"Mommy, Am I Fat?"

Shocking but true: Kids as young as 5 worry about their weight, their height, and their looks. That's why it's crucial to boost your child's body image early in life.

Body Image Problems Start Early

Kiah Hart scrutinized herself in the dressing-room mirror. "These pants make my butt look big!" complained the petite 10-year-old. "I'm so fat!" Kiah has been self-conscious about her weight since age 7, says her mom, Katie, of Portland, Oregon. And Kiah's insecurities are echoed by kids across America -- many of whom, like Kiah, are not overweight at all. In Centereach, New York, 10-year-old Patrick Brady refuses seconds and dessert, saying "I don't want to get fat." His mother, Lorel, says that even at age 6, her lanky son pulled his belt tightly to accentuate his trim waist. What's going on here? "There is huge societal pressure to have the ideal physique, and it's affecting girls and boys at alarmingly young ages," says Alison E. Field, Sc.D., an assistant professor in the department of pediatrics and medicine at Harvard Medical School, in Boston. Recent studies reveal that children as young as 5 worry about their weight. Girls want to be smaller, and boys, more muscular. Influenced by the media, peers, and even their parents, some kids are forming unrealistic body images.

And this quest for perfection extends beyond weight. "Kids are growing up with an all-or-nothing mentality about appearance," says Kathy Kater, a social worker in St. Paul, Minnesota, who specializes in preventing eating disorders. "The message children hear is that if they're not as thin or tall or beautiful or handsome as they possibly can be, they're inadequate." This can cause a dissatisfaction with their looks that might lead to early dieting or bodybuilding and perhaps even depression and eating disorders.

Research shows that by middle school, as many as half of all girls feel bad about the way they look. That's why it's so important to nurture body confidence in the preschool and elementary-school years, when self-image is being formed. Here's how parents can help their children become more comfortable with the bodies they were born to have.

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