Body Image, Part 1: How kids can learn to like their looks

Kids' Body Image: Ian Hooton-Science Photo LibraryBody image concerns can have a significant impact on the physical and mental health of children and teens. While parents may be legitimately concerned about their kids’ weight, some children are becoming preoccupied about their bodies, comparing them unfavourably to those of celebrities or even to their friends. This week, Family Anatomy will be writing and talking about body image issues, to provide parents with ideas and information to address what seems to be a growing concern. A recent study in the Journal of Health Psychology reported that about 40% of elementary school-aged girls and 25% of boys are dissatisfied with their bodies; other researchers have found different rates, but body dissatisfaction appears to be a relatively common problem, and the age at which it occurs may be dropping. Links have been found between poor body image and emotional distress, smoking, steroid use, social anxiety, and eating disorders. In the U.S., the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Eating Disorders (ANAD) reports that 7 to 10 million women and 1 million men are affected by eating disorders, with 86% indicating an onset before age 20. A story in the Chicago Tribune suggested that the average age when eating disorders develop has dropped from 13-17 to 9-13 years!

I think parents need to be alert to their kids' concerns about their appearance. It's easy for parents who may be dissatisfied with their own bodies to inadvertently communicate to their kids about what is acceptable. had a great example: asking your partner if your pants "make you look fat" can tell kids something about how their bodies should look. What parents say really matters - on Wednesday, I'll be writing about a study examining the impact of parental comments and teasing on kids' dangerous exercise behaviour.

Parental messages go beyond what's said: behaviour matters, too. Going on a diet might say more to kids than you know about the importance of their weight and how they are perceived by others, including their parents. Exercising to lose weight can also place exaggerated importance on the Body Mass Index (BMI) rather than on health. Instead, a focus on nutrition and a healthy lifestyle could give a more appropriate message about what's important. Exercising for fun or to stay healthy is also a good idea. Consider this, from a position paper of the International Society of Sport Psychology:

Individual psychological benefits of physical activity are: positive change in self-perception and well being, improvement in self confidence and awareness, positive changes in mood, relief of tension, relief of feelings such as depression and anxiety, influence in pre-menstrual tension, increased sense of mental well-being, increased alertness and clear thinking, increase in energy and ability to cope with daily activity, increased enjoyment of exercise and social contacts, and developing positive coping strategies.

Exercise, when it's encouraged for the right reasons, has so many potential benefits that it should be considered a life skill. Notice that weight control and BMI aren't even mentioned on the list of the positive outcomes of exercise! When you engage in physical activities as a family, they might be even more rewarding.

Communication is important too - it's a good idea to know what your kids are watching on television and reading in magazines and to talk about the images they see there. Many of the bodies shown on TV could only be achieved with personal trainers, chefs, and often, surgery. In France, the government is considering a law that would make it mandatory for the press and advertisers to label images that have been retouched ... I've come to the conclusion that kids should know about the power of Photoshop, and the fact that the pictures they see in magazines might not represent reality.

Check back all week for more information about kids' body image.

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Note: Posts on Family Anatomy are for education only. If you need to talk to someone about family or mental health issues, you can get a referral from your family doctor.