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Body image is a broad concept that refers to the way people think and feel about their appearance1. It encompasses ideas about size and shape, skin colour, birthmarks, scars, facial features, clothing and adornments related to personal religious beliefs, physical disabilities, and the use of equipment and aids like prostheses or wheelchairs. There are a range of factors that contribute to a child’s body image, and messages from family members, other important adults, peers and the media all play a significant role2.

Why is positive body image important?

Positive body image helps children to feel good about themselves and supports their mental health and wellbeing in childhood and beyond. Children with a positive body image are comfortable with their physical appearance and are more likely to think about their body in terms of its functionality rather than its form – that is, they focus mostly on the way their body helps them to do the things they want to do like playing sport, climbing trees or walking the dog, rather than how their body looks. Children with positive body image might not be completely satisfied with their appearance, but they concentrate on assets rather than flaws. This way of thinking contributes to a positive sense of self-worth. It helps children to detect and fulfil the body’s needs, which means they might be more likely to appreciate the value of exercise and make healthy food choices that help the body to perform well. Unfortunately, it is common for both boys and girls to experience negative thoughts or feelings about their appearance or dissatisfaction with the way their bodies look 3.

When children have issues with self-worth and body image, they are at an increased risk for developing unhealthy attitudes to eating and issues with dieting4 as well as low mood5. Evidence suggests that low self-worth and body dissatisfaction might play a role in the development of serious mental health issues like depression and eating disorders in adolescence and beyond6

Why should primary schools and early childhood services be involved in promoting positive body image?

Body image has traditionally been seen as the domain of secondary schools, but there are many reasons why primary schools and even early childhood services should be involved in promoting a positive body image.

  • Children are already developing ideas about body image. Research suggests that girls as young as five years old who are exposed to music videos or women’s magazines are more likely to be aware of diet practices and cultural pressures to be thin7. Concerns about personal appearance seem to emerge around the age of six or seven years old.
  • During primary school, friendships are very important. Peer relationships can have a strong influence on how children feel about their body. Ideas about how other primary school girls feel about their bodies inform girls’ own body image.
  • Acting early might be the best approach. It has been suggested that programs targeting younger children that increase a healthy sense of self-worth and reduce or prevent body image concerns might be more effective because beliefs become more entrenched in adolescence9.
  • Issues with body image might have more serious consequences for younger children. If body dissatisfaction results in dieting or other eating issues, it might cause significant harm to children’s growth and development during a critical period10.

What can primary schools and early childhood services do to promote positive body image?

Schools and early childhood services might like to use these strategies to help build positive body image in children.

  • Develop effective policy and practices that prescribe appearance-related teasing and bullying, and support children who are teased or bullied as a result of their appearance, body size or shape, or ethnicity.
  • Support children to develop a strong sense of self and skills to buffer unhelpful messages about body image.
  • Display posters and other materials that reflect the diversity of students in terms of body shape, size and ethnicity – that is, ensuring the school or early childhood environment is welcoming to children and families, regardless of appearance.
  • Provide education on fitness and nutrition that has a positive focus on energy, fun, social connection and health, rather than a negative focus on weight and dietary control.
  • Ensure food served in schools is nutritious and balanced, including meals and snacks served within school facilities like tuckshops or vending machines, as well as at events such as fundraisers and sports days.
  • Provide information for families in the school or service newsletter or on the website that looks at how to support children to develop a positive body image and a strong sense of self.
  • Learn to recognise the early signs of body dissatisfaction and disordered eating and refer children and their families to health professionals accordingly.

How does KidsMatter Primary help?

KidsMatter Primary supports schools to promote mental health and wellbeing among children. The four components of KidsMatter Primary support the efforts of schools to promote a healthy body image in children.

Component 1: Positive school community supports schools to focus on building a positive school culture that provides safety and security for children, promotes a sense of belonging and supports the development of positive relationships. Positive communities celebrate diversity, ensure everyone feels welcome and make people feel special and valued for qualities, talents and skills that are unrelated to appearance.

Component 2: Social and emotional learning for students helps schools to think about how to embed the teaching of social and emotional skills into the curriculum, with opportunities for children to practise these skills across a range of contexts. Skills to help children cope with difficult emotions and develop a strong self-concept can help buffer negative messages about body image. Teaching children to see others’ perspectives and cultivate compassion for others can reduce appearance-related teasing and bullying.

