Whe all want our children to be happy and resilient, confident in their own skin and positive about who they are. Sadly, however, we’re seeing a shift in how children view themselves. Body image concerns have traditionally been associated with teenagers, but nowadays many children are worrying about their looks from a much earlier stage.
We’re now noticing that even really young children in nursery and reception are showing signs of body anxiety, with PACEY finding in a recent survey that 24% of childcare professionals have seen body confidence issues in children aged 3 to 5.
Why is this happening? Children soak up the messages that surround them, and early experiences are crucial to their development. Today, children are growing up in an image-based culture filled with Photoshopped celebrities, ‘perfect’ selfies and social media, which encourages people to attain a certain kind of look. Even children’s superhero costumes now include a padded 6-pack.
Society is currently broadcasting a message that children are hearing loud and clear: ‘What you look like is the most important thing about you.’ And it’s hard to protect our children from it.
Body image matters, because self-acceptance is a central building block of our self-esteem. Having a healthy body image has a positive influence on our emotional, physical and social wellbeing. We know that our children are beginning to feel self-critical and anxious. Mental health concerns are becoming increasingly commonplace in schools, and it’s our duty to help children build their emotional resilience so that they’re less influenced by the pressures around them.
Early support has a long-lasting positive effect. Research tells us that a child’s self-esteem at the age of eight is the most significant factor in whether they’ll go on to develop eating disorders during adolescence. Does your school build body confidence in pupils of every age? Do you:
• Actively celebrate diversity and difference?
• Teach children to question what they see in the media?
• Focus on what bodies can do and how to look after them, rather than what they look like?
Moreover, are you starting this work as early as possible?
We recently wrote a story in order to reach younger pupils. The resulting book, Minnie and Max are OK!, is intended to help 3 to 7-year-olds build self-esteem and a healthy body image, and is based on research into what actually helps children to feel body positive. It follows the journey of a small girl and her dog who begin to recognise their own qualities and appreciate how important it is that we all look different. The story can provide a starting point for parents and teachers to talk about this important issue with young children – because in our view, the earlier we can start, the better.
Nicky Hutchinson and Chris Calland are both former teachers, now working as education consultants providing training and advice on behaviour, emotional health and wellbeing; for more details, visit notjustbehaviour.co.uk or follow @youngbodyimage