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Study: children want ‘ideal’ bodies

While concerns about body image have typically been considered the domain of teenagers and adults, children as young as six are reporting dissatisfaction with their bodies, according to research conducted by Dr Michelle Jongenelis, School of Psychology and Speech Pathology.


Children are preoccupied with body image.
Children are preoccupied with body image.

In her study, ‘Self-objectification, body image disturbance, and eating disorder symptoms in young Australian children’, Dr Jongenelis recruited 250 girls and boys, aged from 6 to 11 years, to examine the extent to which they self-objectify and how this impacts their body image. Children were asked questions about how they viewed themselves, and invited to identify pictures they believed best represented them and best represented their ideal size.

“According to Objectification Theory generally, sexualisation promotes an objectifying environment that teaches people, women in particular, that their worth is dependent on their appearance,” Dr Jongenelis said.

“If individuals internalise this, that is, they start to see themselves as objects whose value is dependent on their appearance (self-objectification), this can result in body monitoring, body shame, body dissatisfaction, and eating disorder symptoms such as dieting.”

While there is a significant body of research on body image, and how it relates to eating disorders in adults and adolescents, there has been minimal investigation into how much children internalise messages about their physicality, and what those messages are.

“These associations are well-established in adolescents and adults, but less research has been done in children. My correlational research shows that these links may be present in children as well and that research needs to start examining these younger age groups that may also be vulnerable to these messages and psychological consequences,” Dr Jongenelis said.

Dr Michelle Jongenelis, School of Psychology and Speech Pathology.
Dr Michelle Jongenelis, School of Psychology and Speech Pathology.

Clear gender distinctions were evident in Dr Jongenelis’ study, with girls reporting greater dissatisfaction with their bodies than boys. Dr Jongenelis believes this is consistent with the broader body of research on body image, and reflective of the type and frequency of the images of ‘ideal’ bodies to which women are exposed.

“Females receive more messages to be slim and stay in shape than do males. They are also more likely to be objectified than males,” Dr Jongenelis said.

“That is not to say that appearance ideals don’t exist for males as well. Rather, they are not equivalent in prevalence or impact: females are bombarded with media images that present a fairly rigid standard of appearance and a single body ideal. By contrast, males are exposed to fewer, and less frequent, depictions of idealised male media images and images of males overall present a more flexible and attainable set of ideals.”

Dr Michelle Jongenelis believes children should be praised for participating in extra curricula activities.
Dr Michelle Jongenelis believes children should be praised for participating in extra curricula activities.

With the advent of smartphones and tablets, today’s children have more access to media, and a steady stream of airbrushed images, than any prior generation. Dr Jongenelis believes teaching children critical thinking skills, particularly in relation to media images, will assist them in developing more realistic expectations of their bodies.

“It is important that children learn that life is about more than appearance. This is a hard lesson to teach because they are bombarded with messages that tell them otherwise on a daily basis,” Dr Jongenelis said.

“It is hoped that this research will inform the development of tailored media literacy programs designed to target the issues most impacting children’s body image. Ideally we would like to see children being valued for, and focusing on things, other than their appearance.”

“Parents should praise their children for their efforts at school, for doing well on a test, for being a good friend, or for participating in extra curricula activities. It is important to avoid talking about their appearance, or how much better they would look, or how much faster they would run if they just lost a bit of weight.”

Bio

Dr Jongenelis is a Research Fellow in the School of Psychology and Speech Pathology. She holds a Bachelor of Psychology, a Master of Clinical Psychology, and a PhD in psychology. Her research focus is in the area of mental and physical health promotion. Specific issues of interest include alcohol consumption, tobacco and e-cigarette use, and healthy ageing. Michelle also has an interest in the development and maintenance of body image disturbances and eating disorder symptoms in children. Her research paper can be read here.