Justin & Lindsey Holcomb: Need-to-Know Truth for Kids about Body Image
About the Guest
How can we weave confidence and truth into our kids’ body image? Authors Lindsey & Justin Holcomb offer ideas to help kids embrace the image of God in them.
Justin & Lindsey Holcomb: Need-to-Know Truth for Kids about Body Image
Justin: I have no problem talking about like complimenting them. If I had a son, I'd: “Hey, you're a handsome young man”; or [to a daughter:]“You’re a beautiful girl.” If that's the first thing, and the main thing, that's the problem. I see it on social media all the time: “my beautiful wife”; “my beautiful kids”—that's great—but the idea that the only adjective most little girls and boys hear is handsome or beautiful—
Justin: —that's heartbreaking.
Ann: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on our FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today.
Dave: So do you remember how old you were when you first started disliking your body?
Ann: What makes you think I dislike my body? [Laughter]
Dave: I know; I've heard it a thousand times, and—
Ann: What are you talking about? [Laughter]
Dave: I mean, I've heard you talk about—I was shocked, when we first got married, when you started talking about it—but I mean, I'm guessing it started when you were a little girl.
Ann: Yes, I was probably nine or ten. I used to share a room with my older sister; she's six years older. I didn't know it at the time, but she was bulimic. She has a lot of sexual abuse in her background, as I do; but she would binge eat. We'd have these feasts in the middle of the night on our bed. I thought it was amazing because we were spending time together. I loved it, not knowing that she was going to get rid of her food by vomiting it all up. I ate it all with her, and so I started gaining weight.
But I also remember this: I remember thinking, “I can't wait to turn into Barbie”; because I thought, “Every little girl grows up and she becomes Barbie.” I kept waiting, and waiting, and waiting. [Laughter] And I stayed Barbie's little sister, Skipper, who's little and short and kind of square. I thought, “What happened?”
Dave: I remember when we started dating. I didn't know who Skipper was; you kept saying, “I'm Skipper.” I'm like, “Who’s Skipper?” And I thought you were gorgeous; I still do. I was shocked that you didn't think that.
Ann: You would get mad at me.
Dave: I responded really well—yes, I’d get mad and say “You/that's stu…"—and then I realized, “Oh my goodness. You really do think [that], and you don't like your body.”
Ann: But that really shaped me. I think it shapes a lot of us, because a lot of us grow up not liking our bodies. And as parents, that's a difficult place to think, “How can I get my son or daughter to really appreciate the way God made them?”
Dave: And as parents, it’s critical that we do our job in teaching them.
We've got in our studio today a couple, Justin and Lindsey Holcomb, with us that are going to help us out. Welcome to FamilyLife Today, guys.
Justin: Thank you for having us.
Lindsey: Thank you.
Justin: It’s a joy to be here and be with you two.
Dave: I mean, even as you sit there and listen to Ann talk about her journeys, does that sound pretty similar?
Lindsey: It does. I mean, I think, as little girls growing up, we think—especially, I'm petite too—we think, “I'm going to be tall, long, and lean.” [Laughter] And back then, I mean, we would see things in the magazines. Now, I think it's even worse for little girls and teens as they're looking at everything in social media; it's just in their face constantly.
Justin: I think this is an important piece in people's lives, because it influences how they think about themselves. This message is coming from:
- themselves; so sometimes, children think this about themselves just by looking in the mirror and kind of comparing themselves.
- their parents sometimes communicate by words or actions;
- their peers;
- and then the culture.
Just telling that story is important because, hopefully, it'll open up adults’ eyes of what kind of pressure kids are under right now about body image. That's a big weight. Kids got enough going on—
Dave: Yes, right.
Justin: —to deal with body image from their culture, their parents, themselves, and their peers—that's a big burden.
Dave: Yes; so you guys care enough about it that you've written, at least, two books—and there's more to come—about body image. The first one: God Made All of Me: A Book to Help Children Protect Their Bodies. And what we're going to talk about today is another book called God Made Me in His Image: Helping Children Appreciate Their Bodies.
I have to ask this, Justin, you're an Episcopalian priest with a PhD; never had that on our program before. [Laughter] Seriously, that is powerful. I grew up in a Episcopalian church. My little brother died when I when I was seven; he was five-and-a-half. Reverend Ashton, the priest at that parish, literally was, in a sense, God to us. He represented the heart of God as he walked us through it, so I have a real tender spot in my heart for your church and what you do.
