From the ubiquitous photos of barely clad, bone-thin celebrities like Paris Hilton, and Lindsay Lohan, to the emaciated models strutting their stuff on the cat walk, children today are inundated with media images that present thinness as a standard of beauty and elegance. Seeing these images over and over may lead them to think that their own bodies are not acceptable, leading them to develop unhealthy body images. And unfortunately, such negative feelings can sap self-esteem and set the stage for eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia.
It is crucial for parents to help build a healthy body image for children to counter these images and stave off excessive dieting and destructive body image problems.
Did You Know?
Under the Affordable Care Act, many health insurance plans will provide free preventive care services, including checkups, vaccinations and screening tests, to children and teens. Learn more.
It's never too early to start building a healthy body image for children. About 30% of girls aged 10 to 14 are dieting, according to a study by the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto.
First, don't shoot the messenger. Instead of blaming the media, use it. Media images and messages can be the springboard for discussing healthy body images in children. Parents can discuss media messages that are inaccurate and unhealthy as well as positive media images, such as Dove's "Campaign for Real Beauty," which urges consumers to "be happy with who you are." The popular ads feature curvy, full-bodied, women -- not traditional waif-like models.
Signs Your Child Has a Negative Body Image
More importantly, knowing the warning signs of an unhealthy body image in children can help parents identify problems early. What to watch for:
Signals that a girl views herself only in terms of her physical appearance.
The language your daughter uses to describe herself and her physical development and attractiveness.
Frequent comments about the weight of other girls
Worries about sexual attractiveness
Depression and low self-esteem
Parents can help boost a poor body image by:
Helping children understand that their bodies will change and grow
Helping children understand that there is not one "ideal" body shape
Watching what they say about their own bodies and the comments they make about other people's bodies
Avoiding stereotypes, prejudices, and words like ugly and fat
Helping children focus on their abilities and personalities rather than their physical appearance
Promoting physical activity and exercise. Girls who play sports tend to have higher levels of self-esteem and healthier body images. "Be fit, not necessarily thin, and you will be healthy for life," is an excellent motto.
Discouraging children from weighing themselves too often
Warning Signs of an Eating Disorder
While body image issues can affect anyone, girls are more likely to suffer negative health outcomes associated with body dissatisfaction including eating disorders like anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa.
Symptoms of anorexia may include:
Losing lots of weight
Saying that she "feels fat"
Withdrawing from social activities
Symptoms of bulimia may include:
Making excuses to go to the bathroom immediately after meals
Eating huge amounts of food without weight gain
Using laxatives or diuretics
Withdrawing from social activities
If you notice any of these signs in your children, talk to a pediatrician. Remember, the key is prevention. Taking steps early on to build a healthy body image in children can help prevent the self-esteem issues that may lead to an eating disorder.
American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists: "Tool Kit fir Teen care: Media and Body Image."
Kids Health web site: "Kids and Eating Disorders."
About Kids Health web site, the Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto: "Promoting Positive Body Image in Our Kids."