I came-of-age during that golden age of youth group in which no one knew how to talk about sex—other than, avoid it at ALL costs. Don’t look at boys. Segregate yourself. Keep your shorts a certain length. Shoulders are especially provocative. And, just to be safe, you probably shouldn’t talk to them at all.
Nowadays, thankfully, a lot of churches have rethought their approach to that sensitive youth group period. This is partially due to the fact that people have opened up about how this “purity culture indoctrination” negatively shaped the way they view sex—even within marriage. When you’re told for years that sex is dirty, damaging, and forever-altering, it’s hard to just switch that off on the wedding night. And, to be honest, it can be downright scary.
But, as I’ve gotten older, I realize that this is only part of the problem. I regularly encountered lessons on purity, yes, but there were no conversations happening about the body (in any positive way) in general. I’m certainly not saying that all churches are like this. I’m just speaking from my own experience. And, from a recent discussion over coffee with a youth pastor, I learned that he too thought that the church suffered from a loyalty to the mind-body divide.
If spiritual leaders continue to treat the body as merely a portal for sin, then that not only complicates our relationship with intimacy in God-ordained situations, but it also really affects those of us with body image disorders—in which the notion of “hating” or “denying the flesh” becomes all too easy.
I don’t remember any discussion of body positivity during my formative years.
It was all about hiding/denying/training the body. I treated my body as separate from myself. And ED (what those in the eating disorder community call that inner demon of ours) became a friend in such endeavors. All of this thinking merely encouraged my detest of the flesh, of my flesh, of the body that God had given me.
In my late-twenties, I’m trying to reverse this. And to tell you the truth, it’s really, really hard. And this is made harder by the fact that I’m married, and that involves letting someone else love my body too.
And to repeat what I’ve likely said each blog post, you can tell me I’m beautiful etc. etc. but I don’t hear it; mental illness is NOT rational. While I used to pray for healing, I’ve now accepted that ED will be around forever. I’m praying a different prayer now: not that I’ll overcome my eating disorder, but that I can train myself to replace each negative thought that enters my mind with a positive one.
I’m actively trying to accept my body, to love it in the way that God does.
What would happen if body positivity was something we began to approach from a Christian perspective during that critical coming-of-age period?
I do not hold to the mind-body divide. And for anyone that’s been in therapy, you know that affirmations are key. The way we think does affect ourselves physically. So, if positivity is hard for you, like it is for me, we just have to work at it a bit harder. Don’t be ashamed of carrying around an index card with a list of affirmations on it (I’ve done this since I was first in therapy at sixteen). These aren’t magic spells by any means, and some days they feel truer than others, but it’s about making an effort to grow.
While my affirmations have changed over the years, depending on what my mind-body needs, I’ve always had this verse listed:
“I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” Psalm 139:14
And I hope that one day I can appreciate and accept this truth fully.
If you have a story about mental illness—whether personal or concerning a loved one—please consider sharing your experience. Even if you aren’t at a place yet where you feel comfortable disclosing your name, the church body needs your voice. Let’s shine a light on the darkness, together.