And Lindsey, you’re an advocate for sexual abuse survivors. Talk about that a little bit.
Lindsey: For the past 20 years, I've been working with victims of domestic violence, sexual abuse, sex trafficking—either as a consultant or boots on the ground—there at the safe house. It has been a tremendous honor to come alongside victims. They've taught me a lot. I’ve worked in women's maximum-security prisons, where they've just shared their story; and out of that—out of hearing that darkness of abuse, and betrayal, and not being dignified—has really propelled us both to speak out for victims: “How can we share the good news that this is not the end of your story?” and “How can we equip parents to come alongside their children so that they can help empower and prevent but, also, intercede if something does happen?”
Justin: When we met, she was a case manager for a domestic violence shelter while we were dating; and then right after we got married, she was the case manager for a sexual assault crisis center.
Justin: One time at dinner when we were dating, you said something like, “Well, don't they do training on this for pastors?” I said, “Not, not much.” That's where the ministry she had at the women's federal prison is where one of our books came from. She was teaching a Bible study to a bunch of women in maximum-security prison. So thanks for dragging me along, hon. [Laughter]
Ann: It's really cool though.
Lindsey: But there's been a lot of great changes at, well, the seminary where Justin teaches. Now, they're doing courses on this that Justin’s teaching. I've come in and kind of helped out a little bit. So that's promising/that's huge—the number of pastors and those that are serving in ministry that are getting equipped—I think there's been a lot of change in the last three or four years.
Justin: Our real credibility: we have kids. [Laughter]
Lindsey: They are 11 and 13; so really, in the midst of it all.
Dave: Yes; and so obviously, as a parent and as a seminary prof—and you've worked with a lot of people in ministry—why did you decide: “We need to write something to help parents teach body image in a godly way for kids”? What was the angst behind that?
Justin: There are two things. One was knowing how many Christian leaders/pastors don't talk about the body at all or really well; there's not much material out there:
- A lot of Christians think that like the afterlife is: “I don’t want to be a disembodied soul, floating around in heaven.” We're going to have resurrected bodies, and that's actually surprising to a lot of Christians.
And so that one: it’s more of the theological ministry.
- The other piece was just the statistics on the issue of body image. Basically, we've kind of decided we're going to write children's books on difficult issues: the first one was child sexual abuse prevention; this one on body image. So trying to find the pain points, where parents feel a burden of they're looking at their kid/they're hearing their kid talk about themselves—or their watching some of their behavior—and they're thinking, “What do I do?” We're trying to create resources; and just realizing, statistically, that like 80 percent of girls diet by the time they're like 10.
Dave: Now, you have to stop right there. I read that in the last couple pages of your book. We're reading your book—and obviously, it's written for children, and parents to walk through with children—but you get to the end, and you sort of talk to the parents. I'm like, “Wait a minute! Ten-year-old girls have already started dieting.”
Justin: Yes, 80 percent of girls at 10 have done some type of food restriction.
Ann: Oh, yes.
Dave: We've got two women in the studio: “Did both of you do that?”
Ann: I was a gymnast—I started at eight—so around the age of ten is when they started talking about that. Then later, I was in seminary—I was only 21—and I was teaching at an Athletic Club, doing classes; and we had to have our body fat measured once a month.
Lindsey: I don't know if I thought about it when I was ten; but I remember probably reading all those teen magazines, and seeing things; and like it would be in my head. But then I developed an eating disorder in high school; I was anorexic. But the thing for me is nobody ever talked about it. Stuff in my family just wasn't discussed; we didn't really talk about hard topics.
That's one thing Justin and I have thought: “We have an opportunity, as parents—and an obligation—to talk about these things, little bits at a time.” I think people assume like, “Oh, the Holcomb’s are always talking about dark topics,”—like the real Debbie Downers.
I think, with these conversations, it needs to be just woven throughout in little bits; so it was: “How can we equip parents?”—because a lot of our friends just weren't having the conversation because they didn't want to mess it up. They didn't know how to even start: “What do I talk about? What do I not?”
So really, with this book, it was: “How can we kind of lay a foundation to start the conversation?”—because parents are the best solution. But also, as we can talk about, moms are one of the biggest problems; and so: “How can we bring those two together in a really healthy, empowering way?”
