Depressing Study Finds Even 3-Year-Olds Have Body Image Issues

And some 4-year-olds are aware of strategies to lose weight.
A new survey suggests preschool-age children struggle with body image issues.
Paul Biris via Getty Images
A new survey suggests preschool-age children struggle with body image issues.

People used to think body-image issues start in adolescence. Then it was elementary school. Now, evidence suggests that body-image anxiety can take hold of kids as young as age 3. So basically, when they’re barely out of diapers.

A small but alarming new survey of more than 350 childcare professionals released by the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (PACEY) in England on Wednesday asked whether they’d seen signs of body image issues in young children of both sexes.

Nearly a quarter said they’d seen 3 to 5-year-olds who were unhappy with their bodies, and almost half said they’d seen signs of trouble in kids ages 6 to 10. Overall, 31 percent said they’d heard a child between the ages of 3 and 10 call him or herself “fat,” and roughly 20 percent said they’d witnessed a child reject a particular food because they thought they’d gain weight.

“By the age of 3 or 4, some children have already pretty much begun to make up their minds (and even hold strong views) about how bodies should look,” Jacqueline Harding, PACEY advisor and child development expert, said in a statement accompanying the survey results. “There is also research evidence to suggest that some 4-year-olds are aware of strategies as to how to lose weight.”

Though the questionnaire asked about both boys and girls, the childcare professionals said they observe that young girls tend to be more conscious about their bodies than young boys. And overall, a majority of childcare professionals indicated that they believe kids are starting to stress about their bodies at eveN younger ages.

“The new findings from PACEY are unfortunately not surprising,” Claire Mysko, CEO of the National Eating Disorders Association, said in an e-mail to The Huffington Post. “The expression of body anxieties in children as young as 3 likely relates to the broader attitudes about bodies and health that we see in popular culture.”

So what are parents and caregivers supposed to do with this new information? It’s an important question given than many are probably flabbergasted by the idea that their children could start feeling ashamed of their shape when they’re still, essentially, toddlers.

Expanding representation of bodies in film, media, advertising and even story books is crucial, and it’s important for parents to model “body comfort,” experts say. Words also matter. An extremely compelling study published earlier this summer argued that parents should not make comments about their children’s weight, like, ever. Even if well-intentioned, they can be early predictors of unhealthy dieting or other types of disordered eating.

“Parents can promote positive body image in children by being mindful of comments about their own and others’ bodies, acknowledging children for things like being kind to others rather than for how they look, helping children appreciate what their bodies can do (like run, throw a ball or build a fort), and by showing children that people come in all shapes and sizes,” Mysko said.

Ultimately, the new survey is limited by its small size, but it nonetheless points to a distressing trend. When it’s clear that the absurd thin-ideal is so pervasive that children are starting to be influenced by it before they’re even in kindergarten, something has got to change.

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