Body image issues can affect even young schoolagers

By Erin Dym on June 14, 2013
The statistics are startling. Studies show that 81 percent of 10-year-olds are afraid of getting fat and 51 percent of nine-and-10-year-olds feel better about themselves when they are on a diet.

Body image expert Marci Warhaft-Nadler was so surprised at these fi gures that she began developing body image workshops for students beginning in Grade 5.

“For so many people, it’s hard to believe that school-age kids worry about this stuff,” says Marci, author of The Body Image Survival Guide for Parents: Helping Toddlers, Tweens and Teens Thrive. “I’ve met kids who are five years old and are afraid to wear their winter coat because they think it makes them look fat. I’ve heard kids call each other fat. It’s the go-to word when you want to hurt someone’s feelings.”

Boys are not immune either. “They don’t talk about it, but boys feel it as deeply as girls. If they are small they feel wimpy; if they are big they feel fat. Boys are feeling things we never thought they’d be feeling.” (For more, read Batman Ate My Son.)

She says that the trouble often starts at home. “Kids repeat what they are hearing at home, and parents are a huge infl uence. We need to look at ourselves and be conscious of whether we are talking about fat, calories and our appearance. It’s become so natural to talk about these things that we may be giving kids messages that we don’t really want them to hear.”

Marci always advises parents to look at any changes in their child’s eating habits or behaviour and address issues head on. You want to provide them with information, but it needs to be age appropriate. Here are a few of Marci’s tips:

  • Focus on health, not weight.
  • Show that exercise is fun by going to the park or for a bike ride together.
  • Try new, healthy foods. It can be fun going to the grocery store together and trying something new each week.
  • Monitor the kinds of messages kids are getting. Supervise their time online, remove fashion magazines from the house and talk about weight-loss commercials they might see on TV. Be vocal and explain to your kids that lose-weight-quick schemes are silly.
  • Keep conversations at home fat-free and don’t obsess over your appearance in front of your kids.
  • Compliment kids on characteristics other than their appearance, such as being smart, funny or interesting. “Body image is a symptom of bigger issues, like not feeling smart enough,” says Marci.
  • Get kids involved in a hobby, even if it isn’t physical, and support them. Finding something they like to do gives them a reason to feel good about themselves. It also introduces them to a group of like-minded peers outside of their school friends.
  • Spend lots of time with your kids to give them the message that they are worth spending time with. Says Marci, “Sometimes, when a child is feeling stressed or anxious about something else, such as school, friends or family, they can take it out on their bodies because it seems like it’s the one thing they can control when life seems uncontrollable.”

By the numbers:

  • The number of children under 12 who were hospitalized for eating disorders increased by 119 percent between 1999 and 2000, according to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.
  • According to a 2009 study by the University of Central Florida, nearly half of three- to six-yearolds worried about being fat. 
  • In 1970, the average age of girls who started dieting was 14. By 1990, it had dropped to eight. 
  • 53 percent of 13-year-old girls are unhappy with their bodies. 
  • The number one wish of girls 11 to 17 is to lose weight. 
  • It is estimated that by the time a girl is 17 she will have seen approximately 250,000 messages from the media telling her what she’s supposed to look like.

From The Body Image Survival Guide for Parents: Helping Toddlers, Tweens and Teens Thrive, by Marci Warhaft-Nadler, available at

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, July 2013.

By Erin Dym | June 14, 2013

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