I think, with the stats Justin was starting to get into: “By age five or six, most girls especially, are starting to express concerns about their weight, size, shape.” So we need parents to start reading this book with their three-, four-, five-year-olds, if possible, to kind of start the conversation.
Justin: The one that really broke my heart is: “A at age ten, one-third—so 33 percent of girls and 25 percent of boys—say that their number-one concern is their body image.
Justin: But that's the top concern. We looked at that and thought, “Well, the Bible has something to say about this. The Christian tradition has something to say about this,” and “There's some wisdom— that's not technically/specifically, Christian—that people need to hear.”
We wanted to frame the conversation about body image, because too often that conversation gets co-opted by the patterns of this world. We wanted to frame it with: “What does the Bible say about this?” “What does God say about you?—about the doctrine of creation, being made in the image of God,” and “How do you apply that to a child, thinking about their own body?”—and try to thread that needle. And part of this is hoping that some of the parents will take it to heart, too; because they need this book as much as the kids do.
Dave: Elaborate on that. What do you mean the parents need it?—for their own body or are you saying as parents for their kids?
Justin: —for themselves.
Justin: I think there's a lot of people living with that same pressure from themselves, from their peers, from their culture. Many people have been bestowed an identity when they were young; but even still today, it’s reinforced that their worth is connected to their appearance; and it's reinforced all the time. I mean, what do parents say about their little boys?—“He's a little stud,” or [about a daughter]: “She's beautiful.” I mean, there's such a focus/the adjectives people use about other people:
- “Oh, what about this guy?”—“He's great! Good-looking dude.”
- “What about her?”—“She's beautiful.”
I mean, it's usually one of the first things people say about other people—and we know that—we know how the game is being played. For the sake of the kids, if more parents have a healthier view of themselves, that'll spill over into the children from the kids’ parents.
Ann: So, Lindsey, do we tell our kids they're handsome or they're beautiful?
Lindsey: Well, I think there is definitely opportunity for that. You don't want them to, one day, when they're 30, be like “My mom never told me I was beautiful.” [Laughter] But if that's the only adjective that we're picking up—or if it's kind of different adjectives, but all related around beauty—then that could be troublesome; because then, a child will start to think, “Am I anything but this?” because beauty can be fading; or “What if I, one day don't have that?” or “…if I get old and saggy?” So we want to make sure we're highlighting—
Justin: —when/when we get older. [Laughter]
Ann: I was going to say, “That's happening.” [Laughter]
Dave: Gravity's going to win.
Lindsey: But I did read once when we—we do a lot of research before we write these books—and it said the best way to talk about your child's body is to not talk about their body; in the sense of, I'm not going to sit down with my 13-year-old and mention weight or size; but I could ask her, like: “Hey, how are you feeling about where you are?”—I mean, she's 13—“How are you feeling? We've been talking about your body's changing…” and all those conversations. There’re ways to have that conversation that are going to be encouraging and empowering without me sitting down and being like: “Hey, I'm feeling overweight,” “I'm feeling frumpy. Are you feeling overweight?” [Laughter]
I mean, so I think it's how we have—because I have been sitting around women before, when our girls were little—and we had this neighbor/she literally would grab her stomach and be like—and I've seen this through countless women—they’ll literally grab areas of their body that they don't feel that strong about and be like, “I really need to diet for this section,” or “I have to lay off such-and-such”; and the kids—
Justin: “Can’t put the bathing suit on with this here.”
Lindsey: —and the kids are there, and they hear everything. You might think they're not, but they do.
I think there's ways, like with our 11- and 13-year-old, it's talking about “Hey, you're not liking where you are on the volleyball team; because you're sitting on the bench a lot. What are some things that we can do to grow in skill and strength and kind of get you from A to B?”
We talk a lot about grit. We talk a lot about: “What are some different things you want to try?” or “I see you really strong in this area. Is there anything else you want to explore? Let's kind of create like a bucket list,”—or if [your child’s] down one day—“Okay, you can be down; but then, at the end of the day, let's make a plan. Let's pray and ask God to give wisdom about some other things you can try.” It's kind of like: “Let's not stay stuck in the moment”; but we're also/we don't sit around and talk about weight or size necessarily.
