This is the kind of dialog and action we’d love to see more of from churches and faith groups!
The Right Reverand Rachel Treweek is clearly a woman who isn’t afraid of raising her voice or going against the grain. In June 2015 she became the Bishop of Gloucester, the first female diocesan bishop in the Church of England, and the first female bishop to sit in the House of Lords. She also has a background in linguistics and speech pathology.
In a time when women’s leadership roles at the highest levels of a number of world faiths are being discussed more openly, especially in regard to how equality measures factor into religious circles, Bishop Rachel’s presence is already making an indelible mark on British society.
The 53 year-old has launched a campaign aimed at taking on negative body image messages that bombard youth. She believes social media has become a forceful conduit for exacerbating the body norms that are fostering low self-esteem in generation of young people, which can lead to mental health problems.
The campaign is called #Liedentity and brings the Church of England into the contemporary conversation about body positivity. In an interview with the Telegraph, Bishop Rachel shows a clear grasp of the modern concerns relating to body image in the media, pointing to Disney’s ‘Frozen’ as a prime example of how far we still have to go when it comes to representing more diverse bodies in the mainstream.
“They are slim, petite, thin-waisted, big-eyed princesses. They are not good role models, because it says if you are going to be successful like this, you still have to look a certain way. If you look at any book or fairytale, nearly always the ones who are successful are pretty, blonde, slim and blue-eyed. We start with those messages from a young age,” she explained, adding that the message of courage, bravery and sisterhood is important, but is tempered by the aesthetic it is attached to.
The Bishop’s campaign features various images of school-aged youth with parts of their bodies erased, signifying what they are most concerned with (stomach, thighs etc). The idea for #liedentity came about after a recent report from the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (PACEY) almost a third of nursery teachers (pre-school or kindergarten) have heard a student label themselves fat, and 10% have heard students describe themselves as “ugly”.
We’re talking 4 year-olds. Not fully formed adults. Yet these young boys and girls are already getting loud and clear messages about appearance at such an early age, which is quite disturbing. The research also surveyed healthcare professionals, a quarter of whom who admitted to hearing similar body dissatisfaction comments from roughly a 3-5 year-olds. That amount doubled when it came to 6-10 year-olds.
Some of the common denominators include TV, books, animation and what kids overhear adults and parents talking about. This is something that has been tackled by Dove previously in their ‘Legacy’ campaign. More recently, the Girlguiding Girls’ Attitude Survey found a majority of girls aged 7-10 believe they are rated more on their looks and physical appearance than their ability. In response, they launched the Be Real Body Image Pledge to hold media companies responsible for the messages they promote around body image.
Similar research results were released from a study in 2015 from London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, King’s College London and Harvard, which found an increase in body dissatisfaction among younger generations. Clearly this has been a growing trend for a while and we need to see industry leaders, as well as community organizations and leaders tackling this issue from all fronts.
One message that is unique to the faith community, which Bishop Rachel and the Gloucester Diocese is incorporating into this campaign, is the emphasis on God’s value of people.
“We’re all made in God’s image, and I want every young person to become what God made them to be…we need to start complimenting people not on what they look like but on the qualities they have,” she said in a workshop conducted with students in the video below. It stems from one of many biblical messages of worth found in Psalm 139: “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”
There are numerous socio-political messages and agendas more commonly associated with the church at large, but body image and self-esteem is certainly not a common one. Bishop Rachel is aiming to change this.
“It really, really concerns me that young people’s perceived worth and value has got so caught up in visual appearance. This is something that I haven’t yet seen the Church picking up on,” she said. This campaign alone should be proof we need more women in high faith leadership positions.
The Bishop is familiar with low sel-esteem, as it is something she struggled with growing up, having severe acne.
“I was very aware of not reaching a standard of prettiness. For school photos, I was always sent further and further back. At discos, I would look down on the boys I was dancing with. I had huge, size-8 feet – not particularly what a girl wants. Trying to find fashionable shoes for a 14-year-old with size-8 feet was a nightmare. Those kind of things made me feel really self-conscious,” she said.
She said her eventual strong-sense of self-worth to the Christian values instilled in her by being involved in church activities which emphasized her value stemming from God. Today, although she and her husband (who is also a Reverend) have no children of their own, Bishop Rachel is well-aware of the role parents play in determining how young men and women view themselves.
The subconscious remarks often directed at girls which focus on their looks rather than commenting on their achievements or other non-physical attributes start to add up.
“I find my natural way of trying to building a relationship straight away is saying: ‘That’s a pretty dress.’ But what am I doing? I am immediately giving them a sense of this is what our relationship is built on,” she said.
Social media plays a large role in helping to continue the damaging cycle of negative body image, she says, and this is something well known to experts outside the religious arena. The Bishop believes it is far more helpful for parents to foster conversation with their children about body image, rather than attack with a heavy-handed approach like banning social media use altogether.
Rachel is also careful to point out that a disdain for tying self-esteem and self-worth to physical attributes should in no way look down upon a person’s love of fashion or makeup. But she also has a keen awareness of the double standards often seen in media headlines when it comes to talking about a public figure’s wardrobe.
“Why is it that people can comment on Theresa May and what she wears? If David Cameron had worn some bright pink tie with blue spots, I suppose [the media] might have made a comment on it, but it seems to be about her identity,” she said. An example closer to home, of course, is Hillary Clinton. A political figure who has been the subject of endless headlines discussing her hairstyle, pant suits, makeup, rather than her actual work as a public servant.
It is the age-old struggle we see when more and more women start to break down gender barriers in industries and institutions more commonly associated with men only.
“There is a lot of pressure on women to be Superwoman and do things even better than men would. Certainly, I would say that I experienced that when I was first ordained as a woman in 1994, which was the first year that women could be priests. I remember myself and the women clergy feeling that we had to really, really do well. If a man who’d been a vicar for a long time had a bit of an off-day, it would be just that, he is having an off-day. If a woman did something not right, it would be, ‘Ah, that’s why we shouldn’t have women as priests’,” said the Bishop adding how much harder it is for a woman to be vulnerable in the public eye than it is a man.
Since the campaign launch until Christmas, Bishop Rachel will be traveling to schools to engage students in workshops about how social media affects their body image, as well as women’s prisons where she sees a drastic need for inmates who are also suffering from a poor sense of self-worth that undoubtedly goes beyond just the physical.
Seeing the church take the lead on a campaign like this and become a place of support and safety for youth is what we need to see more of. With so much negativity in the world today, and plenty of harm and pain attributed to religious institutions, it gives us hope to see the good that can happen when faith organizations are willing to listen to the needs of the communities they inhabit. You can watch one of Bishop Rachel’s workshops in action in the video below, and find out more about #Liedentity by going to the Gloucester Diocese website.