Childhood Fears Take New Form:
Body Image Concerns
in Young Children
By Abigail Natenshon, MA, LCSW, GCFP
-From his viewing chair, a father criticizes a television
personality for how fat she looks in her evening gown.
- A brother speaks disparagingly about his girlfriend’s hip size, claiming
she needs a “license for the wide-load.”
- The father of a 5 year old tells her jokingly that she will develop a
“Buddha belly” if she puts butter on her bread.
- A child states that more important than getting A’s in school is being
accepted by the “popular group.” Her parents make no comment.
The vulnerable child is quick to take in and personalize what are otherwise
meant to be benign “throw away” comments. Harmful messages get transmitted
to children unintentionally, and may result in body image disturbances. As
early as the first grade, children are reporting concerns and preoccupation
with weight and body shape and begin to restrict food. Camp counselors
report 6 and 7 year olds studying nutritional labels on food items as they
empty their lunch sacks. A U.S. Dept.
of Health and Human Services task force reports that 80% of girls in grades
3 to 6 have bad feelings about their bodies, an issue diverting attention
from schoolwork and friendships. Preteen boys as well, inspired by the world
of sports and television, fret about the inadequacy of their builds, giving
more priority to the strength in their muscles or the girth in their chests
than to intelligence, compassion or emotional well-being.
Believing that outward appearance is a reflection of inner quality, children
with body image concerns develop a sense of who they are (physically and
emotionally) and how they should behave by internalizing messages about
themselves from others. In seeking approval, children who are
perfectionistic and/or who lack self-esteem, may be particularly sensitive
and susceptible to the perceptions of parents, family, peers and to the
influence of the media. Body image distortions, which are marked by
distorted self-perceptions and genetically-based anxiety, may be precursors
to, and/or co-occurring conditions with eating disorders. Body image
concerns, as well as body dysmorphic disorders (BDD) that elicit shame and
self-hatred for specific body parts, deserve attention so the child can
learn to enjoy a healthful relationship with food and the body.
The power of parental
influence, as significant as it may be, will not be great enough to cause
the onset of body image distortions or clinical eating disorder in a child
unless the child has a genetic predisposition to develop these conditions.
In these instances, parents may
inadvertently and unwittingly contribute to their child’s body image
concerns or to the onset of an eating disorder.
*Disparaging or critical parental messages sent to a child about
his or her appearance may create or reinforce body image concerns, as well
as a lack of self-acceptance, poor self-esteem, and food fears and
obsessions. When parents harbor unresolved weight-related and body image
issues of their own, these issues may be passed down to children as a
legacy, from generation to generation. One study showed that anorexic
mothers raised children who by age five whined more, demonstrated eating
problems, and manifested signs of depression.
*Children learn by example, overhearing their parents complain
about their own weight and need to diet, watching them restrict food or
exercise excessively. They are quick to pick up on the signals of parents
who skip meals, purchase and eat only “lite” or fat-free foods, or who do
not consider it a priority to prepare and provide three meals a day and to
sit down to eat them together with their family.
*Poignant messages are also communicated by what parents choose
not to do and to say. When parents
do not actively refute poor values or misconceptions in their children, they
may find that they are perpetuating and reinforcing them; if they fail to
actively negate the child’s belief that popularity and peer acceptance is
more important than learning and academic achievement, the child’s own worst
fears and misconceptions may be realized and validated.
* Many parents have forgotten what healthy eating and living is, and is not.
They assume that fat-free eating is healthy eating, that skipping meals is a
short cut to being trim. They do not realize that an eating or exercise
lifestyle that works well for a parent, when taken out of the context of age
and health requirements, does not necessarily apply to children and in fact
may harm them. As an example, children need fat in their diets to complete
their neurological development throughout the childhood and adolescent
*When parents fear that by communicating honestly with their children about
uncomfortable subjects they could create
more problems, or lose their child’s love, they may be inclined to
pretend not to notice when their child is in trouble. A problem cannot be
resolved unless and until it is identified and confronted.
*Too many or too few parental limits imposed during the growing up years
deprive children of the opportunity to internalize appropriate controls
through which they can ultimately regulate themselves. The overly controlled
child who feels victimized and helpless, as well as the overly controlling
child who feels overwhelmed and frightened by her own power, may experience
an emerging internal image of herself as destructive and without limits. The
latter may eventually feel the need to turn to an eating disorder to
compensate for her lack of external and internal controls; nature abhors a
vacuum. A three year old who refuses to put on her snowsuit in a
sub-freezing Chicago winter won’t allow her mother to belt her into her car
seat, and ultimately refuses to sleep in her own bed, wandering into her
parents’ room every night. With a legacy of adult obesity and addiction in
her family's genetic pool, this child is a prime candidate to develop an
eating disorder in the future.
What parents can do:
*Model a healthy relationship with food. Talk, walk and impart
healthy values and attitudes at home.
*Educate children, teaching them to regard the body as a wise and
predictable machine requiring fuel and maintenance rather than as an object
of beauty; food as a life-sustaining fuel rather than as the enemy; healthy
eating as a balanced and moderated lifestyle rather than as an exercise in
* Listen to “know” their child, and to help their child understand herself.
When the child makes negative comments about her shape or size, parents must
not dismiss them even if they seem irrational; rather, they should start a
discussion about how your child thinks she could look better and why.
*Help the child develop immunity to the steady stream of media messages that
distort her perspective by teaching her to become a more critical consumer
of the media, and by canceling subscriptions to fashion magazines.
*Become aware of their own body image concerns and attitudes that might
stimulate their child’s fears, distortions and misconceptions. Parents must
be careful not to complain about their own weight.
*If concerned about their child becoming overweight, parents need
to help the child learn how to eat
differently, not less, and how to maintain an enjoyably active