Justin: I have no problem talking about like complimenting them. If I had a son, I'd: “Hey, you're a handsome young man,” or [to a daughter:] “You’re a beautiful girl.” I think, if that's the main thing—if that's the first thing and the main thing—that's the problem. What I see too much are too many men are complimenting their wives and daughters; I see it on social media all the time—“my beautiful wife” “my beautiful kids”—that's great.
Everyone/like I think I'm with you [Dave]—like I'm—like you [Ann] criticize yourself; [Dave’s like]: “I think you're amazing.”
Justin: But the idea that the only adjective most little girls and boys hear is “handsome” or “beautiful”;—
Justin: —that's heartbreaking.
I started doing the opposite. Instead of not talking about it, I'd be like, “I'd bury it. I'd be like: ‘You're so smart, and sweet, and kind, and beautiful.’ Like give them the whole list.”
Dave: —in there, yes.
Justin: And that's fun because I can—like what I don't want to do—maybe moms shouldn't talk to girls about their body; I don't know. But as a dad, I want to be in their head. They need to know they're beautiful. I don't want some bozo, who just wants to kiss on them, or get their attention to be the first one to say that. I want them to be so confident about how they think and feel about themselves, spiritually, physically, mentally, socially.
That's really important is: the power. I mean, going back to the story, when parents criticize their own bodies—let alone some of the things we've heard parents say to their children in front of us, which is horrifying—but when they/when parents criticize their own bodies in front of children, they're teaching their children how to criticize themselves. They're shaping them.
So to counter that, I think there's a great power in parents loading up those compliments. I mean, it's all the time with me. I mean, every night, like I go through: “How are things?” “You're so good, socially,” “You're brilliant,” “I wish you were in my grade back then,”—we’ll tell them why. Lindsey says that to them, just watching them light up. You have to bestow an identity to these kids. It might sink in; they might actually believe that we mean it if you say it.
Dave: It's like mom and dad’s words are going to have power over social media, over the kids at schools. Is that what you’re saying? We think they don't, but they really do have power—our words.
Lindsey: I think, if they feel safe at home and empowered—and like I said, as far as the conversation shouldn't be about their bodies—but if your child’s coming to you and saying, “Hey, I feel insecure,” well then, by all means, if they're broaching the topic, let's go there. But I don't think a parent should ever sit down and be like, “Hey, I really think you're packing on the weight from such-and-such,” which I think is what some parents do. Or they start to kind of subtly put in messages like: “You might not want to grab that.”
Ann: I've had a lot of moms come to me and say, “My 12-year-old daughter, you know, she's right on the brink of hitting puberty; and she's really gained weight. I can tell she's gained like 15 pounds. I can tell she's not feeling good about herself. Should I say anything?” Answer that question for us, guys: “Do we ever say something if it feels like something is going on?”
Lindsey: Well, I don't think you ever bring up, like, “Hey, you've gained weight.” I think it could be the conversation of: “Is anything bothering you?” or “What made you feel happy today? What made you feel sad today?” See if you can draw out: “What are the sad/negative things going on?” And then maybe the parent can piece together: “Okay, she's having friend issues,” or “…grade issues,” or something. “What's leading to this?”
And then kind of come up with a bucket list, like: “Hey, I see that you're really strong in theatre. Let's dive into that,” or “Hey, I find at the end—like I sleep better if I've gone and gotten some fresh air. Let's go walk the track together a couple of times”; make it a family event. Then also encourage them/say, “What are some things that you haven't ever tried before that you want to just maybe one time? Let's go do it.”
That builds that resiliency; that builds that grit that we're always talking about with our girls. But it might help the parent kind of either introduce their child to something new that maybe is physical exercise that they've never dove into. But if it's a family thing, it's more like we're doing this as a group—we're hanging out; it's building camaraderie—rather than: “You need to go run around the lake by yourself.” No one wants to do that; I don't want to do that. But if it's: “Let's go walk, as a family, after dinner, and catch up about the day, and walk the dog,” or “…get some fresh air, because it's going to help us sleep better,” that's just a huge life-care lesson that, hopefully, they can take when they're not in your home.
Justin: I think there's a wiser way to bring that up. So back to the specific question of they seem to be gaining weight. One, that's actually what happens when you grow is you actually do put on weight so you can then shoot up—you put on weight, shoot up—that's normal.
