Body Image Concerns Are Newest Childhood Fear

Article excerpt

Byline: Janice Youngwith

Barbie's seen her share of blame for a multitude of body image issues over the years. So too have super-skinny supermodels and airbrushed actresses.

Teen and pre-adolescents have long been vulnerable to images of ideal body image and cultural concepts of how they should look. But body image issues are taking a disturbing new direction, according to local experts, who say kindergartners and young children are quicker than ever to personalize messages regarding outward appearance.

"It's unfortunate we're seeing so many children, some as young as four and five years old, who think they need to diet or are too fat to wear their swimsuits," says Dr. Denise M. Styer, Psy.D., clinical director of the eating disorders program at Alexian Brothers Behavioral Health Hospital, Hoffman Estates. "What used to become an issue for middle school preteens, now is a serious challenge by the time our children reach second and third grade."

Believing that outward appearance is a reflection of inner quality, young children with body image concerns develop a sense of who they are and how they should behave by internalizing messages about themselves from others, Styer explains.

"Over the years, we've blamed Barbie for physical issues and even the popular BRATZ dolls for attitude issues," Styer notes. "But these children are being assaulted by messages on a variety of fronts, not just what they see in their toys. Media messages, TV and magazine ads, video games, cartoon characters, movie heroes, popular song lyrics and children's retail giants all provide kids with idealized body image concepts and profiles."

A host of today's sociocultural factors promote thinness for girls and chiseled, masculine images of "six-pack" washboard abs and buff muscles for boys, Styer explains.

"A child's body image develops as a result of many influences and can be influenced by how people react to their own bodies and how they look," Dr. Styer says.

"It used to be that pre-adolescents were just becoming aware of society standards for an ideal body. That's shifted to a much younger group. It's not uncommon to see 9- and 10-year-olds with full fledged eating disorders."

Mixed messages

Parents may unwittingly contribute to young children's body image perceptions, fueling the fire for girls to remain skinny and petite and for boys to become muscled at early ages.

"Bombarded by messages of how to stay fit and live long, parents have become increasingly calorie phobic and almost as confused as their children," Styer adds.

"Many parents have forgotten what healthy eating means, focusing family fare on minimal calories, restricted fat content and less than nutritious, health-conscious choices for youngsters."

Styer says children often model the behavior of parents, opting for diet soft drinks and the latest in fad diets.

"They assume that fat-free eating is healthy eating and skipping meals is a short cut to jump start diets," she notes.

"Many parents don't understand that what works well for adults doesn't necessarily apply to children and may in fact harm them."

Which kids are at risk?

Both boys and girls are at risk, says Dr. Christina Miksis, Psy.D., manager of clinical services, Alexian Brothers Center for Mental Health, Arlington Heights.

"While commercials overwhelmingly target girls with messages of physical attractiveness, romance and dating, boys face similar messages regarding buff bodies, muscle development and success," she says. "Even the early elementary years are filled with cartoon movie characters equating thinness with goodness and focus on the beauty of thin bodies, big eyes, tiny waists and oversized lips."

Miksis cites a variety of studies including a 2006 report linking attractiveness and thinness with the goodness of 100 female characters appearing in 23 Disney animated films. …