Body Image and Young Children
Children are beginning to worry about body image at an ever increasingly young age. Phoebe Doyle looks at causes for this terrifying trend and strategies for child care professionals to employ.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that body image issues is a concern solely for those working with teens. Unfortunately research suggests that this is no longer the case. “Work in this area has traditionally focused on adolescents yet anxieties about appearance often develop at a much earlier age,” says Nicky Hutchinson author of Body Image in the Primary School. Nicky explains her motive for writing on this issue; “Although there are initiatives to address body image with adolescents, I became aware that there was very little available to support younger children”.
In fact researchers are consistently finding that children are battling eating disorders such as Anorexia from the tender age of eight and that six year-old girls are asking if they look fat. Furthermore a staggering 75% of eleven year olds when questioned said that they’d like to change something about their appearance.
“We were particularly concerned that this was becoming an issue for children at a younger age than ever before”, says Nicky who, along with her co-author Chris Calland are qualified teachers and independent educational consultants. Since 1997 they have also worked for the Behaviour Improvement team in Bristol specialising in children’s social, emotional and behavioural development. Chris says; “We had often worked in schools with children who have a poor body image and noted its effect on their health, self-esteem and educational progress.”
They began looking seriously at ways of approaching the body image problem after an Ofsted survey of 150,000 children in 2008 found that by the age of 10 a third of girls and 22% of boys cited their bodies as their main source of worry.
A 2010 survey of over 1000 girls by Girl Guiding UK showed that nearly three quarters of 7 – 11 year olds would change something about their appearance and by the ages of 10 and 11, one in eight wanted to be thinner.
Alarmed by such statistics Chris and Nicky wrote after researching extensively. They feel that any professionals working with young children, along with parents need be aware of this issue and particularly the young age that problems can arise. Whilst the book was primarily written as guidance for teachers, there’s a great deal to be learnt by anyone working with and caring for primary-aged children.
The reasons that youngsters are experiencing such anxieties so young are many, broad and complex. Chris and Nicky feel certain though that the constant media stream children face today plays a catastrophic role. “Children face exposure to the media on a far greater scale than ever before,” says Nicky, adding; “They watch up to 40,000 adverts every year.
“At this young age children’s ideas about themselves, their bodies and their place in society are forming and developing”.
Don’t Forget the Boys
Just as we often mistakenly assume that it’s only teens that are affected by body image issues, it’s also a mistake to assume that it’s only the girls in our care that we need worry about. As fore-mentioned, a worrying percentage of boys are concerned about their physical appearance. Nicky says; “Research suggests that boys are also influenced by media pressures and they can suffer from poor body image at a young age.
“Many young children have televisions and mobile phones - One large study of 5 to 15 year olds found that British children are now spending an average of 6 hours a day looking at screens - boys are bombarded with strong messages about gender and appearance through computer games and advertising...boys are encouraged to look strong, muscular and powerful. Many of the games they play encourage them to be aggressive.” These games seem to be providing young, influential boys with clear messages on what it means to be male.
Parent and Carer’s Power
If a young child has a Mum who’s forever jumping on the scales, explicitly counting calories and asking “does my bum look big in this?” they are fairly directly, but without meaning to, teaching their child how to view their own eating, body and self-image.
Chris and Nicky want parents to focus on the positives of their own shape as well as those of their off-spring, and the same is certainly true of child care professionals. If you discuss dieting, even innocently remarking “I’m not eating biscuits”, for instance, you are helping to instil negative connotations between food and appearance. Chris says; “We shouldn’t make negative comments about other people’s physical appearance or complain about ‘fat’ or ugly’ parts of our body in their hearing.”
Chris has firm beliefs on this, fundamentally she insists positivity about appearance is crucial, she says; “We should reassure children about their appearance and talk encouragingly about them. It’s important not to make negative comments about their weight or over-emphasise the importance of looks. “When we watch television or look at magazines with children we should help them to question the images they see.”
As well as looking at outside pressures, Nicky and Chris believe adults need to encourage children to recognise their own strengths and qualities to become resilient members of society. The book examines some do’s and dont’s for parents and carers including urging children to challenge society’s narrow ‘beauty ideal’.
Whilst today’s children face a media more constant and powerful than during any generation before them parents and professionals still have a vital role to play in shaping attitudes towards body image. Whilst it’s impossible to shelter children from the pictures they face we can teach them to question what they watch. When watching television it’s vital that children learn to be active and querying participants, not passive recipients, drowned by the un-ending bombardment of moving frames and subsequent messages.
As adults working closely with children it’s crucial that we model positive body image, refrain from talking negatively about ourselves and, of course never discussing the appearance of others undesirably. Crucially though, with all these precautionary strategies in place, we still need to keep a close eye on the youngsters in our care and so if they do display signs of a negative body image we can intervene quickly.
Chris and Nicky’s tips
-Ensure that all children in your care feel safe to talk.
-Focus on celebrating everyone’s unique individuality, skills and qualities.
-Help children to see that image, or appearance is just one part of who they are and encourage them to think about all the other aspects of themselves and each other that they value.
-Allow children to share their feelings with each other but always give the option not to share publicly.
-Support children in considering what influences them and the pressure they are under.
-If they tell you they’ve been teased, take this seriously, and discuss with parents.
Child Care Professionals can ask themselves…
When the child watches television what images related to being ‘attractive’ or ‘appealing’ confront them?
Does the child seem to avoid certain foods they may deem ‘fattening’ that they have previously enjoyed?
Does the child seem particularly concerned over their own appearance and/or that of others?
Does the child talk negatively about their physical appearance?
If you’re concerned it would be advisable to discuss with the child’s parents in the first instance.
Body Image in The Primary School, is published by Routledge