Body Image

Body Image in Toddlers and Preschoolers

22 September 2023
Posted by: Chelsea

Body image is normally categorised as being positive, negative or neutral. It’s simply a way of describing how we feel about our own bodies (or parts thereof) and that perception can change over time, as well as be influenced by our mood on a given day.

Body Image in Kids

It might be that we feel we’re too fat or too thin, our legs are too short/long or that our hair isn’t as nice as other people’s etc. The permutations are endless.

Although something normally associated with older children and adults, body image in toddlers and preschoolers can also be an important subject.

Toddlers and body image

Toddlers look at things and compare them. They might look at a dog and say it is bigger than another or a tree and wonder why it’s thinner than the one next to it.

This is a perfectly natural development and part of understanding the world around them.

Inevitably, they’ll apply the same processes to the bodies of other people and their own. Noticing that another child has black hair while theirs is red and questioning that is something to be encouraged. It’s also typically the case that toddler-aged children, if they have any such image, tend to think of their bodies positively.

However, even at these young ages, some toddlers may start making value judgements too. At this stage, they’re likely to be fairly innocuous but it’s something to be alert for because responding indifferently and stressing that these differences are unimportant helps set healthier attitudes as they age.

Pre-schoolers and body image

It’s in this age group that body image values may start to be picked up in more depth and unfortunately, some negative attitudes may start to take root.

There are many reasons why that happens. Although modern producers take care to try and avoid it, some classic children’s TV, books, videos and movies, contain body image values that are questionable by today’s standards.

Family values also play an important part. A pre-schooler who hears other older family members denigrating certain bodily characteristics or mocking those who possess them will very probably start to pick up similar body image values.

It’s also the case that children’s play can be cruel and unintentionally exclusive, with some children singling out another child’s physical attributes for attention or sometimes mockery. This can be part of children establishing a hierarchy in a group but the unintentional end result might be a child that very quickly forms a negative body image of themselves.

For all these reasons, parents and care providers need to be alert for such signs and it’s also advisable to take pre-emptive educational steps from an early age.

Children know they’re not equal

Most pre-schoolers will already have learned, through play with other children, one of life’s realities – that physically and developmentally, not all children are equal. Some may be physically stronger than others at a given age. Others may be faster and yet others further ahead in reading or speaking.

These things can be explained by stressing that children learn and grow at different speeds. The fact a child is taller than another at 4, is unimportant and doesn’t mean anything good or bad about their body. Almost all children will grasp this lesson and it is better than trying to convince them that such differences don’t exist.

There are some more subtle differences between children that need to be given context if body-image values aren’t to be picked up:

  • explain that children’s body shapes will vary hugely but that this doesn’t matter. Give some examples, trying to avoid value-laden adjectives like “fat”, “skinny” and “lanky”, preferring instead words like “bigger” and “smaller”;
  • talk about how we look being influenced by our parents and grandparents. Point out that people from different parts of the world may look different to each other but this is of no importance because everyone is the same underneath;
  • Try not to allow your child to comment extensively on the body shape of others, whilst recognising though that it’s perhaps inevitable due to natural curiosity. Don’t forbid it because then it becomes ‘forbidden fruit’ attractive but try to gently channel it so that their comments do not carry values with them. Take the conversation onto other subjects;
  • stress that the body shapes they see on TV or in videos are not the norm. A good technique is to point out that they might see superheroes that are a certain size and shape but in reality, nobody really looks like that.

It’s also a good idea to gently discuss their own body with them. Try to avoid direct questions, as that simply helps grow perceptions that body shape is of major importance. Something along the lines of “can you feel your body changing as you grow up?” might help you to detect if they’re unhappy with aspects of their body.

If you do suspect a young child is starting to suffer from negative body image issues, there are counsellors available who might be able to help establish the cause and correct it.

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