Sarah Dufton of Guelph, Ont., noticed something odd about the way her five-year-old son, Kyle, was eating his bacon. “He was picking off the fat parts and just eating the little strips of meat that were left,” she recalls. When she asked him about it, Kyle explained that he didn’t want to get fat.
“There’s no way anyone could think he was fat,” says Dufton. “Really, he’s skinny. But he’s very worried about getting fat.”
Body image an issue starting at younger ages
At five? Isn’t that a bit young to be worried about how you look? Not anymore, says Shelly Russell-Mayhew, a psychology professor at the University of Calgary and co-founder of Body Image Works, an organization that holds educational workshops on this issue. “It used to be that body image wasn’t often an issue until adolescence, but today it’s starting at younger and younger ages. By age seven, some children are already feeling dissatisfied with their bodies. By age nine, one in five girls is dieting to lose weight.”
Why so young? “We are living in an appearance-obsessed culture,” Russell-Mayhew explains. No child who watches TV can miss the message that being thin and looking good is what life is all about. Parents, too, may be passing on their own obsessions. “If mom is always asking, ‘Do I look fat in this?’, pretty soon her child is going to be looking at his own bum in the mirror,” Russell-Mayhew says.
And even if your child manages to evade the media, he’ll get the message from other kids. Russell-Mayhew describes a research study where children were given cards with photos of other children and asked to select the ones they’d want to play with. Consistently, even with kids as young as four years old, the fat kids were chosen last.
Not just a girl’s issue
Parents tend to think of body image as being a girls’ issue, but as Dufton discovered, boys are increasingly worried about their appearance too. Paul Melia, president and CEO of the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport, says boys are often concerned about being too thin or too short, but being too fat can be a problem as well. If a boy develops feminine-looking breasts or “man boobs,” you just know he’s going to be teased about it.
At puberty, Melia points out, the issues diverge for boys and girls. For boys, it’s being a late maturer that causes the most problems, as boys who haven’t yet gone through the puberty growth spurt will be shorter and less muscular than most of their peers. With girls, “the physical changes of puberty often make it hard to maintain a healthy body image for those who view widening hips and increasing curves as negative and undesirable features.”
The reality is that only a tiny percentage of people can ever fit the ideal, and for those kids who are too plump, too short or not quite perfect in other ways, life can be painful. Russell-Mayhew says we need to teach kids that it’s as wrong to insult another child about his body shape or size as it is to make racist comments or take part in other forms of bullying.
“How would we respond if a child was discriminated against in any other way?” she asks. “We need to be teaching children to be tolerant of the varied shapes and sizes that people come in. How you look is not who you are.”
Given the current epidemic of obesity, however, some parents may wonder if these body image concerns might have a good side. If five-year-olds are worried about getting fat, and nine-year-olds are on diets, is this a possible way to reduce the number of overweight children?
Most definitely not, says Russell-Mayhew. “Dieting in childhood is one of the most robust risk factors for both later obesity and the develop-ment of eating disorders. It’s a serious concern. We also know that feeling bad about yourself does not effectively motivate kids to eat better or become more active.” In fact, having a positive body image, no matter what your actual weight is, predicts more activity and a healthier weight later in life.
And a negative body image can lead to other risky behaviours. Melia’s organization did some research with focus groups of teen boys who had used steroids. While some of the boys were seeking to enhance their performance with these drugs, a large number of the boys studied were using steroids “just so they would look good with their shirts off,” he says. “They saw steroids as a shortcut to achieving the looks they wanted.” Many of these teens were also sharing needles, adding serious infection risks to the other short- and long-term hazards of steroid use.
“The pressure on kids is huge,” Russell-Mayhew says, “so parents need to be the soft place to land.”
Cynthia Waiz of White Rock, BC, has been working hard to be a “soft landing” for her four daughters. “I have vivid memories of my own mother pointing out how she hated her extra rolls and padding. She was constantly trying some new diet. It felt normal to me to be critical of my body, but once I had children I knew I didn’t want to pass it on.”
When her daughters commented on Waiz’s rounded shape, she told them “my body is ready in case I become pregnant again — even if there is a famine after the baby is born, my body will have the reserves to nourish the baby. Nature has planned ahead.” She used the same theme to prepare her girls for their future growth spurts. “Girls often gain weight before puberty, and then slim down as they grow taller,” she explained. “I let them know in advance that this could happen, and I think it helped.”
Tips on teaching kids to like their bodies
Psychology professor Shelly Russell-Mayhew and Paul Melia, president and CEO of the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport, suggest these strategies:
• Talk to your child about what her body can do and what it helps her to experience — dancing to music, playing sports, walking the dog — rather than focusing on how it looks.
• Comment on your child’s character strengths. “Being cute, pretty or handsome is not a lasting quality,” Russell-Mayhew says. “It’s more important to be caring and kind, to be a well-rounded person.”
• Look for teachable moments, such as TV ads that suggest appearance is the secret to all success. Point out people who have achieved great things, yet don’t fit the stereotypes.
• While participation in sports can help children feel more positive about their bodies, be aware of possible concerns if your child participates in an activity where body size and shape are considered in the judging and scoring. “Don’t be afraid to speak to the coach about the messages being given,” Melia advises.
• Pay attention. “If your child comes home and says, ‘I feel fat’ or ‘I feel ugly,’ you need to find out why she is feeling this way, and give her some problem-solving strategies to deal with what’s going on,” says Russell-Mayhew.
• Education about eating disorders isn’t helpful, she adds. “When kids learn about the signs and symptoms of disorders like anorexia and bulimia, at best it doesn’t make a difference, and at worst it increases the rate of eating disorders in that group.”
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