Helping kids sidestep problems with body image needs to start sooner than you’d think.
By the age of three children begin noticing differences in body shape and by five they’re starting to pick up on cultural bias around larger bodies – like big people are ‘fat and lazy’,” says Dr Heidi Bergmeier. Education Manager with Eating Disorders Victoria.
At the same time they’re navigating a childhood landscape of teensy waisted Disney princesses and ripped action heroes and while there’s nothing new or even wrong with seeing these images, what’s changed is that childhood is so saturated in them. There are now more ways to put these images into children’s lives thanks to the internet and mass marketing.
“With this comes a very narrow view of what beauty is. For girls it’s very thin and usually white skinned and for boys it’s athletic,” Bergmeier says.
While it’s impossible to cloister kids from these images, there are other things we grownups can do to help the children in our lives develop a healthy body image – like catching ourselves using ‘fat talk’.
“Fat talk is when people criticise their own or other people’s bodies, including celebrities’ bodies – it can add to the pressure to be thin and help drive body dissatisfaction. The whole family needs to be aware of this,” says Bergmeier, who’s helped develop a new workshop for primary schools in Victoria aimed at helping kids not only grow a more positive body image but also be more critical of what they see in the media.
“It’s now accepted that you can’t start early enough to build resilience when it comes to body image. Children pick up messages that thin is good and fat is bad very early, “says Christine Morgan, CEO of the Butterfly Foundation, which supports people with eating disorders and problems with body image. Like Eating Disorders Victoria, it also runs programs in primary schools which include teaching kids not to use bullying language.
“There are now kids as young as seven in hospital for eating disorders and calls from parents concerned about young children to our helpline are increasing.
“There’s also a rise in body image problems among boys. Barbie has been around for 50 years and in that time her body hasn’t changed – unlike Ken and superhero figurines which have become more muscular.”
Still, not everyone with a problem with body image goes on to join the one in 24 Australians with an eating disorder, Morgan stresses.
“Eating disorders happen when there’s a genetic vulnerability that’s triggered by an outside stress. But the warning signs are quite subtle so if you hear children make negative comments about how they look or if they’re avoiding eating, don’t ignore it.”
Like Heidi Bergmeier, Christine Morgan urges families to be good role models.
“Don’t make comments about your own weight and rather than comment on how kids look, talk about their other strengths like how well they do things,” she says
“Be aware of the media images children are exposed to and if they’re unrealistic then have a conversation about it. This is one of the things we do in our primary school program – we get kids to think about how realistic these images are or what it took in the way of make up or photo shopping to create them. We also get them to think about who decides what’s beautiful,” Bergmeier adds.
“Families can also help by promoting healthy relationships with food and exercise – talk about the benefits of healthy foods and do active things for fun, not to lose weight. “
If anyone you know has body image concerns or an eating disorder, contact Eating Disorders Victoria on 1300 550 236 or [email protected] or the Butterfly Foundation National Helpline on 1800 33 4673.