8 December 2023

Thousands of teenagers hate their bodies, and Christians need to talk about this

Georgia Nicholas had already begun to struggle with body image, aged just eight. Picture: Supplied

By Georgia Nicholas

31 July 2022

I remember the day in this picture vividly. It was the summer of 2003 and my little brother’s first day of primary school. Dad had gotten us ready and driven us to school – a treat to avoid before school care.

This photo was taken as we prepared to walk in together, up the street from school. I remember how lush Melbourne’s eastern suburbs looked and how cute the white weather board houses were. I remember how my usually boisterous brother was quieter than usual, and how he held my hand extra tightly.

I also remember feeling incredibly fat.

I remember comparing my thighs to the other girls in my class. Theirs were smaller than mine.

At the same age, I remember lying awake at night, dreaming of shaving my tummy off with a kitchen knife so it would go away. During the day, I was learning to write basic sentences and talking about the Saddle Club at lunchtime.

I was eight.

Now I was raised in a loving Christian home. My parents were affectionate and always celebrated us. I was taught that Jesus loved me from an early age, and I can still remember Bible verse songs from Sunday club by heart. Like all families we have our problems, but I was blessed with a foundation of love very early on.

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I’ve had the privileged of knowing God loves humanity my whole life. But, at eight years old, somewhere, somehow, I’d concluded I was overweight and therefore undesirable to the people who could love me. I had concluded that being desired and wanted made you worthy.

Now I don’t want to suggest that being fat is a bad thing. It’s not. God made some of us fat, some of us thin. Ultimately these are just descriptions and should be without the stigma we’ve associated them with. But to me as a child, it felt like being fat was one of the worst things you could be.

Looking at that photo, today’s 26-year-old me knows I was a healthy little girl, growing up at a healthy speed.

But even at this early age, toxic thought patterns had started to present themselves. These toxic thoughts about weight are often an early warning sign of mental illness, and for me this was well and truly what they were.

My feelings aged eight were the beginning of a very long journey, which I’m still travelling through. In this article, I want to unpack why a little girl, who had God in her life, had landed in such disordered thinking. I want to explore why I’m not alone in this experience and I want to suggest what we, today’s church, can do about it.

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According to the 2021 Mission Australia’s National Youth survey, 87 per cent of participants (aged between 15 and 19) expressed concern about their body image. About 33 per cent of that group expressed being extremely or very concerned.

Professionals are diagnosing children as young as 12 with eating disorders like anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa according to Eating Disorders Victoria.

When Big Kids’ Table asked our audience in 2021 what their experience of body image had been, we received honest and vulnerable responses that indicated the prevalence of this issue.

“My experience is feeling like an outcast, different, and bigger than everyone else”

“It isn’t talked about to males. Not heard direct teaching on it because it’s a ‘girl problem’. This led to bottling up of feelings in the past because I thought it was only me.”

“My experience is one of much suffering, from [eating disorders] at 12 and only recovering at age 19. “

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The plastic surgery industry in Australia is booming having hit the billion-dollar mark in 2017 according to the Victorian Cosmetic Institute. “Cosmetic treatments” includes semi-permanent items such as fake nails and facials, but also more permanent procedures such as teeth whitening, anti-ageing injections such as Botox, and plastic surgery.

Like many of us, I enjoy a facial or nail treatment myself. But the more permanent cosmetic procedures worry me.

Australians are spending billions of dollars each year to make themselves look different, permanently.

Reasons for cosmetic surgery are complex, but I’d suggest a large portion of these people are doing so because they are unhappy with their appearance.

I have spent thousands of hours in my 26-years praying about my body image, and I’m still healing in this area. One thing I do know, however, is feelings like this are not from God.

The gospel shares a different narrative. It’s one that highlights that an individual’s worth comes from something outside of their appearance, and honours our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit.

The gospel offers a completely different narrative to the one of the world around us.

The world tells children they need to look smaller to be loved. In Jesus, Paul says in Colossians 1 that Christ’s followers are “…holy in His sight, without blemish and free from accusation”.

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The world encourages us to make insecurity-inspired decisions and alter our appearance for good. God whispers in love that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” with ultimate intention and purpose (Psalm 139).

I often think about what would have helped protect eight-year-old me. Ultimately there’s not one single thing. But the church’s silence about body image was one of the biggest issues.

I needed the church then to be talking about our bodies and why they are good, making an emphasis on what this means, and what to do, when we don’t feel this way. Children and teens today need the same, if anything more pressingly.

So as we move forward as todays church, let’s be watchful with our words and self-talk, especially around young people. Often as adults we’ve accepted that we will always dislike our appearance. But what if that wasn’t the case? I truly believe Jesus can heal our relationship with ourselves and lead us in teaching others to do this too.

Today, thousands of young people are struggling with body image issues. I believe in a world where Christians can help remedy this and empower entire generations towards change. Will you join me?

Georgia Nicholas is co-director of non-for-profit ministry Big Kids’ Table, which exists to create safe, honest conversations about Kingdom identity, sexual experience, and the expression of sexual desire for youth and young adults of faith. Find out more at bigkidstable.org.

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