But two, I think, “Reframe it.” This is what you did so well, Lindsey, when they're younger—and still do—is but reframe it from a weight discussion to a health discussion. Like make—go broader—just be like: “Hey, how do you think through like sleeping, eating, health, exercise?”—asking the question would be horrifying; there's/so find a way to get there—do a little bit more work; maybe drop some seeds here and there. Then prepare for a few days to where you might actually see if something comes up from the conversation.
Like be strategic about this. In the way that Lindsey talked about food—I remember her talking about this—there was “sometimes food” and “anytime food”—not good and bad food—like, “Talk about food;—
Ann: —for health.
Justin: —talk about it for health reasons.” So sometimes food is sweets—it's not bad food—because then you get in their head; and then, “Welcome to your eating disorder pathway.” Or anytime food is all the stuff you want them to eat anyway. I think it's reframing.
I think there is a point of checking in—that's what you're describing, Lindsey—is getting them to talk because, usually, they might actually think that about themselves; they might notice. Someone at school most likely has said something, so there's probably going to be something that was said that was harmful that they'll tell you, and then you can address it. Then you start, saying, “Well, what do you think about that? Well, you know, I want you to be healthy; I want your body strong.”
I mean, this has happened to our girls; I think we can tell the story. But our girls, 11 and 13—they are stereotypically what our culture would say beautiful/like stunning—and they have been criticized by their peers; one of them was called fat—and she is/I mean, just that was the word that was used—I hate just saying it because it's just the way that it's used. She's not obese—she's not anything—she's not a rail, but she's also/I mean, she's an athlete; and the child who said it is just a mean girl. The other one, she had someone commented about her nose and eyebrows, like children will find things to make other kids feel insecure.
There's a really good chance—going, again, back to the question—someone’s probably said something to all of our children. And expect that something is being—you can even ask: “Has anyone ever said something to you that really hurt? Because people used to do that to me all the time.” I tell them/we tell them stories about that—about how people bring up my eyebrows, my receding hairline, my gray hair—so I tell my girls that. I'm like, “Hey, I mean, this doesn't stop. Still, today, people do this. Like this is what people do; they're mean. And so I want to help you deal with it.”
Dave: And yet, even as we close, something happened, Justin, when you talked about Lindsey and your daughters—and even their perspective on their bodies—you got emotional. What was that? Why is that?
Justin: Because I imagine the kind of identity that the culture has bestowed to them. I know that my little girls have been called fat. They've been made fun of because of their nose or one who feels like she might be too tall, and lanky, or whatever. [Emotion in voice] I also know that Lindsey didn't have a great dad. I know there's voices that they have [in their heads], and I hate those voices.
Justin: I want to pummel them, and I want to be louder than them.
I want that voice—because that's what God did to me—I mean, I have all these other voices of condemnation, or whatever, from sin or how you been sinned against; and God bestows an identity to me, and that's powerful. And so if I can be a part of doing that to the three women in my life, I’m going to do everything I can for that. So that's/that is fulfilling stuff.
Dave: Yes; that's what/I was picking up on that. I was thinking, “Man, if somebody tonight—if a dad or a mom, or both, lays in bed with their daughter/son, whether they’re five or fifteen and is the voice of speaking those life words and beauty, that can go so far; because we know our kids are hearing that. We're hearing it—negative thoughts and beliefs about our own body—and if we can be the voice of God for them, to remind them they're made in His image, that’d be a good night.
Ann: —really good night.
Shelby: That was Dave and Ann Wilson talking with Justin and Lindsey Holcomb on FamilyLife Today. We'd love to send you a copy of their children's book, God Made Me in His Image when you make a donation of any amount this week at FamilyLifeToday.com or when you give us a call with your donation at 1-800-358-6329. You can make that a one-time gift or a recurring monthly gift. Again, the number is 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
And if you know of anyone who could benefit from today's conversation, you can share this podcast wherever you get your podcasts. And while you're there, it would really help us out if you'd rate and review us.
Now, if starting a conversation with your kids about their body image is at all intimidating—read, “Yes,”—you're going to want to join Dave and Ann Wilson as they talk, again, with Justin and Lindsey Holcomb. They'll help make it, at least, less intimidating than it may sound. That's coming up tomorrow. We hope you can join us.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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