Everybody has a body image. It’s the perception we have of our bodies as well as the attitudes and feelings that we have about how we look.
Some people have a positive body image and appreciate and love their bodies whereas others may dislike their appearance or think that there is something wrong with it. What’s important to realize is that a person’s view of their body has very little to do with what it actually looks like. Anyone, whatever they look like can have a positive or a negative body image. This is why you may know a child whom you think is very attractive, but they may view themselves as flawed or even ugly. That is also why complimenting your child on their appearance may not resonate with them, particularly if they have thought of themselves as being unattractive for some time.
A positive body image enables children and young people to feel good about themselves and supports their mental health and wellbeing throughout childhood and adolescence. If children are comfortable with their appearance, they’re more likely to think about their body in terms of what it can do, i.e. its functionality rather than how it looks. Children and young people with a positive body image might not be totally satisfied with their appearance but they focus on their body’s assets rather than its flaws. This positive way of thinking contributes to a young person’s healthy sense of self-worth. It also enables children to be aware of their body’s needs, which means that they are more likely to appreciate the value of exercise and make healthy food choices.
Unfortunately it is becoming increasingly common for both boys and girls to experience body dissatisfaction, i.e. negative thoughts or feelings about their appearance. This means that they are at increased risk of developing unhealthy attitudes to eating, issues with dieting and low mood. Body dissatisfaction can also undermine the development of a child’s sense of identity and contribute to the development of mental health issues such as low self-esteem, depression, and eating disorders in adolescence and beyond. Children with body dissatisfaction may, regularly worry about their appearance, be anxious about their weight and fear fatness, have an unrealistic view of what they look like, and be preoccupied with parts of their body that they would like to be different. They also compare themselves to others and wish that they looked like them. Although very limited, there are reports of Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) in young children BDD is an obsessive preoccupation with one’s appearance. It is sometimes referred to as the condition of `imagined ugliness’. Individuals have a severely distorted view of what they look like, although to others they either look fine or have a barely noticeable defect.
Body dissatisfaction is an increasing problem among young children and concerns about weight have been shown to start at a very young age.
A report by PACEY (Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years) published in 2017 revealed that anxieties about body image start in some children as young as three years old and four- year-olds know how to lose weight. The PACEY research also revealed that the aversion to chubbiness starts at a very young age and that young children have already learnt to associate body fat with a range of negative characteristics. Although most children learn at an early age that it is unacceptable to treat people different because of their race or gender, they are not always taught that it is equally unacceptable to tease or even bully overweight children.
Puberty can be a challenging time for many young people as their bodies are changing and this can lead them to have negative feelings about their appearance. It can be a particularly embarrassing time for those young people who reach puberty earlier than their peers. It may be natural for adolescents to feel uncomfortable in their changing bodies and unsure about themselves during puberty, but these temporary feelings are very different from the body shame, i.e. the self-effacing weight obsession that is now widely reported to affect so many children and young people.
Parents and carers have the biggest influence on children’s body image development. This is because before children start mixing with their peers, they watch and learn from the key adults in their lives. They listen to the comments we make about their, our own and others bodies. Parents have a very powerful influence although being a positive role model is not easy especially in a world where there are many influences that are out of our control (social media, advertising) The way that we can be positive role models, as well as educating our children to be safe in the world, is by doing the following:
- Make your home a Fat Talk Free Zone (FTFZ).
Parents are advised not to talk about dieting in front of their children or engage in Fat Talk, i.e. complain about parts of their body that they don’t like. So although as a parent, you may not feel great about your appearance by staying neutral or by being positive about the way you look, you’ll be helping your child to build their own body confidence. Remove comments such as fat is bad and thin is good from your conversations and ask your guests to do the same when they’re in your home.
- Effective and honest communication between parents and children works in favour of their body satisfaction. Giving children our regular, undivided attention will enable them to get things off their chest that could otherwise be expressed through negative feelings about their body or through food and dieting. Beyond its influence on body dissatisfaction, a responsive parenting style also builds a child’s self-esteem, which overlaps with body satisfaction.
- Encourage children to involve themselves in activities that engage them and provide them with a sense of control, know- how and achievement. By investing in activities that give children and young people a sense of satisfaction they are not only transferring their attention away from feelings about their body they are also, importantly, building a sense of healthy influence over their lives, thus making them more resilient against media pressures. Encouraging children to help and care about others addresses self –focusing; a key problem in body dissatisfaction and means that children have less time to think about themselves. And feeling that they may be making a difference to someone else’s life will increase their self-esteem which in turn will also help their body esteem.
- Think HEALS: Healthy, Energetic, Active, Lively, Strong. Instead of allowing children sit on the sofa and play video games all day encourage them to move their bodies and do something active. It is recommended that children and teens engage in at least sixty minutes of vigorous activity on most days.
- When we talk about others to our children it is important to place the emphasis on their personal qualities, character strengths, talents, abilities and outlook on life rather than the way that they look. Ask your children to think about some of the people that they know and love and ask them what is it that they love about them?
- Help your child with the worries that they may about their appearance by simply listening; a problem shared is often a problem halved just because its been aired. Offering your child reassurance to concerns about their appearance can help to prevent these fears from becoming entrenched in your child’s thinking.
- If you do become worried about your child’s body concerns, eating or body weight, don’t think that you’re the only one or an anxious or a hysterical parent. Talk to the school about signs of body image problems and talk to other parents if that is possible.
- Ultimately, however, preventing body dissatisfaction in our children is often less a case of actively doing and saying positive things and more a case of doing and saying fewer negative things. Children’s bodies shouldn’t be objectified. If anything, they should be thought about less, talked about less and merely taken for granted.
Dr Ruth MacConville
- Positive Body Image for Kids: A strengths-Based Curriculum for Children Aged 7- 11, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London and Philadelphia
- Positive Body Image in the Early Years: A Practical Guide.
Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London and Philadelphia