Article  Human Dignity  Marriage and Family  Health

How to help children have a healthy body image

An interview with Justin and Lindsey Holcomb

body image

“Every single day, I sit in my counseling office with kids of all shapes and sizes who don’t like their bodies,” says counselor and author, Sissy Goff. She wants kids to think about their bodies the way God thinks about them. Goff explains that “We want them to see themselves as valuable at every level and deeply loved by God.” In answer to this pressing need, best-selling authors, Justin and Lindsey Holcomb have recently published a resource for families: God Made Me in His Image: Helping Children Appreciate Their Bodies (New Growth Press, 2022). This picture book helps even young children (ages 3-8) learn a Christian perspective on body image.

The Holcombs, parents to two daughters, have previously written similar books. The best-selling, God Made All of Me: A Book to Help Children Protect Their Bodies (New Growth Press, 2015) has provided thousands of families with ideas and resources for open communication about how children can protect themselves from abuse. And for adults, they wrote, Rid of My Disgrace: Hope and Healing for Victims of Sexual Abuse (Crossway, 2011). Below, the Holcombs discuss their book and the realities of children and body image.

Champ Thornton: Please introduce us to your book, God Made Me in His Image.

Justin and Lindsey Holcomb: In a society overflowing with negative body-image messages, children’s body image is an urgent issue. Children need to know God made their bodies and made them special. Parents and caregivers have the privilege and opportunity to explain to their children that God made their bodies, and this is foundational for their self-image.

The message children need to hear is this: “God made you in his image. Every part of your body is good because God made every part and called them all good.”

We get to encourage children to appreciate their bodies and come alongside them to address the questions and shame regarding them. This is important because research regarding children and body issues are staggering and sad. Children are dealing with body-image distortion at an early age. Many young children are dieting or developing dangerous eating habits. Additionally, many trends in our culture lead to hyper-sexualizing of children.

CT: How do you explain to young kids what it means to be created in God’s image?

JLH: We think it is best to explore the specific passages of the Bible that refer to humans as made in God’s image. In the book, we give some of the historical context of the phrase “image of God” and the passage from Genesis 1:26-28. It is a term that communicates great dignity and honor, while also reflecting humility at the same time.

CT: The children in the story learn more about certain animals at the zoo who have unique physical characteristics. How does learning about the various animals help them accept their own differences?

JLH: Even though all of the creatures God made have different shapes, sizes, and abilities, they each have exactly what they need and serve a great purpose. When children see certain animals with unique physical characteristics, it helps them accept their own differences and insecurities. They see and learn that God has given each of us special gifts and to not miss the beauty around them. Their differences make the world a really interesting place to live.

CT: What age do children usually start having body image issues? What are some of the most common insecurities they have?

JLH: Researchers discovered that children begin to express concerns about their bodies as young as age 5. And at this young age, parents usually play a role in influencing their kids. As Common Sense Media notes, “You are your child’s first teacher,” meaning that kids can still pick up on subtle but negative body-image messages you give (even if you’re not harshly criticizing your body).

According to the report, one-third of boys (and more than half of girls) between the ages of 6 and 8 believe an ideal body is thinner than their current body size. And 1 in 4 kids have already tried dieting by age 7.

CT: At what age do children start worrying about their weight and dieting? Is that particular concern something that normally starts in school, or are seeds often planted at home?

JLH: These are just a few examples of the sobering statistics:

  • Five-year-old girls whose mothers reported current or recent dieting were more than twice as likely to have ideas about dieting than girls whose mothers did not diet. A mother’s dieting behavior is a source of her daughter’s ideas, concepts, and beliefs surrounding dieting and body image.
  • By age 6, girls especially start to express concerns about their weight or shape. Almost half of American children between first and third grade are worried about how much they weigh, and half of 9- to 10-year-old girls are dieting. Approximately 80% of all 10-year-old girls have dieted at least once in their lives. Even among underweight to average-sized girls, over one-third report dieting.
  • By the age of 10, around one-third of all girls and 22% of boys say how their bodies look is their number one worry. Age 10 is also the average age when children start dieting. Girls have always shown greater concern about their weight and appearance, but there is a significant increase recently in boys also worrying. Boys want to be tall and muscular—and they worry about weight too
  • Childhood obesity has tripled since the 1980s.
  • Virtually every media form studied provides ample evidence of the sexualization of women and men, including television, music videos, music lyrics, movies, magazines, sports media, video games, the internet, and advertising. Children internalize this message.

Parents are one of the most powerful influences in children’s lives regarding their body image. Parents and caregivers can start the conversation now about the practical body-image implications of being made in God’s image.

CT: There is a section in the back of your book for parents. What kind of information and tips do you provide for helping parents talk more to their children about body image?

JLH: Encourage your children to do the things they love that are good. Spending time on worthwhile activities boosts confidence and builds healthy friendships.

With your children, make a list of new things they want to try, learn, or tackle. Learning how to use their bodies in new ways can give them a greater appreciation for its capabilities and remind them that God gave them their bodies to be used to do good things.

Set a positive example by not criticizing other people’s bodies. If children see their parents judging appearances, then they will be much more likely to do the same to others and themselves.

If you have insecurities about your appearance, don’t make offhand, critical comments about those perceived flaws around your children. Instead, intentionally talk with your children about how God has helped you learn to see your body more like the way he sees it, even though you still forgot to see your body that way sometimes.

CT: What are some ways parents can encourage their children to have a healthy body image?

JLH: Encourage your children not to compare themselves to their peers. Instead, help them give thanks to God for the gifts he has given to them, and ask God to show them how they can become more like him today.

If your child has a physical impairment, remind him or her it does not negate your child’s inherent worth as God’s image bearer, nor does it diminish the other qualities God has blessed your child with.

CT: Kids often bully one another based on appearances. What conversations do parents need to have with their children about bullying?

JLH: Help victims of bullying boost confidence by focusing on how much they’re worth because they are made in the image of God and by reminding them of the positive attributes God has given to them. Also discuss strategies for how they can respond to bullying the next time it occurs and seek out additional resources on bullying to help you support your children.

body image

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