Some people might say that we live in a world focused on healthy eating and exercise. It’s nearly impossible to get through the day without being bombarded with commercials, both on TV and in print, that aim to help you lose weight, take off a few inches, or look miraculously younger in three easy steps. Others would argue that we live in a celebrity obsessed culture that emphasizes a certain beauty ideal. Magazines highlighting the “rights and wrongs” of celebrities line the check out aisles at supermarkets, pharmacies, and just about everywhere else. No matter how you look at it, the constant discussion about beauty and thinness is a dangerous game. Particularly now that body image issues have trickled down to the preschool level. Yes, you read that right. Preschoolers are starting to focus on body image.
A recent study by Jennifer Harringer at Pepperdine University in Malibu, CA, revealed some startling statistics. It’s only the beginning of what will be a much larger study, but the information gathered so far is important. Harringer studied 55 girls aged 3-5 to see what kind of messages they might have already internalized about body image. Given the age group, Harringer had to get creative in her study. She offered the girls three playing pieces to choose from for a game of Candyland or Chutes and Ladders. The pieces represented three different body types: Thin, average, and large. 69% of the girls chose the thin playing piece! 20% chose the average piece and 11% chose the largest. That’s not the worst part. When Harringer encouraged the girls to trade their pieces for her larger piece, 2/3 of the girls were reluctant or refused to trade. As if that’s not enough, when asked which piece they would like to have as a best friend, 71% chose the thinnest while just 7% chose the largest.
With preschoolers you always have to wonder how many of them were trying to get the “right” answer. It’s also important to consider the fact that most preschoolers are reluctant to trade a new toy right away anyway. Even given those considerations, the percentages are still fairly alarming. Preschool girls are showing a preference for thinness, even when choosing a friend.
In our house we try our best to focus on health, growth, and more importantly, personality traits. I’m fairly certain that my kids don’t even know the word “fat”. I do some editing when reading and the DVR takes care of commercials. Reading this study got me thinking about how to help young girls develop a healthy body image early on. As we know, negative body image correlates with eating disorders, depression, and low self-esteem. Below are some tips to help you help your daughters focus on health:
1. Send positive messages: When trying to encourage healthy eating around here, we are careful to focus on “growing tall like Daddy”, but some other research out of Melbourne, Australia shows that parents are clearly sending the message that boys need to eat more to build muscles while girls should eat less to appear attractive. They are studying four year olds. It’s frightening, really. Give compliments based on personality, skill development, and prosocial behavior, not appearance. Granted, kids like to be complimented on their fashion sense. As well they should be. But, for the most part, try to focus on kindness, generosity, ideas, humor, and creativity.
2. Be a good role model: Think about the messages you send when you have a bad day and criticize your own body. Avoid making negative self-statements in front of your kids. Show them healthy eating and moderate exercise. My kids eat early, so I don’t eat dinner with them, but I always have a salad during their dinnertime. Eat a lot of fruits and vegetables in front of them and make an effort to try new things. Talk about how different foods help you feel healthy.
3. Focus on health: Give them a quick, preschool level, lesson in biology. Explain that healthy foods help fuel your body to give you energy, help you grow, and help you learn. Avoid food battles! Liam has taught me the art of being patient with food. He is the pickiest eater on the planet. I offer new things and accept no as the answer. Teach them to listen to their bodies. It’s important for kids to recognize that you eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full. Don’t make dessert such a novelty that it becomes an obsession. A small bowl of pudding (if there is room after dinner) or other small treat teaches kids that moderation is the key.
4. Family exercise: Exercise is good for so many reasons. It gets our hearts pumping, it keeps us healthy, it helps us sleep, and decreases mood related issues, including anxiety and depression. Get moving as a family! Take long walks, go for a hike, swim, ride bikes, do some yoga. Find an activity that works for everyone and prioritize that on the weekends. It’s a great way to connect while staying healthy. Riley is currently obsessed with yoga, so I just ordered a new family yoga DVD. We are looking forward to it!
5. Positive reinforcement: News flash: Preschoolers love to be praised! Praise = encouragement. Have you ever noticed that telling your daughter that she’s a super fast runner causes her to run some more? Praise them for healthy choices and for their accomplishments. Happy kids are more likely to be motivated kids. Keep the positive vibes flowing.
6. Crack down on media: As I described Jennifer Harringer’s study to Sean the other night, it sparked a discussion about the ads that kids are repeatedly exposed to during “preschool programming”. We watch a few shows on Nick, Jr., one on Disney, and a couple on PBS at different times. The ads (with the exception of PBS, of course) always seem to be geared toward diet plans for moms, medicines, and include images that are not appropriate for preschoolers. Invest in the DVR/Tivo or DVD’s. We record and prescreen everything, which means that our kids never sit through a commercial. Riley was shocked to learn that her Mimi couldn’t tape her shows and fast forward through the commercials when we last visited CT! Avoid leaving your magazines lying around the house. While I don’t read the celebrity gossip magazines, I once caught Riley flipping through Marie Claire staring at the images. Even Self Magazine and Marie Claire like to feature perfection. Try to limit the exposure.
7. Be open to discussion: When a four year old says to her mother, “I’m fat”, it’s a natural inclination to respond, “No you’re not, you’re just right”. The problem is that this kind of a response shuts down the conversation. A better strategy is to ask follow up questions. Say something like, “what does fat mean to you?” Try to discuss the true meaning of negative body image words and refocus your child’s thinking on the meaning of healthy. It can be useful to cut out lots of different magazine pictures and discuss the differences between people. No two bodies are exactly alike. Try to focus on eye color, hair, height, and facial cues instead of size and shape. And those perfect bodies in the magazines and commercials? Those aren’t real. It’s ok to tell kids that people get dressed up differently for photographs and commercials, but that in real life they don’t always look that way.
Helping your child develop a healthy body image begins early. Try to pay attention to the messages you send, focus on healthy living, and praise your kids for the wonderful personalities that they have.
What do you think of these new studies? Are we sending the wrong messages to our kids?