The summer after I finished my first year of college, I was mostly concerned with making sure that everyone knew I had finished my first year of college.
I tried to pick outfits that said “college student.” I threw references to my studies into conversations. And I tried to carry myself in such a way that people who saw me knew I was so not a high schooler any more – that I was a card-carrying adult. Sophistication, maturity, that indefinable college “cool” – that was the vibe I was after.
I laugh and cringe at the memory now, about how important at the time it seemed to appear “grown up”, to be under the impression that the world revolved around me and whatever image I projected. It’s a natural narcissism that comes of youth and immaturity.
And yet when I turn my eyes to social media – to Twitter and Facebook and all the other thousands of places we see selfies and pictures of people’s dinners and vacations and houses – I see how writ large that problem must be for so many people. Social media exists for us to create a particular image of ourselves, much like I tried to do out of college; but my phase had an end whereas social media exists in a perpetual and endless cycle. And the barrage of assumptions that come with it – that people are looking at us, that how we live and act and present ourselves matters – forces us to be conscious, always, of our image. Of how we look to others. Of how we want to be seen.
If you spend much time on social media without the necessary brain-filters – as younger people do – you start to feel inadequate. It’s inevitable. Everyone is prettier than you. They’re going to more exciting places than you. Their talents are better than yours and what they’re eating looks better than what you just ate. Their boyfriends and girlfriends smile, flawless, in pictures. Their material possessions, sometimes literally, sit in piles on their beds to be envied.
As Christians, we try to talk about this – sometimes. Sort of. We encourage our young people to feel loved and beautiful in Christ, but often these discussions are directed toward women and get wrapped up in general lessons on self-esteem and God’s love; instructions on how to be “beautiful” come via lessons on character and modesty, or sometimes in guides to married women. But the problem is bigger and at the same time subtler than it used to be: the current generation (both genders) grapples not only with body image, but with life image. As a church, it’s our job to teach them not just to know that God loves them and that they are beautiful, but that the lives they see represented on the Internet – even the Christian ones! – are curated, are representative samples that weed out unflattering moments, doubts, uncertainties, and anything that looks less than acceptable.
What makes a good life? What makes a rich, full, and fulfilled life? What makes you “beautiful”? What makes you complete? Those are the questions we need to be able to answer and the remedy we need to be able to offer. In a world where everyone controls their own image and desires to command others’ perception of them, a life of authenticity will surely stand out as something notable.
I’m away on vacation for the next couple of weeks. Please feel free to comment on or respond to the posts; I’ll certainly get back to you when I return!