When you think of your own body, what comes to mind? How do you feel when you look in the mirror? How do you feel when you see pictures of attractive people in magazines, on TV, or online? What do you think other people think about how you look? Do you often feel critical about the way you look? How do you usually reply when people compliment how you look? Can you list your three favorite things about your body? Do you often feel jealous of other people for the way they look?
If your thoughts aren’t always positive, you’re not alone. Glamour Magazine surveyed over 300 random women, finding that women have an average of 13 negative thoughts about their body each day. Even more surprising? 97 percent of women admitted to having at least one negative thought per day about their bodies (Dreisbach, 2011).
Certainly, this isn’t “okay,” though it may seem normal. And unfortunately, your personal body image concerns could be affecting more than just you. A recent study found that young children are developing body image- positive or negative- much earlier than most parents believe. Author Janet Liechty says that children aren’t immune to body-image awareness: “Aspects of body-related self-concept such as healthy sexuality, body confidence, body acceptance and early signs of body size preference are all influenced by family socialization processes beginning as early as preschool” (Leichty, Birky, Clarke, & Harrison, 2016, para. 4).
Of 30 parents of preschoolers ages two to four, a majority of the parents mentioned in an interview that they believed their kids were too young to be concerned about body image. However, 40 percent of the same parents described at least one occurrence in which their child showed some body-related behavior, like talking about weight, imitating comments about size or weight, or seeking praise for their appearance (Leichty, Birky, Clarke, & Harrison, 2016). Another study at the University of Central Florida found that nearly half of three- to six-year old girls were worried about being “fat.” A third of the children said that they wanted to change something about their bodies (Tatnleff-Dunn & Hayes,2009).
While these results might be surprising and disheartening, such research can be to your benefit. Awareness of these feelings and thoughts gives you an opportunity to foster body confidence and acceptance in young kids. An interviewee in Liechty’s study says, “As a parent of preschoolers, it was empowering for me to realize that body image is being formed in these early years and to know that I can create a positive environment in my home to help my sons develop positive body image” (Leichty, Birky, Clarke, & Harrison, 2016, para. 4).
Besides the harmful psychological results of negative body image in kids (self-consciousness, anxiety, isolation), kids with poor body image are at greater risk for developing eating disorders or gaining excessive weight. But, kids with positive body images are more confident and comfortable, allowing them to thrive and enjoy all of the things they love.
How can you make a difference in your child’s body image?
Focus on what your child can do. Kids should be confident in their physical capacities. Bringing the attention to what your child’s body is capable of, rather than focusing on appearance or size, and reinforcing these abilities promotes better body image in kids’ subsequent teen and young adult years.
Be proactive. Body image shouldn’t be talked about only if and when you perceive it as a problem. Take advantage of opportunities for fostering a positive body image climate in your household.
Build intrinsic validation and self-confidence. Contrary to popular belief, frequent comments about children’s physical appearance can do more harm than good, since kids may start to focus on external validation or become preoccupied with their physical appearance.
Develop positive body image in yourself. There are various ways to combat the negative perceptions, often misconceptions, women have of their bodies. For starters, take the same approach as you should encourage with your kids: concentrate on what your body can do rather than how it looks. Still stuck? Appreciate your body. Exercise. Focus on your strengths. Bring the emphasis to health.