Body image is learned
One of the report’s key findings was that body image is learned, and that even by the time children enter preschool they are aware of body issues and methods to control body size and appearance.
Report author Dr Seetha Pai said body image was integral to children’s sense of self-worth and where they fitted in the world, and it had a crucial impact on their wellbeing.
She was particularly concerned with a finding that by age seven, one in four children had exhibited some kind of dieting behaviour, and said it was alarming to think that children under five were already forming ideas about restricting food intake.
Dr Pai said that, contrary to some thinking, the problem was not just “a girl thing”, with an increasing number of boys also presenting with very early body image concerns.
Common Sense researchers followed up the report in January with a look at the different ways boys and girls are affected by media’s portrayal of unrealistic body types. They found that most boys, unlike girls, didn’t want to get “skinny”, but instead wanted to “bulk up” at a very young age.
How can parents help?
While Dr McLean says it’s important for parents to be aware of what children are watching and absorbing in the media, there is a lot more parents can do to teach their children about positive body image.
Part of the solution comes with emphasising health, not weight, and in teaching an appreciation for all shapes of bodies.
“Parents are a filter and will be well aware that they can’t stop everything creeping in: these influences aren’t only in the media but can come from extended family and other sources too,” Dr McLean says.
If someone says an inappropriate comment about body size, parents can step in and play an important role.
“If someone has said something negative [in front of your child], like ‘people are fat because they can’t stop eating’, you might be able to jump in and say, ‘Actually, people’s body sizes are different for all sorts of reasons and that’s okay,’” Dr McLean says.
The importance of modelling positivity
Dr McLean notes that parents have another an important role: modelling positivity about their own body in front of their children.
“If you find yourself concerned about your own body, don’t heave a big sigh in front of them. We appreciate parents might be thinking these things, but it’s important not to show it,” Dr McLean says.
She also says parents shouldn’t visibly undertake weight loss diets in front of young children, or constantly stand on the scales.
“We don’t want children to equate food as good or bad: foods might taste different, but none are bad,” Dr McLean says.
Finally, find things to talk about that aren’t related to children’s bodies.
“Focus on their other qualities. It’s so automatic for a little girl to walk into a room and people say, ‘You are so cute, what a lovely dress.’ What else can we say? Children have so many more qualities and parts of themselves we should be focusing on. Set that up right from the word go,” Dr McLean says.