One three-year-old regularly called himself ‘fat’. He used to hold his stomach at nappy-changing time and say, ‘Look at all this fat.’ The manager of his nursery, Emma Davis, says, ‘He used to struggle during some physical activities and would shy away from running and jumping. He had a poor self-image.’
Concerns over body image – long associated with adolescents – are increasingly found in our very youngest children. According to Fiona MacCallum, associate professor, department of psychology at Warwick University, ‘Children become aware of stereotypes about body from three years old. They have a preference, if they are shown figures to play with, for thinner ones. They are not just seeing that person as fat and it’s bad for them – they don’t want to play with them because they are unpopular.
‘From the age of about six we get girls who are dissatisfied with their shape.’
Lala Manners, director of training consultancy Active Matters, adds, ‘Ask a group of four-year-olds what they really think about “fatties” and they will say they are “useless”, “smelly”, “lazy”, “funny”.’
Research has also found that girls who played more with Disney characters – which embody stereotypical depictions of women – would display more stereotypical behaviour, which might include less confidence at ‘boys’ games or subjects such as maths and science.
In settings, the extent of the problem was revealed last year in PACEY research which found that nearly a third of practitioners have heard a child call themselves fat. Shockingly, around one in five childcare workers has seen children reject food because they say ‘it will make them fat’.
In the long term, this self-image matters. Dr MacCallum says, ‘We know that negative body image is related to depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and eating disorders. Studies show that girls are reporting things like not speaking up in class because they are concerned about their appearance, which has an impact on their educational achievement – which has an impact on their job. So we are talking long-term issues here. This has social implications – it is related to how comfortable we feel in relationships, for example.’
Who’s to blame?
Where do young children learn to be critical of their appearance? In the case of the three-year-old who commented on his fat belly, Ms Davis says she ‘discovered that the words he used to describe himself were used at home by older siblings’.
Children are in fact programmed from the beginning to mirror an adult’s self-criticism, says Jacqueline Harding, who co-authored a toolkit on body image for PACEY. ‘Around 18 months to three years of age, children begin to be really conscious for the first time. You get self-awareness from around the age of three.
‘[Children are] dependent on adults to tell them who they are. That is the weakness of developmental design – children are incredibly needy. If they notice that staff are concerned about something, they will pick it up just by listening to them.’
Dr MacCallum says, ‘If they hear an adult talking about appearance all the time, they will think it is important. [There is] self-discrepancy theory – adults thinking “this is how I ought to be” and comparing it to how they really are. If children learn that one of these comparisons is appearance, and particularly weight, they are going to internalise that.’
Professor MacCallum, who has done research into the influence of the media – including cartoons, social media, and apps – says children also internalise media messaging.
‘The parent’s own views are a strong aspect, but you see parents who might be trying very hard to not follow gender stereotypes for their children, and their children still develop these very strong stereotypes from peers and the media.’
Peer pressure – not usually deliberate – also starts young. Dr Manners says, ‘Children are much more honest – and often unintentionally cruel about other children who are overweight. They will use the term “fat” quite happily.
‘We know that overweight children are frequently ostracised – on the Australian Early Years Census (which all children experience in their first two weeks of starting school) – overweight children score 30 per cent lower than those of normal weight on social/communication skills.’
She points out though that children are naturally disposed to care more about what they are able to do with their bodies. ‘‘For young children, physical confidence and competence determine how they play, who they play with, who they admire, and what they want to be like. If they can’t join in, because they can’t keep up – they can’t run, jump, climb or catch, they can’t do basic things like sit on the floor (cross their legs) – they end up isolated and unhappy.’
What can be done?
One apparently simple thing adults (practitioners and parents) can do is simply not to make appearance, and weight, a big thing. Professor MacCallum says it means ‘not talking to children so much about what they look like. Discouraging that kind of talk around children can make them more resilient to those messages in the media. We say things like “Don’t you look pretty, what a pretty dress”. We should say “That outfit looks like it would be good for playing in” – focus on the function rather than appearances. We should be thinking about bodies as a mechanism for running or jumping – saying things like “You jumped a really long way”.’
Ms Harding agrees. ‘There is a lack of understanding about how the brain works. Even when I was a head teacher, I would have parents talking about the child in front of the child in ways they really shouldn’t have. It isn’t about not discussing these things [e.g. obesity]. We all just need reminding about being careful about what we say. Just because children are half the size doesn’t mean they’ve got half the hearing.’
How easy will being careful about what language we use, and image we project, be when feelings of insecurity over appearance are often so ingrained? And for all the concern over appearance, aren’t we facing an obesity crisis? For Ms Manners, more awareness of what true health is, and willingness to put it into practice, is needed. ‘As a community, the early years workforce is generally in poor physical shape – and in denial. This definitely impacts their positive engagement with physical activity – they can often be “avoidant”, doing as little as possible, handing it over to the men in their setting, or outsourcing to commercial companies. Yet Physical Development is a Prime Area of the EYFS.’
In the case of Ms Davis, working with parents, external agencies, self-esteem-building activities and new ways to promote healthy food were the answer. She says, ‘We felt it was important for his parents to know what their child had been saying, which reflected his opinion of himself.
‘In a meeting with the parent and the child’s key person, we talked about how these words were making him feel and how they impacted his involvement in physical activities. We initiated lots of small group activities, focusing on building his self-confidence and self-esteem. All staff offered lots of praise and reassurance to build his opinion of himself. The child began attending our PE sessions and with his renewed confidence in himself, joined in with enthusiasm.
‘During this time, we also sought advice and guidance from the health visiting team, with the parents’ permission. We also initiated Fruity Fridays when the children were encouraged to bring in a piece of fruit from home to share with their friends. The child enjoyed this and tried many different fruits – information which we fed back to the parents. We promoted healthy packed lunches for all children and implemented a packed lunch policy. Although when the child left us, he still had issues with his weight, his confidence and opinion of himself was much improved, impacting his Personal, Social and Emotional Development.’
Dr Manners adds, ‘Practitioners’ roles should be to actively support overall health and well-being – healthy weight, good sleep patterns, minimising sedentary behaviour in children – and not focus on body image. The world children enter into at an ever younger age (in which body image is paramount) makes it imperative that children learn to value their bodies – so they can make the right decisions for themselves as they grow.’
A practitioner’s view
Rachael Johnson, 25, worked at Penketh South Nursery in Cheshire until last summer.
She says, ‘It would come in peaks and troughs – if we were talking about healthy eating, it would come up. It was the little comments from two-, three-, four-year-olds which are quite scary. They would ask me, “Am I fat?”, or with someone’s lunch box one might say, “You shouldn’t be eating crisps, they are unhealthy.” My three-year-old niece and nephew will ask if the food they eat is healthy.’
Ms Johnson was diagnosed with anorexia when she was 14 and was in and out of hospital when she was taking her GCSEs. Her weight fell to a low of 4.5 stone.
‘I look at it from the perspective that all food is good, just everything in moderation,’ she says.
‘I think a lot of them are brighter than we give them credit for – they see things on the telly – I don’t think people don’t realise these messages go in.
‘It’s trying to make it not such a big deal. Trying to explain everybody is different and you need different foods in your diet.
‘As a team we were aware of anything that we said. Any diet talk would be left for the staff room.
‘It is sad that children need reassurance that it is OK to eat crisps and biscuits as a treat. And it seems to be younger and younger children who need it.’
‘Celebrating me: An Early Years Guide’ from PACEY is free to members, £3.50 to non-members, http://bit.ly/2tI011Y