I’ve been remembering what it was like to be a teenager, mostly because I’ve been thinking about my Confirmation students and what they are dealing with on a day to day basis. Certain memories have been returning to me. One that keeps filling my mind is when my gym class went swimming at the high school pool the winter of my 6th grade year. I remember carefully picking out my swimsuit from the JC Penney catalog with my mom the summer before. I loved the bright pink flowers and the ruffles around the top, and I was happy to wear it for gym class. I enjoyed swimming so much it bordered on obsession, so when my class lined up to get ready to jump in the pool I was focused only on getting into the water.
Then the boy who stood next to me in line (our last names started with the same letter) turned to me, looked me up and down, and asked me, “Are you pregnant?” I still vividly remember the feeling I had in the pit of my stomach after his comment. Suddenly, my world vision changed, and I realized painfully that according to some people, my body did not fit into certain expected standards. The systems that uphold these standards and led this boy to say something insulting and cruel are terribly complex and I can’t begin to unwrap them. Yet I know I am not alone. I know so many others who have similar stories, so many girls who take a drastic turn in self esteem around age 11, so many people who struggle with their relationships with food and health and their bodies. Hearing insulting words at a tender developmental age affects our sense of self-worth and we carry those words into our adult identities. Many other people have insulted me throughout my life without much consequence, but this particular comment still sticks with me. I remember where I was standing, how vulnerable I suddenly felt in my swimsuit, the chemical scent of chlorine, the warmth of the humid pool area, the way my damp hair would freeze when I went out to the bus to return to the middle school. And to this day, I still think of this boy as a jerk.
I watch the kids in my Confirmation classes work so hard to discover where they fit in. They don’t know what (or who) their bodies are for, but they know their bodies are meant to be hated. They are taught that they are their bodies and nothing more–forgetting their gifts and their minds. They hurt each other (I suspect) in a desperate attempt to find the sense of self-worth they have lost. They feel as if everyone is looking at them and judging them every minute of every day, and they feel as if they are all alone—the only person who has ever felt this way.
It wasn’t until I had kids that I began to really understand what I lost when I entered adolescence. (This is my own personal experience; please don’t think I’m asserting that one needs to be a parent in order to understand the wonder of the human body.) When I was pregnant, I realized my body can fulfill joyful functions and purposes and is not just for show. As I care for my children’s bodies, I marvel at how beautiful and quirky and darn cute they are. I love their big bellies, their birthmarks, their cowlicks, and their feet that look just like their dad’s. I love my daughter’s chipped tooth and my son’s thumbs that are raw from sucking. I dread the day when they begin to question their worth, for right now they find so much joy in their bodies—in the way they jump and run, enjoy food, shed scratchy clothing, and kiss themselves in the mirror. My children have helped me reclaim the joy I find in exercise and moving my body. To see them develop and grow makes me wonder how we took such a wrong turn. How can we think of anyone’s body as wrong in any way? All bodies are wondrous.
As faithful people, part of a church that struggles to find its place in the current culture, we have a different word to speak, and we need to speak it loudly. As faithful people, we are called to view all bodies as gifts from God, created lovingly for a purpose–temples that house the Holy Spirit, to be treated as sacred. We are a community that celebrates each person as a valuable and precious creation of God.
Most of all, the church is a place where kids—and all people—experience relationship. We partner with parents as teachers of the faith. We are authentic with our own struggles so kids know they are not alone. We treat them as if they really matter so they learn how to treat others. We hold them accountable for their actions and lead them in new directions. We help them to learn how to live in community, how to ask for forgiveness and forgive, how to look outside of themselves and see the places where they can make a difference and live out their faith. We have the opportunity to teach our kids compassion for their own bodies, which I believe can and will lead to compassion for the bodies of others.
As faithful people, our sense of self-worth does not come from what others think of us. It comes from the knowledge that God is still working in this world, still creating and living among us. The solutions to body image issues, bullying, and identity development are complex and feel impossible to tackle. Yet we can start somewhere. Why not start with remembering God’s breath over the vast nothingness before creation, speaking life into all of us, and saying, “It is good?”