Children are expressing dissatisfaction with their body size as early as 8-9 years old and the majority of 10-11 years old are trying to control their weight, according to a new research by the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS).
Executive Manager of AIFS Longitudinal Study for Australian Children, Dr Ben Edwards said the research also showed the children who were dissatisfied with their body image were more likely to have poorer social and emotional wellbeing and physical health.
The research paper, body image of primary school children looked at more than 4000 Australian children aged 8-9 years old and again at age 10-11 to understand how children perceive their body size, what was the desired body size, whether children were controlling their weight and the impacts on their social, emotional and physical wellbeing.
Dr Edwards said the research found more than half of children aged between 8 to 11 years old desired a body size slightly thinner than the average but there was higher dissatisfaction among younger children.
“Our research shows that regardless of age or whether they were underweight, normal weight or overweight, at least two in five children desired a body size slightly thinner than the average body size,” he said.
“Despite a desire for a thinner body, younger children (8-9 year olds) were less likely to report their body size accurately with most children underestimating their body size.
“Compared to 10-11 year olds, a large number of 8-9 year old boys and girls were dissatisfied with their body size with many children wanting to be thinner than the average body size.
“By the time children reached 10-11 years, they were much more accurate in gauging their correct body size and were more likely to be satisfied with their body image.
“The good news was that as children were growing up the proportion of those who were satisfied with their body image was increasing among underweight and normal weight children although it was still decreasing among overweight children.”
AIFS Research Fellow, Dr Galina Daraganova said the research also found the majority of the older aged children had tried to manage their weight in the past 12 months.
“The research found 61% of boys and 56% of girls (10-11 year olds) had tried to manage their weight over the last 12 months,” she said.
“While there were no differences between boys and girls trying to lose weight, more boys tried to gain weight and less did nothing to control their weight compared to girls of the same age.
“In addition, the research shows the proportion of children who were trying to lose or gain weight was greater among those who were dissatisfied with their body image.
“Our analysis also shows a large proportion of mothers expressed concern that their children were eating either too much or too little, and that this depended on both children’s body mass status (underweight, normal, or overweight) and whether children were dissatisfied with their body image.”
“For example, mothers of underweight boys who were dissatisfied with their body were more likely to be concerned that the child was eating too little compared to mothers of underweight boys who were satisfied with their body image.”
Dr Daraganova said the research confirmed a strong relationship between social, emotional and physical wellbeing and children’s happiness about their body size.
“The research found that children who were satisfied with their body image were more likely to have good social-emotional and physical health compared to those who were dissatisfied with their body size,” she said.
“Boys and girls who were dissatisfied with their body image were less likely to feel fit, full of energy or enjoy physical activity.
“In addition, children who were experiencing dissatisfaction with their body were more likely to report difficulties with their peers as well as high levels of emotional and behavioural problems.”
Dr Daraganova said it was important that children be encouraged to manage their weight within a healthy range while maintaining healthy self-esteem and socio-emotional wellbeing.
Parents can help children build self-confidence by:
- Being a good role model
Parents can encourage children to feel good about themselves by showing them how it’s done and being aware of the impact of negative body talk around them.
- Getting them into the exercise habit
Studies show that people who appreciate what their body can do, rather than what it looks like, feel good about their body and tend to have higher self-esteem. Exercising yourself and encouraging children to sends a great message. Team sports also foster camaraderie and are about how you play – not what you look like.
- Helping your child feel confident
By fostering a strong sense of identity and self-worth through problem solving, expression of feelings, opinions and individuality.
If you’re concerned about your child, it may also be a good idea to check-in with school about what is being done to foster a health body image.
Other helpful avenues include your doctor, local community health centre or dietitian or nutritionist. The Dietitians' Association are available to assist on 1800 812 942.