Four years old and feeling fat
By Dr Jacqueline Harding
Two weeks ago the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (PACEY) published research which indicated that some children as young as 3 are experiencing anxieties about body image.
It was worrying to read that nearly a quarter of childcare professionals have witnessed children aged between 3 and 5 years old in their care show signs that they are unhappy with their appearance or bodies. Worryingly, this figure almost doubled as children got older. Furthermore, nearly a half of childcarers have witnessed body image anxieties in 6-10 year olds.
Body image is connected to self-esteem and these little people in our lives are so easily influenced. There is often an assumption that body image issues start later in childhood and there is indeed a wealth of research which exists around how older children can suffer with low self-esteem as a result of body image anxieties. Sadly, there is a lack of similar research in this area conducted in the early years.
The fact that such a high level of early years practitioners are seeing body image issues within the pre-school age is shocking particularly as by the age of three or four some children have already pretty much begun to make up their minds (and even hold strong views) about how bodies should look. There is also research evidence to suggest that some 4-year-olds are aware of strategies as to how to lose weight.
Of course, there is now mounting concern that the formation of these views (so early on in life) may develop into later eating disturbances or depression. We know for sure that early experiences matter the most and we need to be very careful about how (even inadvertently) we signal to children that they should think negatively about their bodies and how they look.
Again, we need more research in this area but contributing factors to this are likely to include: images on TV; images in story books and animations and the general chat by adults about their bodies, dieting, cosmetic surgery etc. There is little doubt that low levels of self-esteem appear to contribute significantly to negative perceptions of body image.
Increasingly, children are taking a greater interest in their appearance and what they want to wear and this curiosity is helpful towards the development of independence. But sadly, sometimes it doesn’t just stop at choosing their wardrobe. Phrases such as ‘she/he is fat’ are commonplace in childcare settings – nearly one in four practitioners have heard these statements in their setting. While nearly one in three childcarers have heard a child label themselves fat.
I recently spoke to a nursery manager, who told me that that children as young as three have been able to describe in detail what happens at slimming groups; they see their parents getting weighed each week – they see the elation when adults lose weight and the upset when they don’t. She even said that children looked forward to the sessions as it often meant they all had fast food afterwards as a treat! A lot of parents probably don’t even realise the impact of exposing young children to these types of situations. But they are little sponges – they are very susceptible to influences around them and copy behaviours. So as parents and carers we need to be aware that children are watching and listening. Do we want our young children getting on the scales, or rejecting food because ‘it will make them fat’ or saying ‘I can’t eat that – I’m being good today?’
The survey from PACEY also flagged that the people we pay to look after our children feel that parents and peers have the most influence on body image. That’s not to say the media doesn’t play a big part in fuelling a culture of self-consciousness and anxiety, but what it does mean is that collectively we have the power to influence and change behaviours. Thankfully there are simple ways to support children to be body confident. Children look up to us and want to be like us, so we need to take care to talk about our own body in a positive way (even if we don’t feel like it!). We need to build a child’s self-confidence and self-image by focusing on who they are as a person – not what they look like – for example, praising them for acts of kindness to others and not always just for looking pretty/handsome. Gradually, in an age-appropriate way, we can also begin to point out how photographs and images in the media are changed to be improved – so they know these images are not reality.
We have a growing childhood obesity crisis in the UK and it is up to us as parents and carers to promote positive body image and healthy lifestyles in very young children. If we work together, we can recognise the signs of body anxieties in their children and address the issues in the early years – building their confidence and ensuring they have the best possible start in life.
For more information about PACEY, including resources and ideas to help you support your young child’s learning and development at home, go to www.pacey.org.uk/bodyconfidence
About Dr Jacqueline Harding:
Dr Jacqueline is a senior lecturer at Middlesex University and director of Tomorrow’s Child – a specialised children and parenting film production and media research company. Jacqueline is internationally known as a leading digital media child development expert with a Masters in Education and a PhD in Children and Media. Jacqueline is a renowned child development and early years author having had 11 books published since 1992.