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Body Image and Children

From the ubiquitous photos of barely clad, bone-thin celebrities like Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan, to the emaciated models strutting their stuff on the cat walk, children today are inundated with media images that present thinness as a standard of beauty and elegance. Seeing these images over and over may lead them to think that their own bodies are not acceptable, leading them to develop unhealthy body images. And unfortunately, such negative feelings can sap self-esteem and set the stage for eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia.

It is crucial for parents to help build a healthy body image for children to counter these images and stave off excessive dieting and destructive body image problems.

Did You Know?

Under the Affordable Care Act, many health insurance plans will provide free preventive care services, including checkups, vaccinations and screening tests, to children and teens. Learn more.

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It's never too early to start building that healthy body image. About 30% of girls aged 10 to 14 are dieting, according to a study by the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto.

First, don't shoot the messenger. Instead of blaming the media, use it. Media images and messages can be the springboard for discussing healthy body images in children. Parents can discuss media messages that are inaccurate and unhealthy as well as positive media images, such as Dove's "Campaign for Real Beauty," which urges consumers to "be happy with who you are." The popular ads feature curvy, full-bodied, women -- not traditional waif-like models.

Signs Your Child Has a Negative Body Image

More importantly, knowing the warning signs of an unhealthy body image in children can help parents identify problems early. What to watch for:

  • Signals that a girl views herself only in terms of her physical appearance.
  • The language your daughter uses to describe herself and her physical development and attractiveness.
  • Excessive dieting
  • Frequent comments about the weight of other girls
  • Worries about sexual attractiveness
  • Depression and low self-esteem

Parents can help boost a poor body image by:

  • Helping children understand that their bodies will change and grow
  • Helping children understand that there is not one "ideal" body shape
  • Watching what they say about their own bodies and the comments they make about other people's bodies
  • Avoiding stereotypes, prejudices, and words like ugly and fat
  • Helping children focus on their abilities and personalities rather than their physical appearance
  • Promoting physical activity and exercise. Girls who play sports tend to have higher levels of self-esteem and healthier body images. "Be fit, not necessarily thin, and you will be healthy for life," is an excellent motto.
  • Discouraging children from weighing themselves too often

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