Negative body image and the issues associated with girls being dissatisfied with their bodies are often talked about in relation to teenage girls. It may alarm some to know however that 38 per cent of four-year-old girls want a different body size (Damiano et al., 2015).
It is indeed concerning that such young girls feel that they want to change something about their bodies, especially as their bodies are still very much developing.
Research from the Children’s Body Image Development Study at La Trobe University has found that the way a child feels about their body starts to develop as early as three years, and that the feelings, attitudes and conversations adults have about their own appearance and body shape, could strongly influence their child’s feelings about their own body and self-esteem (McCabe, Mellor & Mealey, 2016).
We try to think of children as innocent and carefree, yet they are astutely aware of the way they look. They are conscious of their own appearance and compare themselves to others.
Young girls are able to pick up on a lot from those around them, and while this is often positive, there are times that negative messages are also absorbed. We need to make sure that as adults surrounded by children, we are providing as much of a positive influence as possible.
It isn’t however just about minimising negative messages but rather about reinforcing positive ones. Positivity is a great way to counteract any negative or damaging messages that may have seeped through to our girls and help them recognise their true value. It needs to be done in a natural, reassuring manner rather than forcefully imposed. If done right, it can help young girls to think more positively about their bodies.
Pretty Foundation, a not-for-profit aiming to encourage girls to develop and nurture a positive body image, is running a campaign in August that will seek to teach two to six-year-old girls key positive body image messages through positive language.
Pretty Powerful will be a one-month challenge whereby adults are encouraged to speak a body image mantra out loud with their girls. Each week, the new phrase will be explored in its meaning and supported by activities for parents to do with their girls.
Language tips for a healthy body image:
- Who you are is more important than how you look. Emphasise your child’s qualities that are not related to their appearance, such as personality traits. For example, ‘you are generous, kind, thoughtful, etc.’
- Health is more important than looks. Encourage your child to eat fruit and vegetables to ‘be healthy’, ‘feel good’ and ‘have energy’, rather than to ‘lose weight’ or ‘avoid getting fat’.
- Sometimes foods and everyday foods. These terms can be used rather than labelling foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, or ‘something that will make you fat’.
Language tips to avoid:
- Speaking critically about other people’s body shapes and appearance.
- The word ‘diet’, or if ‘diet’ is used in your house, try to make this a more positive message by saying ‘dieting for health’ rather than weight loss.
- Making critical comments about your own weight or appearance because this may encourage children to develop the belief that certain body types are unacceptable. Be aware that you are a role model.
Pretty Foundation’s first campaign Pretty Powerful will launch on 6 August via Pretty Foundation’s social media channels.
For more information on Pretty Foundation please visit www.prettyfoundation.org.
Damiano, S. R., Gregg, K. J., Spiel, E. C., McLean, S. A., Wertheim, E. H., & Paxton, S. J. (2015). Relationships between body size attitudes and body image of 4-year-old boys and girls, and attitudes of their fathers and mothers. Journal of Eating Disorders, 3(16). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40337-015-0048-0
Hart, L. M., Damiano, S. R., Chittleborough, P., Paxton, S. J., & Jorm, A. F. (2014). Parenting to prevent body dissatisfaction and unhealthy eating patterns in preschool children: A Delphi consensus study. Body Image, 11(4), 418–425.
McCabe, M. P., Mellor, D., & Mealey, A. (2016). An educational programme for parents on the body image of preschool-aged boys. Journal of health psychology, 21(7), 1241–1248.