6 Ways to Help Young Children Avoid Body Image Issues

Mother comforting daughter
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“I’m so fat.” “I’m ugly.” Words like these may be upsetting to hear when they come from a 10-year-old or a teenager, but it can be really disturbing when they’re spoken by kids as young as preschool or kindergarten age. Various research has shown that kids may begin to worry about body weight and physical appearance as early as age 3 to 5 and that many young children express unhappiness about their bodies.

Research Surrounding Body Image Problems

Research released in August 2016 by the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (PACEY), a charitable organization that provides support to those working in childcare throughout England and Wales, found that it’s not uncommon for very young children to express dissatisfaction about the way they look. Some of what their research found:

  • As many as 24 percent of child care professionals have reported seeing kids as young as 3 to 5 years old express unhappiness about their own appearance or their own bodies.
  • A startling 47 percent of childcare professionals have seen anxiety about body image in kids ages 6 to 10—nearly double the number of body-image anxious kids among those just a few years younger.
  • As many as 71 of child care workers believe children are becoming concerned about their bodies at a younger age.
  • Phrases such as “He’s fat” or “She’s fat” are common among children; as many as 37 percent of childcare workers have heard kids say things like this and as many as 31 percent have heard a child call himself or herself fat.
  • Ten percent of childcare workers report having heard a child say he or she feels ugly, and 16 percent say they’ve heard kids say they wished they were as pretty or good-looking as someone else.
  • Nearly one in five (19 percent) childcare professionals say they’ve seen kids refuse food because of fear that it will make them fat.

A 2015 report by Common Sense Media (a nonprofit organization that works to educate and empower parents, teachers, and policymakers about ways to help kids thrive as they use media and technology) found that body image starts to develop at a very young age and that images centered around how someone looks are stereotypical, unrealistic, and gender-biased.

The report examined existing studies on how kids and teenagers feel about their bodies and found that issues around body image begin long before puberty. Children as young as age 5 begin expressing dislike for their bodies and say they want to be thinner.

Surprising findings from the Common Sense Media report include:

  • More than half of girls and one-third of boys as young as ages 6 to 8 say their ideal weight is to be thinner than they are.
  • By age 7, one in four kids has attempted some sort of dieting behavior.
  • As many as 41 percent of girls say they use social media to "make themselves look cooler."
  • A whopping 87 percent of female characters on TV that are between the ages of 10 and 17 are below the average weight.

Tips for Parents

Kids learn about body image—and develop anxieties about their appearance—from a variety of sources, including parents, friends and peers, and the media. Parents can play a crucial role in encouraging a sense of good body image in kids. Here are some tips to keep in mind:

  1. Watch your words. Don’t say things like, “I look so fat in this,” or “I can’t eat this because it’ll make me fat.” Your child is listening and learning from you. The Common Sense Media study found that kids ages 5 to 8 who think their moms are unhappy with their bodies are more likely to be dissatisfied with their own bodies. Show confidence in your body as well as about yourself.
  2. Try not to focus on appearance. Don’t talk about people’s appearance and their bodies and focus on more important things about a person, such as how kind or charitable they are or whether they have good manners or work hard.
  3. Emphasize exercise and healthy eating over their weight. Spend family time doing active things like playing outside, riding bikes, and going to the park. When you go grocery shopping, let kids help you choose healthy fruits and vegetables and read nutrition labels together to teach kids about healthy eating habits.
  4. Scan their toys. Take a look at the action figures in your son’s toy chest. Do they have unrealistic bulging muscles? Do the dolls in your daughter’s room have proportions that are not humanly possible? Try to edit these toys out or at least balance them out with more realistic representations of the human body. Better yet, stock up on brain-building board games, puzzles, and great books for kids.
  5. Talk about gender and body stereotypes in ads and media. View content with your child and when you see commercials or TV shows or movies that feature women in skimpy costumes or make unhealthy foods look tempting, talk about what’s wrong with these images.
  6. Limit screen time. Studies have shown that cutting back screen time can reduce kids’ risk of obesity and even improve grades. Teach kids to view junk food ads, which are now even following kids online, with an understanding of what they are trying to sell and talk about why these foods are bad for their health.
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2 Sources
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  1. Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years. Children as young as 3 unhappy with their bodies. Published August 31, 2016.

  2. Common Sense Media. Children, Teens, Media, and Body Image. Published 2015.