The Children’s Body Image Development Study is the world’s first longitudinal research study to examine body image in early childhood. Professor Susan Paxton, a clinical psychologist at La Trobe University, reveals the findings so far and how they will be used to help children develop positive body attitudes from a young age. 

Tell us about the Children’s Body Image Development Study (CBIS). 

Research suggests that individual and environmental factors can influence the development of a child’s body image and body size attitudes, and that early childhood is the formative time for these attitudes. The aim of CBIS is to investigate the development of body image and body size attitudes of young boys and girls and to learn more about the influences of age, gender, body size and the social environment on the body image of young children. We commenced interviews with about 290 three-year-old children in 2011, and have collected data each year from the same children, allowing us to track developmental patterns. We are now following these children through to the age of eight. Recently, we have started analysing the data from our interviews with the children from when they were three and four years old and will soon be writing findings. We are yet to commence our analysis of the data from the interviews when the children were five years old. 

What are the most critical insights have you gathered so far?

We have a number of very interesting findings. Body size attitudes – in which positive characteristics are associated with thinner figures and negative characteristics are associated with larger figures – start very early in life. They are frequently already present at three years old but by four years old children have developed quite strong weight biases. We don’t find any gender differences in these attitudes.

In relation to body image, four-year-old children typically perceived themselves to be quite thin and desired to be larger. Specifically, approximately 28 per cent of four-year-old boys and 38 per cent of four-year-old girls wanted to be a different body size, mostly a larger size. We think that four-year-old children associated being a bit bigger with growing up, and boys especially appear to want to be a bit bigger than they are.  Another interesting finding is that fathers’ body attitudes tend to have a stronger influence on their sons’ attitudes than mothers’ attitudes have on their daughters’ attitudes. We do, however, suspect that girls are being influenced by many other variables, such as media and peers.

Not surprisingly, in relation to dieting awareness, significantly more four-year-old than three-year-old boys and girls are aware of weight loss strategies. Interestingly, the proportion of boys who were aware of weight control methods was almost twice that of girls at the age of four. We think that girls frequently attribute weight gain in women to pregnancy! Children do say funny things about different weight loss strategies, such as “he shouldn’t eat Charlie’s chocolate” (referring to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). This does make interviewing children such a pleasure. 

Why do you think you are seeing these trends?

We think we are seeing body size stereotypes developing early in children as they are reflected in the world around them, and these attitudes reflect the societal importance of thinness for females and leanness and muscularity for males. These ideals are typically unachievable but are reflected in so many different ways, including media, but even children’s storybooks and cartoons. Very little real body dissatisfaction is seen at this young age (fortunately), but if a high value is placed on thinness or muscularity in the world around children, it is likely that they will come to value themselves according to their appearance. It is important to note that children’s development of body size attitudes and body image is the result of a range of individual and environmental factors. We are soon to move forward with investigating the role of peers and the media. 

What are the long term implications of these findings?

This is the first research to longitudinally investigate the development of young children’s body size attitudes and body image. Therefore, it is not known exactly what impact the development of stereotypical body size attitudes in early childhood will have later in life. We do, however, know that body dissatisfaction can increase the risk of developing disordered eating in later life; and we suspect that if children internalise these stereotypes but later feel they are not living up to these ideals, problems might arise. Thus, preventing the development of stereotypical body size attitudes along with body dissatisfaction in early childhood is important.

How will the findings of the study be used to benefit the community?

The findings from CBIS will provide critical information to inform the development of interventions that will support a healthy start to life for Australian children – in particular, healthy body size attitudes and body image. Building on information from this study, our team has recently developed a resource, Confident Body Confident Child, for parents of young children, which will be available soon. We aim to provide information that will support and guide parents in creating an environment in which their children can develop a positive body image and a healthy relationship with food, with the aim to avoid the future development of body dissatisfaction and disordered eating.

Can families continue to participate in the study? 

Yes! We are entering another phase of the project and invite parents of five-year-old boys and girls who live in Metropolitan Melbourne to contact the research team at cbis@latrobe.edu.au if they are interested in being involved. We appreciate the amazing children and parents who have been involved over the past several years, and are very grateful for their ongoing support and the time they have taken to participate! 

Read more about the Children’s Body Image Development Study.