The early development of body image issues needs our attention

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


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).

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 psychology21(7), 1241–1248.

Merissa Forsyth

In 2013, putting a halt on a fast-moving corporate career, Merissa Forsyth established the Makeup Free Me movement which encouraged women and girls across Australia to go makeup free for a day to get a conversation about body image going. And it did just that. Fast forward four years, Merissa and the Makeup Free Me team started to dig deeper into the research and speak to experts in the field of body image. They found that the foundations for building a positive body image are laid in early childhood and that there were no initiatives focusing on this. In discovering this, Merissa founded and now runs Pretty Foundation, a not-for-profit aiming to empower women and girls with the perspective, skills and support to develop and nurture a positive body image for themselves and others. The programs and initiatives run by Pretty Foundation focus on two to six-year-old girls and their parents.

2 thoughts on “The early development of body image issues needs our attention”

    Su-lee Ling says:

    Hi Merissa,
    This is a sound blog/message to be disseminating in the early childhood community, I appreciate the research you did to inform the article.
    I do have poor response to the name of the foundation being: ‘Pretty Foundation’-does this not fly in the face of what is being conveyed? As in, its more important ‘who I am’ not how I appear..?
    We are flawed as humans clearly, this auto-proclivity to approach baby girls (and upward) with comments on their appearances-faces, clothing, appeal and later their bodies.
    Im not sure what organises you to then iterate same with foundation name drawing attention to a young girls aspirational level of desired attractiveness..?
    Dot point-“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.’”
    Regards, SL

    Joyce Sanders says:

    I cannot find your actual website with its discussion of language about body image.

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