Body Image in Young Children

What is body image and why does it matter?

A person’s body image is how they think and feel about their body, not just how they look. Having a positive body image is defined by having positive thoughts and feelings towards your body and physical appearance. Body image and attitudes about bodies form at a very young age. Children as young as 3 years old begin showing preferences for what they think an ideal body type is based on the messages around them. It is important that parents are aware of the messages their young children are exposed to. In other words, what we say matters!

These messages can come from the media, family, friends, and educators. Parents should be aware that their own conversations about body shape, appearance, dieting, and attitudes towards body size diversity may influence their children’s attitudes about their bodies. It is also important to know that body image dissatisfaction is not just a “female problem,” children of all genders are vulnerable, and parental attitudes of all the adults in the family matter.

How can I be a good role model for my children?

Parents can play an important role in developing positive habits in their children by promoting healthy eating patterns and positive body image. Parents are often concerned with their children being picky eaters and find it challenging to get children to eat enough fruits and vegetables or worry that their child is preferring to eat foods that they deem to be unhealthy. This can lead some parents to use strategies that might be unhelpful and lead to patterns that can promote an unhealthy relationship with food and a poor body image.

It is important for parents to examine their own attitudes and beliefs about body image, shape and weight, eating and exercise patterns. Rather than focusing on physical appearance, it is helpful to focus on personal strengths, health and taking proper care of our bodies. It is ideal to focus on promoting a healthy body rather than a thin body. Research shows that repeatedly comparing your body to those around you can make you feel negatively about yourself. This is true for children as well. Avoiding making comparisons about bodies and encouraging health at every size are foundational to forming a healthy body image. It is also very important for that parents accept their children as they are, and allow their child to talk about how they feel about their body and listen to what they say. Opening up a dialogue about body image with your children at an early age will increase the likelihood that they will feel comfortable raising any concerns that arise as they get older.

To read more about specific do’s and don’ts about how to help your child develop a healthy body image and relationship to food, check out our guide:

Raising Kids with a Healthy Body Image: A Guide for Parents of Young Children