Who do you think you are?

Published on: 1 May 2018

Sixty per cent of girls opt out of everyday activities because of how they think they look. Around half of adolescent boys are unhappy with their bodies, and young people's happiness is a its lowest since 2010[1]. Jonathan Richardson explores what shapes our sense of identity.

We live in a world of sound bites, spin, fake news and selfies. Evidence shows that increasingly, many young people are sourcing their identities from social media and advertising, and in the process losing their self-esteem. The constant comparison with unreal airbrushed images and choreographed social media profiles that only show the good side of people’s lives create a narrative of self-doubt.

Many organisations are responding to this issue with one particular approach being the #liedentity campaign, run by the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, Bishop of Gloucester. The campaign seeks to tackle the misconceptions young people have and asks how the church can help redress this.

“I long for every young person to discover their worth as a unique individual created in the image of God and to find happiness as they go on becoming who they have been created to be,” said Bishop Rachel.

The blame for the crisis in self-identity is often put on the internet and social media – but research from Youth for Christ[2] found that although YouTube is identified as the most negative influence on young people’s mental health, it was also identified as the place they find the best support. The challenge for young people is to find a space where they can express themselves, but also where there is not the continual pressure to compare with others – how many likes, friends, followers or shares they get.

You are what you look like?

Negative body image and a lack of identity is not a problem unique to young people. We are bombarded by thousands of messages every day through advertising and the media deliberately aimed at making us feel inadequate – if only we had that new item of clothing, a little bit more money, got that next job up the ladder… We seem to crave recognition, success and belonging.

“We don’t graduate from poor body image. At all stages of life, women and men say that they unhappy with the way they look” Glen Jankowski[3]

I was sitting in a restaurant by a busy street a few weeks ago and started watching people walking past. Hundreds of people each unique with their own style and their own purpose. Some in groups laughing with friends, others purposely marching by – maybe trying to get back to the car park on time! It was fascinating to reflect on how different we all are, yet how we still compare ourselves to others.

Recent YMCA research revealed that half of young people have been bullied about the way they look, and two-fifths of those experience this bullying at least once a week. This has led to the launch of the Be Real Campaign and Body Confidence Campaign Toolkit for Schools in January 2017. YMCA Norfolk introduced the pack to Taverham High School.

“I went to the High School last year to deliver an assembly and to work with student Ellen Flower to raise awareness of the campaign and what the toolkit can offer schools,” said Charlie Smith, YMCA Norfolk Mental Health Engagement Worker. “It is great to see that the enthusiasm for Be Real is still present within the school and how young people also see the importance of speaking up about bullying especially when it is focused on appearance.”

Working with young people, I am always struck to hear them say “I don’t feel like everyone else – I feel different”. We each have that conflict of wanting to be like everyone else and yet unique and individual. How exactly do we ever know how someone else is feeling? We spend so much time worrying, based on how we imagine everyone else feels.

Relationship reality-check

Much of our identity is wrapped up in the social circles we move in – as humans we want to be part of a group. You only have to look at the groups that form in a school or wider youth, adult and church culture: skaters, goths, emos, punks, mods, rockers, yuppies, working class, evangelical, Anglican, the list goes on. The need for relationship, and identity as part of a group, should be no surprise: “In the beginning the word was God and word was with God” (John 1:1).

Father, Son and Holy Spirit, each unique but one in relationship. Relationship is at the heart of who God is, and being created in his image means we have been made to be interdependent.

Questions of identity often start when we rely on human relationships to find validation and identity rather than on our relationship with God. Many people going through separation or divorce find that their self-worth has been based on the relationship and once that goes they find they need to ‘re-discover’ themselves.

The same thing can happen with parents when the kids leave home, or when people retire from a job. So much of life has been taken up by one thing that when it goes there is a sense of loss – even grief. It is easy to build a whole identity around who we are in the church – basing not only our identity but also our faith on others, our role, the traditions of the church or the beliefs and style of a leader, rather than on our personal core beliefs and our unique relationship with God. Removing any of those external references for our identity leads us to question not only our identity but also our faith.

The juxtaposition of being unique but also seeking community is tackled in a session from the CPAS Growing Leaders course that we use with young people from across the Diocese. We look at Personality, Character and Reputation. We all have our own unique personality, intrinsic traits: shy, outgoing, gregarious, solemn, optimistic or pessimistic – traits hard-wired in our brain and DNA. It is something we cannot change, and neither should we; there being no right or wrong, good or bad personality. Personality is something that affects our whole life view, the glasses through which we view our surroundings and the people we relate to.

In contrast, our character is something we can develop. Life experiences change and refine our character. We can become more generous, content, humble, bitter or resentful. Sure, our personality can affect that – if we are naturally optimistic it is maybe easier to be contented – but ultimately our character is in our own hands. This is what I believe Paul was referring to when he said, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). Allowing our discipleship to Jesus to refine our character.

Both our personality and character have an impact on our reputation but ultimately we have little control over this, yet we spend most of our time seeking validation from others based on our reputation!

Our identity in Christ

At the end of Psalm 139 the Psalmist David writes: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life” (Psalm 139:2– 4).

Accepting the uniqueness that God created in us, that we are uniquely special and loved by God, enables us to find a deep inner peace about our true identity. Finding our validation from God, not people, starts with knowing that God chooses us: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you” (Jeremiah 1:5). Jesus said: “You did not choose me but I chose you” (John 15:16).

Secondly, it is about discovering there is some purpose to our lives. A great resource that has both youth and adult versions is Freedom in Christ. With 13 sessions looking at a range of aspects of finding our identity, we found the session title Truth = Freedom to be helpful when we used it with young people. It’s only when we acknowledge the reality of our situation, experiences and character that we can be free of the guilt, shame or dissatisfaction we have of ourselves.

Curate Aiden Edwards, when asked about how he discovered his calling to ministry, responded: “You never know yourself truly, until you hand all that you are to God and allow him to work out his purpose in you.”

[1] Centre for Appearance Research, University of the West of England
[2] Rethinking Culture, Youth for Christ, 2016
[3] Jankowski, Glen S. et al. “Looking age-appropriate while growing old gracefully: A qualitative study of ageing and body image among older adults.” Journal of Health Psychology 21.4 (2016): 550–561.

Find out more about the #liedentity campaign at www.gloucester.anglican.org/liedentity

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