When body image concerns start early

When worries about looks start young ...
When worries about looks start young ... Photo: Getty Images

Body Image. This has now been added to my growing list of parenting concerns. As a mother of three young girls people often remark, “Oh you’re in for a bumpy ride in the teenage years,” and I am aware that body image concerns are real. Many of my friends with school-age children are finding this a complex issue to tackle. What I didn’t expect was that I would be confronted with this issue so early in my daughter’s life. After all, she is only four.

Recently, I gave chocolate biscuits to my three young daughters for their afternoon tea. This would normally be greeted with joyful smiles, but on this occasion, my four-year-old’s lips trembled and she dissolved into tears. Confused, I asked her to explain why she was so upset. "Because if I eat this biscuit I'll get fat," she sobbed. 

I was stunned. What had possibly prompted this response? My questions about where it had come from just upset her more and she was unable to explain anything. She was inconsolable. It was a confronting situation and terribly upsetting to witness my daughter’s distress over a chocolate biscuit.  Where had she heard the word fat? And how had she associated food and weight gain? I was as troubled as I was bewildered, and so I searched for answers.

Like any mother, I looked to myself first to apportion blame. But I couldn’t see any correlation between my behaviour and this emotionally charged incident. I have a healthy relationship with food. A combination of good genes and healthy eating mean that I have never been on a diet in my life. And neither has my husband. We eat meals together as a family, and we encourage good eating patterns and the importance of exercise. We are relaxed about meals and allow for treats now and then. Our children are all on the lighter side of the healthy weight range, and the word fat has certainly never been uttered in reference to someone’s weight.

After consoling my daughter, who had become virtually paralysed and unable to eat the biscuit, I did my best to reassure her. It was a conversation that I had imagined I would have ten years down the track when she would be 14, not at the tender, innocent age of four. It broke my heart to be talking about body image with her.

Once I had finally placated her, I reassured her that her body was perfect. I told her that the occasional sweet would not make her fat and I explained that being fat was not a character flaw. At the end of our chat she seemed somewhat satisfied with my explanation and she tentatively ate the biscuit.

The latest research shows that body image and negative weight attitudes are becoming an increasing problem in young children. Children as young as five can be affected by an eating disorder and it’s not just girls at risk.

Researchers at La Trobe University say that kids as young as three have already formed opinions on body image. At this young age, awareness of differences in body size, as well as the ways in which difference sizes are perceived, is developing. Now in its third year, the Children’s Body Image Development Study aims to better understand body image attitudes in young children. The researchers hope to learn more about the influences of age, gender, body size and the social environment on the body image of pre-school children.

My daughter is a sensitive soul and this experience delivered a glimpse into the challenges that lie ahead in my mothering journey. Compounding my concern is the realisation that I am no longer her gatekeeper of information and values. Perhaps modeling good body image behaviour at home is not enough to dilute the external message that looks are all-important. I want to shield her from our diet-crazed culture that is obsessed by a person’s looks, and their body type. Being overweight is unhealthy, but the negative judgment and allied discrimination are the truly frightening parts.

At a young age children are so impressionable. They soak up the messages we directly send them, and also the subliminal ones. Body image is not something that should inhabit my four year-old’s thoughts. At her age, the biggest decision she should make isn’t whether or not to eat a biscuit, but whether to paint a rainbow or a sunset.

A few days later we were reading a book about opposites, and there were images of “fat” and “thin.” Whilst my daughter may have learnt the word fat from a book it still doesn't explain how she associated a biscuit with weight gain and the negative perception of being fat. Understanding the development of body image and related concerns in young children is vital. Hopefully the researchers at La Trobe University will be able to provide some answers to this troubling issue facing parents today. 

Michaela Fox is a freelance writer. You can follow Michaela on Twitter here, join her on Facebook here or read her musings on motherhood at http://notanotherslipperydip.com