Five-year-old Billys face betrayed how upset he was. Miss Anita, Anthony said I was fat, Billy choked, Am I fat?
Four-year-old Rachel tearfully approached her caregiver on the playground and said, Sarah and Tina wont let me play with them. They say I cant fit in the slide and I should go on a diet.
For caregivers of young children, these situations are all too common. While body image issues and eating disorders are typically thought of as problems for teens and adolescents, even very young children may suffer from anxiety, stress, and ridicule when their body size or shape does not fit the ideal promoted by society. Children as young as five years of age have been found to be concerned with dieting.
Many--but not all--young children who have poor body images are overweight. The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found that 23 percent of all children 2-5 years of age were overweight or at risk for being overweight during the period from 1999-2002. This means that almost one of every four preschool-age children are at-risk for the physical, emotional and social consequences of being overweight, including poor body image.
Children respond to societal pressures about weight early in life, with the foundation of body image formed by age six. When surveyed, six-year-olds perceived fatness as bad and many described fat peers as lazy, sloppy, dirty and stupid. These findings point to the importance of promoting a healthy body image in the infant, toddler and preschool years. Caregivers and parents can help promote this healthy body image through active involvement in childrens physical activities and modeling healthy behavior.
What is the body image ideal? It may be different for girls and boys. Girls tend to desire a thin, lithe body shape while boys often want a muscular, athletic build. Many young children are exposed to unrealistic portrayals of male and female bodies in some cartoons, books, and toys. Adults also may unknowingly project values and attitudes about personal weight, size, and shape that can result in children who are dissatisfied with their bodies at young ages.
Role of Caregiver
Caregivers can take a number of steps to help young children develop positive body images. First, they can promote an appreciation of diversity and differences. Cultural, religious, age and gender diversity are often discussed in training workshops for childcare providers, but rarely are differences in body shape and size mentioned. Two umbrella concepts to promote with children are We respect the bodies of others even when they are quite different from our own, and Everyones body is a good body.
Positive images and portrayals of different body shapes and sizes in the environment are important. Inexpensive posters and calendars that feature fine art are one possibility for broadening the body images children see. The ideal body image of the past was quite different from the current standards that depict extreme thinness (for females) and brawn (for males), and artists such as Cassatt and Renoir depicted people of many sizes and shapes.
Childcare providers also may want to reexamine the childrens environment in the center or childcare home with an eye for unrealistic body images. Some dolls and action figures portray bodies that are impossible to attain for most people. As you replace worn out or broken toys, look for new materials that portray people and their bodies realistically.
Story times lend themselves to discussions about appreciating differences and encouraging children to accept themselves and others. Unfortunately, there are not many story books for very young children that focus on body image, so caregivers may need to incorporate books that focus more generally on self-image and self-esteem to lead into a discussion of diversity in body size and shape.
Introducing a comprehensive health education curriculum into your childcare program can help expose young children to a variety of topics such as nutrition and self esteem. Helping young children build self esteem can help them as they grow older and as their bodies change. Many young children may gain weight prior to a growth spurt. Being called fat not only will hurt feelings but that image of being fat may remain with the child even when their growth spurt has erased all traces of extra pounds.
Another suggestion is to promote a no teasing policy in the childcare environment. Children with poor body image can suffer further damage to their self-esteem if they are ridiculed by their peers. It is important for children to understand early in life that teasing or bullying another child about his or her size or shape is not an acceptable behavior.
Childcare providers also can promote healthy body image for children by modeling an appreciation and acceptance of their own bodies. Children readily pick up on comments about dieting, obesity, and fat that adults may discuss casually and without much thought. Instead, focus on serving (and eating) healthy meals and snacks with the children, promoting physical activity that makes children feel competent about their physical abilities, and limiting sedentary activities, such as television viewing and computer use.
When families are faced with a child who has a poor body image and lowered self-esteem, they may turn to childcare providers for help. In many cases, adult family members may also be struggling with personal weight issues. Provide resources to families such as handouts on nutrition or exercise or connect them with healthcare professionals that can answer their questions.
When families and childcare providers work together to provide a supportive environment, young children with poor body image can begin to feel better about themselves, their bodies, and their abilities.
Marna Holland, Ed.S., CFCS
Family & Consumer Science Agent, North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service
Empowered Kids, www.empoweredparents.com/1childhoodonset/childhood_01.htm
Sesame Street Parents, type in body image in the search window, www.sesameworkshop.org/parents/
I Am Amazing, a program promoting health, safety, and self-esteem, Healthy Child Publications, PO Box 624, Harbor Springs, MI 49740; 877-256-6178; www.healthychild.net