Gen Z may be growing up in a world that promotes body positivity and inclusivity, but that doesn’t mean this generation is exempt from experiencing a negative view of their body.
Gen Z is the first generation to be raised with accessible technology and the ease, convenience and connectivity that comes along with it. Yet, the unlimited access, constant exposure, and unfiltered influence technology has had on formidable minds has done very little to benefit the overall health of this generation. In particular, shaping its body image.
In this Culture Matters article, I will address the unique body image challenges Gen Z is facing as well as the mixed-messages this generation is receiving. Additionally, I will offer some suggestions to help parents navigate this touchy topic.
As a mother of five Gen Z children (four daughters and one son), this subject is one that is near and dear to my heart. I hope the content in this article will encourage parents to instill a truly positive body image in the hearts and minds of Gen Z youth.
Without a doubt, technology has had the biggest influence on Gen Z as well as the strongest manipulation on one’s psyche. (I have a lot to say about technology and social media, but for the sake of this article I will focus primarily on body image pertaining to Gen Z females.)
As I had mentioned in my Body Image Through the Decades article, culture has played a key role in shaping the body image of every generation. Culture continues to refine the image of the ideal body for Gen Z females but has utilized technology to enhance its perceptions of what is “beautiful,” “normal,” and “acceptable.”
At the turn of the 21st century, the emphasis on thinness was still apparent and sought after. It wasn’t until the beginning of the 2010s that the portrait of beauty began to morph into a more diverse offering. As I had previously suggested in my Body Image Through the Decades article, pop-culture icons, like the Kardashians, Beyonce, and Nicki Minaj, played a pivotal role in reshaping femininity, sexuality and the physical body.
Despite the “thin is in” trends of the 90s-00s, fat acceptance and body positivity have roots stemming back to the 1960s. New life was breathed into this “old soil” when the modern body positivity movement emerged in 2012 as a challenge to unrealistic feminine beauty standards. The gist of the movement was to highlight the diversity of female body shapes while accepting and appreciating all bodies as beautiful. The movement encouraged self-love and confidence for the “skin you’re in” regardless of age, shape, size, gender or lifestyle choice.
For the first time ever, various types of body shapes, sizes, and skin colors were more widely seen, glamourized and glorified. Social media was a big proponent of this movement through the use of “body positivity” hashtags and the virality of certain celebs and influencers showcasing their post-partum bodies, unfiltered areas of cellulite, make-up free faces, and other physical flaws, blemishes and imperfections. Industries, like advertising, as well as larger fashion franchises, such as Old Navy (making more clothing sizes easily accessible), got on-board and the movement took off in a direction that appeared to be shaping a positive body image in the minds of females everywhere.
I believe there was much success in challenging society’s view of the female body and the standard of beauty. Likewise, it was refreshing to witness a sense of freedom in body expression and thankfulness.
In this world, you can have everything you want, need or desire and still never be fully satisfied.*
This is exactly what happened with the body positivity movement. It began with good intentions and then spiraled out of control. (Sound familiar?)
The body positivity movement supports the fact that all bodies are beautiful and should be accepted and appreciated. For those who view the world through a biblical lens, this is reflective of being made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). Thick, thin. Tall, short, Big, small. Black, white. Able or disabled. Whatever you look like, wherever you’re from, and however your body is physically built, it should be valued as the perfectly designed, completely original and utterly irreplaceable gift from the one and only Creator.
The sad reality, though, is the world doesn’t see the body how God sees it. The world wants the body to fit into culture’s box of conformity, whether that be seeking skinniness, embracing one’s natural curves, exploring one’s gender identity, or any other cultural fad or trend.
The issue isn’t honoring how one’s body is naturally constructed (i.e. race, gender, height, physical frame, etc.). The issue is praising the body for being something it is not – healthy.
Okay, I’ll say it – obese.
And also – mentally unwell.
It should come as no surprise to learn Gen Z experiences the most mental health problems and is the most stressed generation to date. Even so, it can be considered positive news that Gen Z individuals are in tune to their mental health and are aware of the triggers impacting their outlook on life and the world. Nevertheless, I choose to view the statistics as both devastating and alarming.
It is incredibly difficult for me to not go off on a tangent about all of the many things I believe have contributed to the high levels of stress and reported mental health illnesses of this generation. I suppose I will have to write a separate article tackling that topic! 😉
I believe body-shaming, along with portraying or emphasizing one “generic” type of body size as normal or ideal, is very toxic. This is why I support the idea of the body positivity movement. However, what made a good thing go very wrong was the push to love your body no matter what.
Things started to get ugly when full-blown, unhealthy obesity and lifestyle choices were praised despite the various health risks (such as mental illness, heart disease, and diabetes, to name a few; an example of the glorification of obesity is best seen in the pop-star, Lizzo, or in the redirection of health messaging in magazines such as Shape).
Stuffing your face with junk food while binge-watching Netflix will never be considered healthy. It may make you feel good temporarily, but in the long run, it will not produce good results. Similarly, over-exercising your body or restricting calories is not beneficial nor is it healthy. Whether you like it or not, both of these examples wreak havoc on the body and negatively impact one’s overall health and wellness.
Another element that I believe is contributing to Gen Z’s stress levels and poor mental wellness is the increase in gender confusion.
I’m not going to directly address gender dysphoria in this article, but I will refer you to a source that has conducted intensive research on the ever-growing trend of trans-identifying girls. It is true, there has been an unforeseen increase in (previously considered) heterosexual teen girls claiming to experience gender dysphoria. If this topic is of interest to you, I highly recommend reading Abigail Shrier’s book, Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters. Personally, I believe a lot of the gender confusion seen today could be eliminated if society would just let go of gender stereotypes rather than encouraging them. (For more gender-related content referrals and a basic introduction on gender identity, see my article Gender 101.)
In addition to gender dysphoria, I believe the hyper-sexualization and female exploitation (seen throughout society and especially throughout social media) are another contributor of Gen Z’s negative body image and poor mental health.
In my opinion, we got from A to Z with the empowering mentality that “the future is female.” Without digging deep into that element, I do want to note the toxicity of that message in response to sexual harassment, misogyny, the “patriarchy,” and the modern feminist movement. This slogan, seen nearly everywhere over the last decade+, tells young girls they are better than boys (and men). I’m sorry. But that is the meat of the message when stripped down to its bones.
As a mom of four Gen Z girls, I think “the future is female” message does way more harm than good. First off, I was never taught growing up that I am valued less than a boy (man) or that I won’t have the same opportunities as those as the opposite sex. Instead, I was raised to believe I could do and be whatever my heart dreamed and that boys (men) and girls (women) are created equal, but different. I instill the same mentality in my own daughters today…and in my son.
Moreover, I believe “the future is female” messaging combined with the body positivity movement produced the love child of an hypersexualized female culture.
If you don’t agree, please, just take one glance around (on TV, social media, while you’re out running errands) and convince me Gen Z hasn’t been encouraged to “flaunt” their body and expose their skin. Crop tops, booty shorts (which IMO, are basically underwear made out of denim), thong bathing suit bottoms…
When “the future is female” message is taken into account along with the emphasis on body acceptance regardless of overall health status or current conditions, it becomes clear how body image is one of the many factors contributing to Gen Z’s mental health crisis.
If you’re hungry for more, nibble on this food for thought –
Could it possibly be the medical field? Big Pharma?
The body positivity movement = promoting obesity = long-term health risks and repercussions = increase of pharmaceutical assistance and/or medical care and hospitalization.
Gender dysphoria/transgenderism = increase in prescription use of puberty-blockers and cross-sex hormones = gender reassignment surgeries and other medical or cosmetic procedures = long-term health risks, including but not limited to infertility, higher risk of heart disease and blood clots, bone density issues, and prolonged mental illnesses.
Things just got real.
So what now?
Echoing what I said in previous Culture Matters articles on body image, CULTURE THRIVES OFF OF EXTREMES. Thin was in and then fat became all that. Neither are good. Neither are healthy. Neither are a normal or natural part of God’s design.
Yet, this is the culture Gen Z girls are growing up in – they are encountering numerous messages every day, nearly every minute, that go against everything God deemed to be good, right and true.
Despite all of the reality, negativity, and statistics, I have hope. Really, I do.
Specifically, when it comes to body image I am grateful to witness various body types on display in advertisements, entertainment and pop culture, clothing stores, and throughout other areas in society. The body shapes of my four daughters are as uniquely diverse as their personalities. As their mom and as someone whose body image was directly shaped by culture, I value my children being able to see and relate to women of all shapes, colors, and sizes.
Additionally, I choose to use the original idea behind the body positivity movement – that is, loving your body no matter what – as a teaching opportunity for loving, appreciating and valuing the gift of one’s body. I believe self-care is important, as is self-love, as long as the selfie isn’t elevated above the One who created the self. (Again, selfie-culture is a whole other conversation…and yet, is another casualty seen in this generation.)
Moreover, I support the concept of body neutrality when it applies to accepting one’s body in its current state as well as honoring all of the body’s natural capabilities. I believe this is a healthy way to view one’s body while acknowledging the presence of imperfections and the vitality of maintaining good total body health and wellness. I see body neutrality as a way to apply the idea of spiritual sanctification to how a person considers their body. Perhaps this is not the intent behind the idea of body neutrality (and I’m sure it is not), but this is how I am choosing to apply this concept.
In closing, I see positivity coming out of Gen Z’s mental health crisis and intend to use my small sphere of influence to serve my children’s generation. Of course, there are many areas in culture that I’d like to speak into and intend to address many of these hot-button or controversial topics in future Culture Matters articles.
Truthfully, I believe that the most “unchurched” generation has the chance to experience the greatest spiritual revival. I honestly do.
*See Genesis 3. Even though, Adam and Eve had all they could ever want or need, they still desired more.
*Like all Culture Matters articles, this article is written as an editorial that uses my personal thoughts, beliefs, opinions and experiences to convey a specific message.