The XX Factor

For Some Kids, Body-Image Issues Start as Early as Preschool

Children play at a day-care center in Berlin on October 8, 2015. 

John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images

A distressing new survey of British childcare professionals indicates that dissatisfaction with one’s appearance and weight can begin as young as age 3. The Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (PACEY), a charity that supports childcare practitioners, polled hundreds of childcare workers and found that 71 percent of them believe that “children are becoming anxious about their bodies at a younger age.” In a press release, a PACEY advisor said, “By the age of three or four some children have already pretty much begun to make up their minds (and even hold strong views) about how bodies should look.”

The most disturbing result of the survey concerns very young children: Twenty-four percent of the childcare professionals polled have seen signs that 3-to-5-year-old children in their care “are unhappy with their appearance or bodies.” Meanwhile, 47 percent of the survey participants have seen signs that 6-to-10-year-olds in their care are unhappy with their appearance. Thirty-one percent have heard a child call him- or herself fat, and 19 percent have seen children reject food out of fear of gaining weight.

It’s important to put these findings in context. PACEY surveyed 361 childcare workers, which isn’t a huge sample size. The survey was also retrospective, requiring the participants to recall past events, and retrospective surveys are susceptible to errors and distortions in participants’ memories. Finally, the fact that 24 percent of childcare professionals have seen signs that 3-to-5-year-olds have body image problems does not mean that 24 percent of 3-to-5-year-olds have body image problems. Childcare professionals can look after hundreds or even thousands of children over the course of their careers, so these results are not necessarily a good proxy for the proportion of children who dislike their appearance.

However, a 2010 study of 121 3-to-6-year-old American girls found that “nearly half of the girls worried about being fat.” Earlier Australian studies based on individual interviews with young children found that “6-, 7- and 8-year-old girls rated their ideal figure as significantly thinner than their current figure” and that “by 6 years of age, a large number of girls desired a thinner ideal figure.” The sample sizes of all these studies were limited, but they suggest that the results of PACEY’s survey aren’t an anomaly.

Children absorb messages about the desirability of thin bodies from our culture at such young ages that parents may despair at their odds of cultivating a healthy body image in their kids. Parents are just one influence among many, but there are a few things parents can do to act as a healthy counterbalance to all the glorified images of thin bodies in movies and advertisements. Research indicates that parents who don’t diet, and who refrain from criticizing their own weight or their kids’ weight, have the best chance of raising kids who feel good about their appearance.