Body image issues can affect even young schoolagers



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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
Amazon.ca.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, July 2013.

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