues. As parents, you can't solve these issues. But we can let the students know they're not alone. As a community, we can begin to build a safe place for students to learn the language of these issues for themselves; to feel that, despite how they should feel about their bodies, they can articulate how they actually do feel. And they can be met with wisdom, support, and love, and be continually pointed towards God.”
Missy and Becca arranged for adult women in the church to come and talk about body image to the teenage girls. The older women shared stories of hurts, healing and growth in the understanding of our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit. The youth group leaders and members have come up with a saying that they repeat often: “Our bodies are for the Lord and the Lord is for our bodies.”
Missy and Becca are youth group leaders at Bethany Presbyterian Church in Seattle, where I worked as an associate minister some years ago. They wrote about this body image project in a recent church newsletter. As I read the story from many miles away, I found myself longing to be a teenager again, specifically a teenager in that youth group, so I could have listened to all those adult women tell their stories. I have wrestled all my life with hating my body. God’s healing has been slow and steady. But, oh, my teenage self would have benefited so much from some honest discussion about body image.
I’ve been invited to be the keynote speaker at a high school book week in late July. I was asked because I’m a writer, and they said I could talk about anything related to writing or reading. I’m going to talk about the way fiction has invited me into other worlds. I have never been to a horse race, but I’ve read almost every book by Dick Francis. As a result, I know a lot about horse racing. I am highly skeptical of the time and money we put into weddings. I think the effort should go into the marriage, not the wedding. But in the past few years I’ve read two novels in which the main character was a wedding planner. I’m in awe of the relational skills needed by wedding planners as they help people with the emotionally charged moments at weddings. I could never, never, never do that because I don’t have people skills like that, nor do I have much enthusiasm for weddings, but it was great to enter into that world for a few hours.
Research indicates that entering into someone else’s world through fiction may increase our ability to experience empathy, a key relational skill. I want to tell the high school girls to read fiction and enter into those worlds with enthusiasm and energy in order to grow in empathy.
But I also want to tell them my concerns about the way sexuality and body image are portrayed in fiction. I’m not sure how to do that in way that will be heard by the high school students. Good thing I’ve got a month to think about it.