Contributor: Staff at McCallum Place
Talking about diet and weight has become so normalized that it is often a part of everyday conversation. But what adults don’t always realize is that this kind of talk can have a detrimental impact on the way children think about their bodies.
Children and Body Image
Worries about weight are likely the last thing to come to mind when you think about childhood, but research has found that children start to have concerns about their body image at as young as three years old .
About 24% of children ages 3-5 and 47% of children ages 6-10 are anxious about the way they look. Within childcare settings, about 37% of providers have heard children comment negatively about another child’s weight, while 31% have heard a child say something negative about their own weight.
Even more troubling, about 19% of childcare providers have seen children turn down food because they were concerned about their weight.
Danya Arnold, a 35-year-old mom of three and dietitian from Bryant, Arkansas, said that she was “caught off guard” when her daughter described her body negatively.
“The other day my nine-year-old daughter came in the kitchen and told my husband and I that her legs were fat,” Arnold told U.S. News & World Report .
What this shows is that children can be much more aware of body image than we may realize.
Eating Disorders in Children
Experts say that by the age of 4, some children already feel strongly about the way they want to look and have already learned different weight loss methods. And the factors that influence them can come from almost anywhere, including pictures in storybooks, images in cartoons, and people on TV shows .
“…[T]here is now mounting concern that the formation of these views so early on in life may develop into later eating disturbances or depression,” Jacqueline Hardy, childcare expert, told the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years .
“We know for sure that early experiences matter the most,” Hardy continued. “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.”
In a study of more than 8 million children ages 9-10 in the U.S., researchers found that 1.4% met the criteria for an eating disorder, with 0.1% suffering from anorexia nervosa and 0.6% struggling with binge-eating disorder .
The researchers noted that they did not find any differences in gender, which they said is consistent with other studies that suggest that gender differences in eating disorder diagnoses typically do not emerge until adolescence.
This tells us that, without appropriate guidance and support, children of all genders are vulnerable to eating disorders.
Teaching Positive Body Image
The influences bombarding children can be intense and overwhelming, which is why they need adults to help them feel positive, safe, and confident.
In a survey of 2,000 girls ages 7-21 in the U.K., 92% of the participants ages 11-21 said that they “shouldn’t feel pressured to change the way they look.” The girls said that it can be tough to just relax because they feel so much pressure to change who they are, and that they wish that they had more support .
That support can start with helping your child develop a healthy perception of their body as early as possible so that the pressure to change doesn’t feel so distressing. Here are some suggestions from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics :
- Start by being more positive about your body – Parents model behaviors and beliefs for their children, even ones they don’t intend to. When a child hears you talking about parts of your body you don’t like or that you feel like you need to go on a diet, they may begin to worry that their body is flawed or believe that they need to diet too.
- Talk to your child about the images they are seeing – Your child is seeing different types of bodies everywhere, and many of them are retouched, photoshopped, or animated. Teach your child about what goes into creating these images so that they understand that there is no such thing as the perfect body.
- Help your child navigate bullying – You are your child’s best protector and advocate, so if they are being teased about their weight, step in and make sure that their school addresses the bullying.
Adults can be powerful influences in the lives of children. Remembering to model body positivity and healthy eating behaviors in front of children can go a long way in helping them learn to love their own bodies.
References Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years. (2016, August 31). New research reveals body image and weight worries start at pre-school. https://www.pacey.org.uk/news-and-views/news/archive/2016-news/august-2016/children-as-young-as-3-unhappy-with-their-bodies/.  Castle, J. (2019, February 12). How to teach children to love their bodies. U.S. News & World Report. https://health.usnews.com/wellness/for-parents/articles/2019-02-12/body-image-issues-affect-kids-too.  Rozzell, K., Moon, D.Y., Klimek, P., Brown, T., & Blashill, A.J. (2019). Prevalence of eating disorders among U.S. children aged 9 to 10 years: Data from the adolescent brain cognitive development (ABCD) study. JAMA Pediatrics. 173(1):100-101. DOI: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapediatrics/fullarticle/2716799.  Girlguiding. (2020). Girls’ attitude survey 2020. https://www.girlguiding.org.uk/globalassets/docs-and-resources/research-and-campaigns/girls-attitudes-survey-2020.pdf.  Hayes, D. (2021, February 24). 5 ways to promote a positive body image for kids. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. https://www.eatright.org/health/wellness/your-overall-health/5-ways-to-promote-a-positive-body-image-for-kids.
About The Sponsor
McCallum Place is an eating disorder treatment center with locations in St. Louis, Missouri, and Kansas City, Kansas. We provide comprehensive treatment for adolescents and adults. We also offer a specialty treatment program for athletes who are living with eating disorders. Our experienced treatment team works closely with each patient to ensure that they play a central role in their recovery process. We offer a full range of services to meet the unique needs of each patient and address all issues related to the treatment of eating disorders.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective on eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Published July 30, 2021 on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on July 30, 2021, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC