“Body image” is a term used to describe a person’s thoughts and feelings about their body, and the way they act on those thoughts and feelings. Many people believe body image is a concept only teenagers and adults grapple with, but research shows children develop a sense of body image from a very young age.
As toddlers develop physically, cognitively, and socially, their awareness of their own body develops too. By the time they are 2 or 3 years old, children are aware of their bodies and may begin to develop concerns, taking their cue from peers, adults, and media. You may hear your child be self critical of their hair, height, the profile of their nose or anything that they feel doesn’t fit an “ideal.” Body shape and size are also common concerns. A 2015 review of various studies by Common Sense Media shows that children as young as 5 express dissatisfaction with their bodies and point to images of thinner bodies as “ideal” body types. Body dissatisfaction in children is linked to depression, low self esteem, and eating disorders, and it can have a negative effect on social skills, physical abilities, and academic success.
Body image messaging starts from home, and that’s true of positive messages, too. Here are some strategies for promoting a healthy relationship between toddlers and their bodies from an early age.
- Model positive body image: Hearing parents say negative things about themselves can cause toddlers and children to look for the same qualities in themselves, even at a young age, and studies show that children whose parents don’t like their bodies are more likely to dislike their own bodies. Reframing the way your family talks about appearance can help fight this effect. “I’m going to change into something I like better,” is a more positive message for a young child to internalize than, “These pants make me look fat.” “I’m going to brush my hair,” is more constructive than, “My hair looks awful.” Avoid comments like “these pants make me look fat,” or “I can’t go out, my hair looks awful.” Small shifts in language like this help you avoid assigning negative words and descriptions to your body and can make a huge difference to what your child picks up from hearing you. Essentially, if it would bother you to hear Baby say it to themself in the mirror, it’s probably a good idea not to say it to yourself, either.
- Compliment Baby: Hearing positive statements about themselves helps children to develop positive feelings about themselves. These compliments can start anywhere – tell Baby they have a lovely smile, their hair looks great, or the clothes they're picked out look awesome, but don’t stop there. Compliment what’s inside too. Let them know you love how generous they are when they share, or how hard they work at completing a task, or how good they are at art. Make it a point to point out and compliment things about family, friends, and other people too. Talking about what people do rather than what they look like whenever you can takes some of the emphasis off of appearance as a factor in self-esteem or value.
- Teach the value of inner beauty: Spending more time discussing what’s inside, and less time discussing what’s outside, shows your child what matters most. Have conversations about qualities and behaviors that you value more than appearance. Make small talk about how smart or talented celebrities are, instead of mentioning their looks. Ask your children “what makes a good friend?” Discuss what to do if your child hears someone at school being criticised for their body or appearance, and role play some situations where your child can practice saying “it’s what’s inside that matters,” or “I don’t care, he’s my friend and I like him the way he is.”
- Talk about what bodies can do: Instilling a grounded sense of what bodies are for will help your child avoid focusing on surface characteristics. When you talk about fictional characters, friends, family or yourself focus on physical abilities and link back to their bodies. Say things like, “she has strong legs, you can tell by how fast she runs!” Model this by saying things about your own body like, “I’m glad I have big arms, they are perfect for hugging you!” and “I feel so energetic when I feed my body healthy food!” Ask your child “how does your body feel when you exercise?” Tell them, “I bet all those carrots are going to make your eyes great at seeing!”
- Handle stereotypes proactively: Avoiding stereotypes is impossible. Teaching your child to recognize stereotypes in action will help them develop critical thinking while protecting them from internalizing negative messages. Seek out TV shows, movies, and other media that portray healthy body sizes, diverse characters, and that focus plotlines around morals, values, or problem solving. When you see a stereotype in action, call it out and talk about it with Baby. “I think girls can be strong too. I wonder what this movie would be like if the knight was a girl?” “The princess in this movie is skinny. I think girls of all sizes can be princesses too, don’t you?”
Your toddler’s relationship with their own body is important to their mental and physical health, both now and as they grow. By being mindful of how you talk about your own body and the bodies of other people you’ll be able to start to lay a foundation for positive body image for Baby that will last them a lifetime.
- Braun, A. “5 Ways to Prevent Body Image Issues.” Parents Magazine, 2013. Web.
- Filucci, S. “5 Ways Parents of Preschoolers Can Raise a Body-Positive Kid”. Common Sense Media. Common Sense Media, December 25 2016. Web.
- Pai, S., Schryver, K. “Children, Teens, Media and Body Image: A common Sense Media Research Brief.” Common Sense Media. Common Sense Media, 2015. Web.
- Wallace, K. “Kids as young as five concerned about body image”. CNN. CNN, February 13 2015. Web.