When Lydia Gard’s son complained that he looked fat, aged 5, she was shocked. But new studies suggest that body image affects children far younger than you might expect, and it’s boys as well as girls.
As someone who has achieved enormous success without having conformed to society’s ‘ideals’, Lena Dunham is brilliantly outspoken on the issue of body image. She once said: “I was a babysitter before I started working in film, and I would hear, like, 7-year-old girls that I babysat say, ‘I think I need to go on a diet’… and it cracks my heart open.”
I know what she means. Nothing has made me stop in my tracks quite like hearing my then 5-year-old son refuse to wear a new puffer jacket I had bought him for his first school term, ‘Because it makes me look fat.’
I was so shocked, I didn’t know what to say. Not only because he is as slim as a racing snake, but also because I was staggered that a 5-year-old boy was even conscious of the way his clothes made him look. If I’m honest, deep down I assumed that little boys would somehow be less self-deprecating than their female peers. I expected my son to be immune to worrying about his body image until puberty and that first terrifying shower room comparison.
And this is a boy who, the same summer, had been running around the garden naked and uninhibited, showing off his bicycle tricks and running under the sprinkler in full view of friends and family: girls and boys, young and old.
So why was he was suddenly being judgey and self-critical? It was so misplaced.
According to the US child advocacy group Common Sense Media, kids are starting to develop concerns about body image at a far younger age than you might expect. In their report in January, they concluded that ‘body image begins to develop at a very young age and that multiple factors – especially parents, some media, and peers – are influential.
They found that more than half of girls and a third of boys as young as 6 to 8 think their ideal weight is thinner than their current size. By age 7, one in four kids has engaged in some kind of dieting behavior, the report said.
The largest UK study on eating disorders in children followed 6,000 kids to the age of 14 and found that self-esteem in 8-year-olds is one of the critical predictive factors for problems in the teens. At the age of 8, 5% of girls and 3% of boys in the study were already dissatisfied with their body. Scary.
My son has only ever stood on weighing scales to calculate the difference between himself and his brother. He eats voraciously at every meal. I don’t think we have to worry. But the puffer jacket incident wasn’t isolated. There are a few things he simply won’t wear, however cold it is outside. Even when we went skiing last year, there was a fierce battle over being seen in a ski suit.
So knowing I was writing this piece, I asked him at breakfast today, ‘What do you think fat actually is?’
‘It’s something that makes you get bigger and bigger, or if you’re lazy, you get fat.’ Anything else? I asked. ‘Well, fat in food, like in meat and things, is bad for you.’
That’s really worrying, isn’t it? Especially given that I don’t diet, fast or cut out entire food groups. In fact, we eat a healthy, balanced diet and we’re an active, outdoorsy family.
In our culture, even very young children are inundated by all-pervading media and advertising images: the beautiful blonde families with the Californian-smiles who sell us toothpaste, property and holidays, skipping together along the shore of palm-fringed beaches, toned and tanned. They don’t fill the brochure with flabby, pale and post-natal mothers struggling to apply suncream to their screaming toddler and glancing apologetically at the neighbouring sun beds. Why? Because reality is not half as attractive.
Once they’re at school, you can’t control what they overhear in the classroom or in the playground, where ‘fat’ is the new ‘ugly’, and the war on obesity is filtering down in some pretty misguided messages. Before we know it, they’ll have their own Instagram accounts and be open to all the nasty judgments that children seem at ease making from their devices.
But for now, the biggest influence on young boys and girls is still their parents.
Gulp. While I would love to pretend that I have never looked in the mirror and had a moan about a bulge or an imperfection in front of my kids, of course I have. I’m as vain as the next person. And although I might have been fishing for a compliment or just having a crap day, it’s that same old message compounded. “I’m imperfect and that is a problem for which I lack self-esteem”.
Of course body image isn’t just about weight, it’s about being too short, too tall, too thin. Wearing glasses or having big feet. Anything that doesn’t conform to the cultural norm.
So in our culture where botox has become as normal as brushing your teeth, there must be something that we as parents can do to help remind our children that different is good, and that there are more important things to consider at the tender age of 5, than how big your coat makes you look.
Here’s a few ideas:
- Set an example: Eat for your health, not your weight. Talk about what you eat and explain the relationship between food and energy to your children at mealtimes.
- Question their assumptions about ‘fat’ people or ‘thin’ people, and remind them that their bodies don’t dictate their personality.
- Be conscious of the Parent-Child effect and try not to be self-critical in front of your kids, however young.
- If they are developing a negative body image, try to shift the conversation from how they look to how they feel.
- Compliment them on their skills and achievements, behaviour and attitude. Try not to criticize their physicality.
- Encourage them to be proud of their differences so that they develop sufficient self-belief to not want to conform.