As parents, we understand that our children’s body image plays an important role in their development, both in terms of self-esteem as well as general mental health. Thus, it’s not at all surprising that adolescents are perceived as one of the most vulnerable populations to society’s notion of the ‘ideal’ body. This vulnerability is due, in large part, to the influence of the media, particularly print media, where images of the idealized body type, both male and female, are targeted inordinately toward the ‘teen’ population.
Another vulnerable group, and one that appears to be growing at a alarming rate, is pre-adolescent children. For example, a substantial number of young children, particularly girls, seem dissatisfied with their body by the age of five, and their aim is often to become thinner. Moreover, many of these young girls are already engaging in dieting behaviors.
But what exactly does ‘healthy body image’ mean, and why does it have such an impact on one’s sense of well-being and self-worth? The term itself can be defined as the way one feels, thinks, and behaves in response to their physical attributes (Muth & Cash, 1997) What is so interesting about the development of one’s body image is that up to adolescence, body image is largely shaped externally by parents, siblings, the media, and one’s peers, but after this time, it is typically internalized to the point where it can persist over one’s lifetime, and is often resistant to change.
As mentioned above, parents play an important role in the shaping of their children’s body image, both directly and indirectly. As parents, we are frequently involved in the choice, preparation, and presentation of our children’s food, as well as their clothing. And, particularly in the case of younger children, we often hold a position of influence in our children’s lives in terms of establishing appropriate eating and exercising patterns – patterns that often remain in place long after childhood. In addition, we may be struggling with our own issues associated with our body image and, in the process, openly express concern or even dissatisfaction about our bodies in such a way that might potentially transmit a problematic message to our children. In other words, a critical eye aimed toward our own body may result in our children questioning their own body size and shape.
There are a number of gender differences in the factors that influence body image. For example, the media, print media in particular, has been viewed as an important influence on the body image of pre-adolescent and adolescent girls, but to a lesser extent for boys in the same age groups. In these magazines, girls learn about the ideal body image, and the ways in which they can attempt to obtain it (i.e., typically by employing weight loss strategies). Unfortunately, moving into puberty for girls makes it much more difficult to reach society’s idealized representation of a woman, since it involves an accumulation of fat stores around their hips and thighs – the parts of the body that typically cause the greatest amount of distress for females more generally. The opposite is true for males: puberty is the time when boys feel they move closer to the idealized male image, which they learn on television (the most influential form of media for males) consists of being muscular and strong. However, if in fact puberty fails to ‘deliver’ this well-toned image, then the post-pubescent male is likely to feel the pressure to conform in much the same way as his female counterpart.
The long-term impact of less favourable body evaluations for both boys and girls, regardless of whether they are pre- or post-pubescent, can be low self-esteem, depression, involvement in obsessive exercise and dieting behaviors, and the development of eating disorders, most typically anorexia and bulimia. And although the research suggests that females are still the most vulnerable to eating disorders (primarily due to their aim to lose weight), the incidence among the male population is rising.
In the end, helping our children develop healthy body images is clearly a challenge, mostly due to the myriad of influences that exist beyond ourselves that also contribute to the process. Regardless, we, as parents, do have influence in our children’s lives, and, as such, we can draw upon it in order to play a key role in terms of helping them create a positive, loving, and accepting view of their physical selves.
What Parents Can Do:
- model acceptance of, and respect for, your own body type. And, in doing so, limit negative self-talk about your body;
- in front of children, limit discussions about diets and other weight loss/weight gain strategies, particularly the use of supplements;
- model healthy lifestyle choices with respect to the foods you eat and the exercise you participate in, and make similar choices for your young children;
- from a very early age, let children know that their physical appearance is much less important than who they are as individuals. Be aware of the tendency to make negative comments about their bodies and the way they appear more generally;
- limit passive activities such as watching television, playing video games, and time on the Internet;
- distinguish between the healthy and unhealthy concerns your children have with respect to their eating and exercise behaviors, and;
- be vigilant about keeping the lines of communication open between yourselves and your children so they can potentially play a support role in your children’s lives if, in fact, they do suffer from a negative body image or poor self-esteem.
- The National Eating Disorder Information Centre: nedic.ca
- Hopewell Eating Disorders Support Centre of Ottawa: hopewell.on.ca
 Body-image attitudes: What difference does gender make? Muth, J. & Cash, T. (1997). Journal of Applied Social Psychology. Vol 27(16), Aug. 1997. 1438-1452