By the age of 14 half of girls and one third of boys have been on a diet to change their shape, according to a report from the All Party Parliamentary Group on Body Image, which was set up in November 2011 to raise awareness of the problem.
“Girls as young as six are cutting down on what they eat to stay thinner. By the age of 10, around a third of all girls, and 22 per cent of boys, say how their bodies look is their number one worry,” confirms Chris Calland.
According to information from the Health and Social Care Information Centre, hospital admissions for eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia, increased by 16 per cent in England alone between 2011 and 2012, and one in every 10 of those admissions was a 15-year-old girl.
What is body image?
Before working out what to do about it, it’s important to define what we mean by body image, explains Calland. “It’s not about what we look like, it’s about our perception of what we look like,” she says.
“The media influence is obvious,” she adds. “Airbrushed pictures and a celebrity-obsessed culture all contribute,” she says. “But the onset of social media has made things worse and websites such as Facebook are essentially adverts for yourself.
With the option to like or not, and comment, and ever ready images on mobile devices, children are more vulnerable than ever.”
Warning signs that your child may have a negative body image
- They might become self-critical
- Avoid having their photo taken
- Are reluctant to join in sport or social activities
- Become secretive about social media or website activity
- Start to hide food or become paranoid about eating, especially in front of people
- Tend to binge eat or not eat enough
- May start to wear baggier clothes
- Extreme weight-loss
Time to change
“Three quarters of 10 and 11 year olds would like to change their appearance,” says Calland. “This is the time to put up the scaffolding that builds self-esteem,” she adds.
The good news is that key bodies, backed by the government, are starting to take action. The parliamentary group have partnered with the YMCA who are also campaigning on the issue of body image and have a wealth of resources at the ‘Body Image website’, and Media Smart, a not-for-profit organisation, has created a body image parent pack that’s free to download.
Tips to build your child’s body confidence
As a parent, there is a lot you can do to help your child form a healthy and realistic viewpoint towards body image at a young age and plenty of advice you can provide to help boost their body confidence. Here are a few useful tips from Chris Calland:
- Be a good role model: “Eat a family meal together and make it relaxed. Don’t focus on good and bad food,” says Calland. “Watch your own bad habits, for example it’s not good for a mum to stand at the side eating a lettuce leaf or constantly be on, or talking about, a diet.”
- Speak right: “The average child watches between 20,000 and 40,000 adverts a year. If you’re watching with them and make negative comments about the images you see, ‘she’s put on weight’ or ‘he looks old’, you’ll pass this onto your children,” Calland points out.
Try to focus on being healthy rather than being overweight.
Be good to yourself: “We ask parents to tell us three things they love about their body, and they struggle. They don’t if we ask them to tell us three things they hate. Be positive about yourself,” says Calland.
- Avoid teasing: According to the Media Smart’s Parent information Pack, which promotes positive self-esteem among children, even the seemingly friendly nicknames can be hurtful if they focus on some aspect of the child’s appearance.
- Listen: The Media Smart advises to ask why they feel that way, in order to better understand their concerns, and explain that diversity is good – ‘tall, short, wide and narrow are all body shapes that are beautiful’.
- Highlight their skills and character – not looks: In a world where we’re bombarded with messages about appearances, such as t-shirts with phrases such as ‘Beautiful is my middle name’ or ‘Daddy’s Little Princess’, it’s important to move away from the physical. “Talk about their personality and their skills. For example, say ‘You’re such a good sharer’ ‘as opposed to ‘You’re so pretty,’” says Calland.
- Teach your child to be a critic: “Ask them questions like, ‘Do you think that’s real?’ and point out issues such as airbrushing, digital enhancement and photo-shopping,” suggests Calland.
For more information on eating disorders read our existing article titled ‘Hidden Eating Disorders’
Also visit our Pregnancy and Childcare Centre for more information on keeping children healthy.
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