Body hate at just 8: Why are children worrying about their looks so early?

Children aged five and above are getting more conscious about their appearance.
Body hate at just 8: Why are children worrying about their looks so early?
Body hate at just 8: Why are children worrying about their looks so early?
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Research suggests different elements of society – parents, peers and media – are together making children – even as young as three – conscious of their bodies in very unhealthy ways.

A study conducted by Professional Association of Childcare and Early Years (Pacey) in the UK found that a worrying number of children had body confidence issues and were unhappy with their bodies. While 32% of childcare professionals said that these anxieties came from parents, 37% said it came from peer groups and 25% held media images responsible.

Although this study is about children in the UK, psychologists say Indian children too are beginning to show signs of insecurity about their appearance, body and skin colour depending on their age and sex.

Chennai-based psychiatrist Dr Jayanthini says that although children aged five and above are becoming more conscious about their appearance, younger children generally tend to gravitate towards fair-skinned people – often equated with ‘good looking’ – unconsciously.

Body image issues materialize around eight years of age. Some children aged between three and four say they want to be fair, but it hasn’t yet translated into an issue yet, says Dr Jayanthini.

Chennai-based psychologist Dr S Vandana says that over the years, children have started hitting puberty earlier and that too contributes to an earlier awareness of the body.

Dr Jayanthini says girls are more conscious about height, weight, complexion and even breast development around seven or eight years. It’s is a no win situation. “They get teased if they develop breasts too quickly and even when they don’t,” she says.

For boys, being overweight and ‘puberphonia’, a high-pitched voice often considered feminine, top the concerns.

These things may start out small and if left unchecked can cause serious problems like eating disorders by the time kids reach adolescence, says Dr Vandana. “Everyone wants the thin, lean, fair stereotype. It’s all around us, so of course kids will get affected too,” she says.

The undue emphasis on appearance, and one kind of appearance in particular, comes from a vicious cycle that begins when a child is just a baby.

“People gravitate towards chubbier and 'cuter' babies. When kids grow up, this avoidance behaviour (avoiding children who don’t look ‘good’) is imbibed by them and their peers and then perpetuated when they grow up. So much so, that even children start talking to more adults who fit the “good-looking” bill,” explains Dr Vandana.

Clothing is also crucial to how kids see themselves. “Clothes worn by teenagers are now available in kids’ sizes. In wanting the ‘best’ for their kids, parents –especially younger ones – end up making them wear the same things. So when a child does not fit into those, he or she will feel bad about it and their bodies,” Dr Vandana says.

Both Dr Jayanthini and Dr Vandana agree that exposure to media at an early age does cause children to become aware of their bodies and develop body image issues much faster than they used to. Using children who look a certain way to advertise products is adding to the problem. But the media affects children around 7-8 years of age more than younger ones, says Dr Jayanthini.

So in a world where media images and narrow perceptions of beauty and value are widespread, is there a way out?

The solution is not to control what children see. “The more you tell them no, the more curious they will become and eventually, they’ll end up getting access to the forbidden media content,” warns Dr Vandana, who advises parents to watch content with their kids and talk about the right and wrong in in it instead.

Dr Jayanthini says that children often internalize perceptions of body and beauty from peers and offhand comments about appearance made by family, and end up comparing themselves to these standards.

For this reason, Dr Vandana advises that parents must steer clear of making comparisons between children. “It is essential that parents talk to children about their bodies and tell them about growing pains. Some of them will grow faster, some will not. Children need to understand that this is okay,” she asserts.

Fat-shaming should also be a complete no-no in the house. Adults must focus on what the body can do rather than how it looks, says Robyn Silverman, author of ‘Good Girls Don't Get Fat: How Weight Obsession Is Messing Up Our Girls and How We Can Help Them Thrive Despite It’.

Most importantly, children must be allowed to grow and become their own person. “When a child is trying his or her shoelace and the parent scolds them saying this is not the way to do it, there is little room for the child to learn. Give them room to figure things out. Validate their experiences and accept them for who they are. Let the child be a child,” Dr Vandana insists.

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