Kids struggle with body image earlier than you think

A review of research reveals our culture is obsessed with thinness and perfection, and it's doing our kids harm.

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Kids’ dissatisfaction with their body starts way earlier than you might have thought.

Common Sense Mediaa nonprofit organization that reviews the influences of media on kids and provides tips for parents, recently reviewed the research on kids’ self-image. They discovered that kids are heavily affected by the media that surrounds them. Why is this important? Because how a child feels about his or her body is crucial to their overall mental and physical health as they grow up.

The report, titled “Children, Teens, Media and Body Image,” found that half of girls and a third of boys ages six to eight feel their ideal body size is thinner than their current one. Even preschoolers know that society judges people based on their looks and body type. Hospitalizations for eating disorders among children under the age 12 have risen 119 percent in recent years.

Kids are surrounded by unrealistic body images on a daily basis. The report says that young children who play with dolls and action figures are most susceptible to skewed ideas of body image. Even cartoons portray thinness positively (and note the outfits on many of the female animated characters, which highlight unattainable bodies).

A study of 134 episodes of Nickelodeon and Disney shows reveal that 87 percent of the characters ages 10-17 were underweight, and the conventionally pretty characters were given the most positive characteristics. I’ve spent enough time in front of those shows to know this is true. Characters on Disney’s Jessie routinely make fat jokes, and some of the girls on the other shows look like they’re going to waste away during the commercial breaks.

After reading the stats, I started to wonder what I could do to make a difference in my kids’ sense of self. I know that they’re faced with sexist and stereotypical images each and every day. Experts say that parents are an important defense against a poor sense of self because body image is learned over time.

The study says that five- to eight-year-olds’ perception of how their mothers feel about their own bodies can predict how they will feel about their own. So forget talking about your belly jelly, or your next diet. Experts advocate talking about overall health, not weight, if you want to talk about bodies at all. Sometimes it feels like an uphill battle. I can tell my daughter that my body is powerful and I feel beautiful, but I’m just one part of a combination of factors that creates her sense of self-worth.

We have a new issue in our midst, too—the ubiquitous selfie. The research is just catching up on all forms of media that kids interact with on a daily basis. The most recent studies show that social media is a double-edged sword for kids: A majority of teen girls say that selfies make them feel more confident, but they only post photos that show themselves positively.

The focus on their appearance may lead to a form of “self-objectification,” which makes teens even more obsessed with how they look. But there hasn’t been enough research on the new forms of digital content to really tell us where all this is going, according to the Common Sense Media report. The organization would like to see more research on the pressure for boys to conform to certain body images, as well as young children, communities of colour and LGBTQ youth.

What we do know is fairly frightening: We are a culture obsessed with thinness and perfection, and that obsession is damaging our kids. Common Sense Media includes resources for parents of preschoolers, tweens and teens, to get the conversation started.

Emma Waverman is a writer, blogger and mom to three kids. She has many opinions, some of them are fit to print. Read more of her articles here and follow her on Twitter @emmawaverman.

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