Kids Can Develop Body Image Issues Way Earlier Than We Think

New research finds body image awareness starts as young as preschool. What's a parent to do?

ballerina girls in black and white
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My daughter was in first grade the first time she came home from a dance class and started talking about how she "wanted abs." It took me a few minutes to figure out she was actually saying she wanted a six-pack. But even so, I was totally taken aback. After all, she had just turned 7. Wasn't this a little early for her to be worried about what her midsection looked like?

Apparently not. Because according to a new study from the University of Illinois, kids are developing body image awareness much sooner than we think—sometimes as early as preschool! This is a pretty upsetting revelation, considering previous studies have shown that body image issues start around 8 or 9. But researchers interviewed 30 parents of preschoolers (ages 2 to 4), and found that while most of them thought their kids were too young to be concerned about their bodies, 40 percent of them went on to reveal that their children were already exhibiting at least one body-related behavior—things like discussing their weight, seeking praise for their looks and clothing, and imitating comments they heard adults make about size and weight.

You talking about wanting abs.

"Parents view early childhood as the 'age of innocence,' a time when children are free from body-image awareness or self-consciousness," explained lead author Janet Liechty, an eating disorders and body-image expert. "However, aspects of body-related self-concept such as healthy sexuality, body confidence, body acceptance, and early signs of body size preference are all influenced by family socialization processes beginning as early as preschool."

That's right: A big part of the problem is apparently us. The parents. Because according to the researchers, we are actually conveying messages to our preschoolers about their bodies on the regular without even realizing it every we time we compliment them on their appearance or complain about our own.

The good news? Now that we know our kids are thinking about their shape and size sooner than we thought, we have a chance to help them love their bodies. How? By emphasizing and affirming what our bodies can do, rather than focusing on appearance or weight. Because while frequent commentary about a child's physical appearance can be detrimental, the researchers say avoiding discussions of body image altogether can backfire, too.

"Without greater awareness, parents may be missing opportunities to foster body confidence and acceptance in the early years so that kids are better protected from negative body image in adolescence," explained co-author Julie Birky. "As a parent of preschoolers, it was empowering for me to realize that body image is being formed in these early years and to know that I can create a positive environment in my home."

For more tips on how to talk about body image with your kids, click here.

Hollee Actman Becker is a freelance writer, blogger, and a mom. Check out her website for more, and then follow her on Twitter at @holleewoodworld.

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