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Why the Church Needs to Teach about Body Image

A five-day church fast revealed a different hunger.

Recently, my church experienced its first-ever Five Day Challenge, an initiative launched several years ago by Willow Creek Community Church. The Challenge encourages people to eat only small portions of rice and beans at each meal as a tangible experience of the hunger that the bottom economic half of the world endures daily.

Like any good leader, I prepared my team in advance. We marketed the event, provided information and meal plans, We inspired our congregation and set a fundraising goal. With an expectant tone, I stood before my own ministry area, high schoolers, and asked, "Who will be participating in Meals With Hope?" Scattered hands tentatively went up, while one high schooler in the front thrust her arm in the air and shouted, "It's a great way to lose weight!"

Oh. No.

A deeper hunger

This post isn't about the global food crisis or inspiring students to get involved in justice projects. It's about an issue that strikes closer to home for many of us: body image.

Up until recently, I liked to think that body image was being addressed effectively outside the church, like through the YMCA, Weight Watchers, and Dove Beauty ads, which have done a great job of teaching that our bodies are made for strength, resiliency and health. As a church leader, I'm too busy solving the global food crisis to develop a theology of female body image! There's more important work to do than worry about people's perception of themselves.

And yet this high schooler's rallying cry to fast as a way of losing weight revealed a deeper hunger–one that I needed to be concerned about. For many people, women especially, achieving a healthy body image is the first step toward satisfying their deepest hunger: the need to be loved and accepted for who they are. For churches, tackling the body image issue is every bit as important as feeding the world.

We live in a culture that idolizes the feminine form as either an ornament to be adored or a sexual plaything to adulterate. As Christians we're trying to make sense of how to treat our bodies with enough attention–but not too much; how to be sexy for our husbands, but not for our co-workers. How to teach our girls that true love waits–even if we didn't. Body image is one conversation the church can't afford not to join.

But how do we have an authentic, effective dialogue about body image with the women we lead? How do we listen to young women, like my high schooler, without judgment and provide a safe environment for people like her to explore this topic through the lens of faith?

In the past, churches turned to curriculum designed around making sure we got the "result" we wanted from our girls–modesty and the assurance of purity rings. But what about engaging in real discussion about the purpose of the body and a healthy understanding of sexuality?

Earlier this week I texted a twentysomething volunteer to ask how the five-day challenge was going. She responded, "I now know I think about, avoid, plan for, and dwell on food so much of my day." This is the beginning of a good discussion.

There's a need in leadership to not only reconcile our own personal understanding of body image, but to begin to address it among the women we lead as well.

Do you sense that body image is an issue among the women (and leaders) in your community? Do you address it with any program or curriculum? Is it working? Let's begin a dialogue on this topic here so we can deliver a faith perspective in our churches that will satisfy a world starved for truth.

Nicole Unice is a contributing editor for GiftedforLeadership.com. She has decided to accept her status as a wrestler with God. Between raising her kids and working in Family and Student Ministry at Hope Church in Richmond, VA, Nicole likes to write and teach on the intersection of God's word and modern life. Her first book, "The Divine Pursuit, A Study of Jonah" released in Fall 2010. You can find her blogging at The Stubborn Servant.

May26, 2011 at 10:49 AM

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