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.

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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Warning Signs of an Eating Disorder

While body image issues can affect anyone, girls are more likely to suffer negative health outcomes associated with body dissatisfaction including eating disorders like anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa.

Symptoms of anorexia may include:

  • Losing lots of weight
  • Denying hunger
  • Exercising excessively
  • Saying that she "feels fat"
  • Withdrawing from social activities

Symptoms of bulimia may include:

  • Making excuses to go to the bathroom immediately after meals
  • Eating huge amounts of food without weight gain
  • Using laxatives or diuretics
  • Withdrawing from social activities

If you notice any of these signs in your children, talk to a pediatrician. Remember, the key is prevention. Taking steps early on to build a healthy body image in children can help prevent the self-esteem issues that may lead to an eating disorder.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on July 27, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:
American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists: "Tool Kit fir Teen care: Media and Body Image."
Kids Health web site: "Kids and Eating Disorders."
About Kids Health web site, the Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto: "Promoting Positive Body Image in Our Kids."

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