Component 3: Working with parents and carers encourages schools to build strong relationships with the families in their community and create opportunities for families to get involved. The attitudes of parents and other significant adults about their own appearance and related issues like dieting have a strong bearing on children’s body image. The most effective efforts to promote positive body image will involve a collaborative effort between schools and families.

Component 4: Helping children with mental health difficulties supports school staff to recognise signs that a child might be experiencing social or emotional difficulties and take appropriate action. Given its links with mental health concerns like low mood, poor self-esteem and disordered eating, body dissatisfaction can grow into a serious issue. Knowing what to look for and how to respond allows school staff to act early.

What can you do at your school or service?

There are a number of strategies that schools and early childhood services can employ to promote a positive body image in children. Some involve a policy response, while others involve action at the individual level. This work can be integrated into the work schools are already doing to support children’s mental and physical health. The following questions might present a starting point for your school or service to think about body image.

  • What are you currently doing to promote healthy self-worth and positive body image among children?
  • What are the opportunities and challenges associated with promoting positive body image among children at your school or service?
  • What messages about body image are conveyed in the physical environment of the school or service – for example, in the rooms, hallways, office and school tuckshop?
  • What policies and procedures protect children who are teased or bullied about their appearance? Do these policies and procedures protect older children in the online arena as well?
  • How are body image issues (including healthy eating, exercise, identifying and managing emotions, and self-esteem) addressed in the curriculum at your school?
  • What information does your school or service provide for families about supporting children to develop positive body image?
  • How does your behaviour communicate a ‘body image friendly’ message to children?
  • What signs might indicate that a child needs help with issues of self-worth or body image?

Further information

  • Eating Disorders and/or Body Issues in Young People is a manual prepared by the Tasmanian Department of Health and Community Services, Community Nutrition Unit, to assist schools in supporting positive body image in students. It provides background information, activity ideas and suggestions for creating a supportive environment.  
  • Eating Disorder Resource for Schools [594KB] is a manual prepared by Eating Disorders Victoria to promote early intervention and prevention of eating disorders in schools. It provides information for secondary schools and some information also applies to a primary school context. 
  • Response Ability is an initiatve of the Australian federal government to support teachers and early childhood educators in the areas of children's mental health and wellbeing.  This is their fact sheet on Eating Disorders.

References

1. Smolak, L., & Levine, M. P. (2001). Body image in children. In J. Kevin Thompson & Linda Smolak (Eds.), Body image, eating disorders, and obesity in youth: Assessment, prevention, and treatment. (pp. 41-66): American Psychological Association.

2. Vander Wal, J. S., & Thelen, M. H. (2000). Predictors of body image dissatisfaction in elementary-age school girls. Eating Behaviors, 1(2), 105-122.

3. Ricciardelli, L. A., & McCabe, M. P. (2001). Children’s body image concerns and eating disturbance: A review of the literature. Clinical Psychology Review, 21(3), 325-344.

4. Davison, K. K., Markey, C. N., & Birch, L. L. (2003). A longitudinal examination of patterns in girls’ weight concerns and body dissatisfaction from ages 5 to 9 years. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 33(3), 320-332.

5. Paxton, S. J., Neumark-Sztainer, D., Hannan, P. J., & Eisenberg, M. E. (2006). Body dissatisfaction prospectively predicts depressive mood and low self-esteem in adolescent girls and boys. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 35(4), 539-549.

6. Ferreiro, F., Seoane, G., & Senra, C. (2014). Toward understanding the role of body dissatisfaction in the gender differences in depressive symptoms and disordered eating: A longitudinal study during adolescence. Journal of Adolescence, 37(1), 73-84.

7. Dohnt, H. K., & Tiggemann, M. (2006). Body image concerns in young girls: The role of peers and media prior to adolescence. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 35(2), 141-151.

8. Dohnt, H. K., & Tiggemann, M. (2005). Peer influences on body dissatisfaction and dieting awareness in young girls. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 23(1), 103-116.

9. Holt, K. E., & Ricciardelli, L. A. (2008). Weight concerns among elementary school children: A review of prevention programs. Body Image, 5(3), 233-243.

10. Wood, K. C., Becker, J. A., & Thompson, J. K. (1996). Body image dissatisfaction in preadolescent children. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 17(1), 85-100.

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