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Promoting healthy body image in the early years

What is body image? Body image is defined as the way we feel about our body: how it functions and our appearance (for example, our size, shape, skin colour and weight). Research shows that if we feel good about our body we are more likely to take care of it and having a healthy body image has a positive influence on emotional, social and physical wellbeing[1].

There is growing concern about the increasing amount of pressure in society to conform to an unattainable body image ideal combined with messages that individual worth is associated with physical appearance.  Body image dissatisfaction is rising[2] and is experienced by approximately two thirds of adults[3].

Girls as young as five years old report concerns about their physical appearance[4] and significant numbers of primary school age girls and boys have tried to lose weight[5]. Body image dissatisfaction contributes to a range of problems including low self-confidence, depression, eating disorders and wider societal problems.[6] 

The role of childcare professionals

As a childcare professional you have a significant role to play in the prevention of body image dissatisfaction.

Promoting a positive appreciation of our bodies and what they can do; celebrating our similarities and differences; and identifying what you like about yourself and others are excellent starting points with young children. 

It is important to encourage understanding and appreciation of diverse identities including ethnicities, genders, abilities and disabilities, sexual orientation, gender identity, body shapes and culture.

In an early years setting this includes the language you use when talking with children; ensuring that resources are inclusive and representative of diversity; and encouraging children to be open-minded, non-judgemental and appreciative of others. 

Practical advice

Karen is childminder of three children aged 1-4 years. Having experienced teasing about her appearance as a child, she is keen to ensure that she supports the children in her setting to have a positive body image.

Some of the ways that she does this include:

  • Supporting the children to build an obstacle course where they can learn about what their bodies can do
  • Setting up a doctor’s surgery area for play where the children enjoy taking it in turns to take care of each other
  • Providing opportunities for dressing up and role play where children can explore and celebrate different identities
  • Reading stories about different cultures.

One afternoon, the children were playing with dolls and Karen used this opportunity, including the different ages of the children, to start a discussion about how we grow and develop and what we need at different ages. 

Karen also supports the children to understand themselves and others as having a diverse range of attributes in addition to physical appearance.  Finally, Karen uses her daily face-to-face communication and email newsletter to parents to highlight the important contribution that parents make to their child’s body image.

Karen said "I was surprised to find that it can easily be incorporated into such a wide range of activities that the children enjoy and I felt really proud when I heard one child say to another "I'm best at jumping and you're best at running." Bonnie was appreciating what her body can do, what her friend's body can do, and she had given a compliment. They left both of them feeling good!"

Top resources

Your Body is Brilliant by Sigrún Daníelsdóttir: aimed at children from 3 years upwards, this colourful book encourages children to celebrate their bodies and diversity.

Children in the Picture: inclusive storybooks: this website from Scope provides details of books and play resources that include disabled children.

The Be Real Campaign: a national movement made up of individuals, schools, businesses, charities and public bodies campaigning to change attitudes to body image.

About the author

Dr Virginia Lumsden is a clinical psychologist working with children, young people and their families in the NHS and independent practice.  She has an MSc in Child Development from the Institute of Education and a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology from University College London.  Virginia is registered with the Health & Care Professions Council and is a member of the British Psychological Society.

Virginia believes that a strong caregiver-child connection is the key to developing a child’s psychological and emotional wellbeing.  To this end, she is committed to supporting parents and other caregivers in their own self-care as she believes that this helps to ensure that these adults are emotionally available to build meaningful connections with children.

Virginia is a guest lecturer at City University London, she presents her work at conferences, and has had her research published in peer-reviewed journals.  When she is not working, Virginia enjoys being in the moment with her own young family.

[1] All Party Parliamentary Group on Body Image report, 2011 – 2012.

[2] All Party Parliamentary Group on Body Image report, 2011 – 2012.

[3] All Party Parliamentary Group on Body Image report, 2011 – 2012.

[4] Davison, K.K., Markey, C.N. & Birch, L.L. (2000). Etiology of body dissatisfaction and weight concerns among five year old girls. Appetite, 35, 143-151.

[5] Teacher Guidance: Key Standards in Teaching about Body Image, 2015.

[6] All Party Parliamentary Group on Body Image report, 2011 – 2012.

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