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Children as young as 3 unhappy with their bodies

New research reveals body image and weight worries start at pre-school

  • 24% childcare professionals have seen body confidence issues in children aged 3-5 years old
  • 47% of childcarers have witnessed anxieties about body image in children aged 6-10 years old
  • 71% believe children are becoming anxious about their bodies at a younger age

New research[1] from the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (PACEY) reveals anxieties about body image are starting in some children as young as 3.

Nearly a quarter (24%) of childcare professionals have seen signs that children aged between 3 and 5 years old, in their care, are unhappy with their appearance or bodies.

But this figure almost doubles as children get older. Nearly a half (47%) of childcarers have witnessed body image anxieties in 6-10 year olds.

The PACEY research reveals that phrases such as ‘she/he is fat’ are commonplace in childcare settings – 37% of practitioners have heard these statements in their setting. While 31% have heard a child label themselves fat.

One in ten (10%) have heard a child say they feel ugly, while 16% of early years practitioners have witnessed children saying they wished they were as pretty or good looking as someone else. Around one in five (19%) have also seen children reject food because ‘it will make them fat’.

Early years practitioners believe parents and peers have the biggest influence. 37% believe the anxieties they have witnessed stem from peer groups, while 32% cited parents. A quarter (25%) say that media is fuelling a culture of self-consciousness and anxiety.

Dr Jacqueline Harding, PACEY advisor and child development expert comments: “By the age of three or four some children have already pretty much begun to make up their minds (and even hold strong views) about how bodies should look. There is also research evidence to suggest that some    4-year-olds are aware of strategies as to how to lose weight.

“Of course, there is now mounting concern that the formation of these views (so early on in life) may develop into later eating disturbances or depression. We know for sure that early experiences matter the most and we need to be very careful about how (even inadvertently) we signal to children that they should think negatively about their bodies and how they look.

“More research is needed in this area but contributing factors are likely to include: images on TV; images in story books and animations and the general chat by adults about their bodies, dieting, cosmetic surgery etc. There is little doubt that low levels of self-esteem appear to contribute significantly to negative perceptions of body image.”

Jacqueline has offered the following advice to parents to support children to be body confident:

Be aware that your child is watching you and listening – take care to talk about your own body in a positive way (even if you don’t feel like it!)

Build their self-confidence and self-image by focusing on who they are as a person – not what they look like –for example, praise them for acts of kindness to others and not for looking pretty/handsome

Gradually, in an age appropriate way, begin to point out how photographs and images are changed to be improved

The research highlights how body image is affecting self-esteem at a younger and younger age. 71% of childcarers say children are becoming anxious about body image at a younger age; 57% said girls are more conscious of how they look than boys.

Liz Bayram, PACEY Chief Executive comments: “We were shocked that so many early years practitioners are observing body image issues amongst the very young children in their care and recognise that more needs to be done to support practitioners to address these issues. Whilst early years settings are already supporting children’s social and emotional development, in particular helping to build their self-esteem, this is a challenging area that the current Early Years Foundation Stage framework (and its equivalent in Wales) does little to address.

“We have a growing childhood obesity crisis in the UK and early years settings need greater training and guidance on how to promote positive body image in very young children. Government is planning to update the EYFS to reflect new guidance on physical activity in the early years and PACEY sees this as an ideal opportunity to include more guidance on positive body image.

“With this support, early years practitioners will be well placed to promote positive body images as well as healthy lifestyles and to provide the advice and guidance parents need if they are seeing signs of body anxieties in their children. This could make a significant contribution to ensuring more young children can become body confident.”

PACEY is the early years partner for Be Real, a national movement campaigning to change attitudes to body image, helping to put health above appearance and be confident in our bodies.

Denise Hatton, Chief Executive of YMCA England, a founding partner of the Be Real Campaign for body confidence said: “Body confidence issues are prevalent among young people today and the survey results from PACEY add to the array of evidence that suggests intervention at a young age is necessary.

“This is why the Be Real Campaign is working with partners such as PACEY to develop resources and materials to help schools, parents and students challenge the way young people view and talk about their bodies.

“The first stage of this will launch later this year with our Schools Body Confidence Campaign aimed at secondary schools. This campaign will provide toolkits, resources and information to help young people talk to each other about what it means to be body confident. We know positive activities such as these will have an impact on this age group, however as this research shows, more work is needed across the sector to reach those in primary education or even younger.”

For information, and resources for childcare professionals and parents to help support children adopt positive attitudes to their bodies visit

[1] Research carried out by PACEY amongst childcare professionals 27th June to 8th August 2016. Base sample 361.