Many people don’t associate low body confidence with early years, instead believing it develops during adolescence. However, the way we feel about our bodies starts much earlier than we think.
We know that children as young as five have been known to use the word ‘fat’ when describing themselves and 40% of under 10s worried about their weight. As we continue to operate in a society that puts appearance above health, these shocking statistics are only set to increase.
As psychotherapist specialising in body image, Holli Rubin, says:
“Research continually proves the development of body image starts earlier than one might think, from the way a mother transmits messages to her baby during pregnancy, to the way our adult conversations as parents or practitioners can be interpreted by innocent ears.
“Although they may seem insignificant, these small actions are having a detrimental impact on children’s relationships with their bodies, meaning that many children are growing up feeling uncomfortable in their own bodies affecting their self esteem."
Tackling the problem
Ensuring we give our children a body confident start in life is essential and is a core objective of ‘Be Real; body confidence for everyone’, a new national campaign to change attitudes to body image and help all of us put health above appearance and be confident in our bodies.
Be Real unites schools, businesses, charities, public bodies and individuals to change behaviour and celebrate real, healthy and diverse bodies. It was formed in response to a report from the All Party Parliamentary Group for Body Image and is chaired by MP Caroline Nokes and run by YMCA.
For the first time, this national movement aims to drive change through three priority areas, promoting healthy living, recognising diversity in media and advertising and educating children and young people from an early age. As people who work with young children, we have a role to play in delivering positive body image messages to children, a task that is no mean feat.
So what can you do to help?
Be Real wants to give children and young people a body confident start to life so that they can achieve everything they want to. From playing the sports they enjoy, to going for the job they’ve dreamed of, we cannot allow our children to be held back by low body confidence.
Starting early with positive messages about the body is the best thing we can do for young children. By helping them to understand early that their bodies are incredible, we can help protect our children from the very early onset of negative messages that will inevitably be exposed to as they grow up.
Advice for practitioners
By Jo Simpson, managing director, Youth Sport Direct. In partnership with YMCA, Youth Sport Direct has developed The Smart Start Club, a new resource for early years practitioners, launching in spring 2015.
"As childcare professionals we are often with the children in our care for the majority of their waking hours, and therefore have a huge responsibility in helping to support the development of the ‘whole child’, which includes their social, health & happiness, physical, thinking and creative abilities. When it comes to body confidence, their physical thinking and health and happiness are particular areas we need to pay attention to.
Here are some ideas of how we can help to ensure children to take a positive approach to their bodies:
1. Be a positive role model
Almost two thirds of adults are ashamed of the way they look so being a positive role model for body confidence can be a difficult task. However, young children are very susceptible to the way we behave and thus we need to be very careful about the way we project our self image onto them. Make sure the statements you make about yourself in the presence of children are positive and interact with them in a positive manner eg. maintain eye contact and an open body stance to show interest.
2. Praise positive behaviours
We want all the children in our care to develop qualities that will endure throughout life such as resilience, team work, sharing, effort, trying new things, thinking, being creative. It is these behaviours we need to praise, to help children feel good about themselves and to encourage them. Think about what you are praising, for example: “Good thinking”, “Great effort”, “You’ve tried really hard, that’s great”, “You’re working well together”.
3. Value what children say and do
Create time and space to listen and talk to young children, give them your full attention and maintain eye contact. Show an interest in what they are saying and value what they say and try not to interrupt their flow, which will help them to feel confident about their contribution. Another tip is to address the child by name and use open questions to help them explore their thoughts and develop understanding.
4. Make the most of help and resources
Smart Start Club’s resource for parents, carers and childcare professionals has been developed by YMCA and Youth Sport Direct, and is built on developing children’s social, physical, health & happiness, creative and thinking abilities.
The resource provides 16 comprehensive activity cards focusing on healthy eating, balance and coordinated and body image. Each card offers advice to ensure children can all make progress at their own pace, ideas for supporting speaking and listening skills, opportunities for children to imagine, role play and make up actions.
The supporting handbook provides the background to the role physical activity plays in child development and how to get the most form the pack, along with membership cards, stickers, wall charts and music. To register interest, people can contact firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.youthsportdirect.org."
Original source: Magazine of Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years - The Childcare Professional (Spring 2015).
 Reflections on Body Image, APPG, 2012
 Two for the Price of One, Susie Orbach and Holli Rubin, 2014
 Centre for Appearance Research – 60%