In This Article Body Image

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Body Shape Stereotyping and Fat Stigma
  • Developmental Perspectives
  • Gender Differences
  • Appearance Change Strategies
  • Multicultural Considerations
  • Measurement
  • Prevention
  • Intervention

Childhood Studies Body Image
by
Stacey Tantleff Dunn, Danielle Lindner, Brianna Schmitt
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 August 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0173

Introduction

Children’s body image is a growing area of research since studies are revealing that a surprisingly high percentage of very young children are dissatisfied with their appearance and serious eating disturbances are occurring prior to adolescence in children as young as five years old. A main concern about body image issues in childhood is that, in addition to causing distress in their own right, they are precursors to eating disturbances and mental health issues later in life. Studies on children’s body image tend to examine the multidimensional construct by including a variety of variables including the most widely established influences of BMI, sociocultural factors, interpersonal influences (e.g., peers and parents), and individual psychological variables (e.g., self-esteem). Understanding gender and cultural differences is also an important aspect of this research since norms, ideals, and expectations vary between males and females and across different cultural groups. One of the greatest challenges in body image research with children is finding appropriate assessment tools. Adapting instruments typically used with adults is one common strategy, but there also have been efforts to create measures and strategies specifically for children, with varied success. Although researchers often call for more qualitative research efforts, there are few published qualitative studies. Finally, there is a growing literature on prevention of body image disturbance as well as early interventions. Primary prevention programs generally focus on self-esteem building and media literacy, with mixed results. Although sociocultural theories of body image disturbance have been widely supported in the literature, we have seen little change in our appearance-focused, thinness-obsessed culture and thus interventions designed to help individuals cope with environmental influences still abound.

General Overviews

There are a few resources that provide useful overviews of the main topics in children’s body image: theories of body image development, children’s perceptions of their bodies and the extent to which they are dissatisfied with their current size, and all of the potential consequences of children’s body image disturbance. A journal article by Ambrosi-Randic 2000 documented children’s perceptions of their body sizes using figure rating scales, establishing that a large percentage are unhappy with their current body size. A thorough overview of the topic, provided in Smolak and Levine 2001, covers the essential areas of prevalence rates, how negative body image develops in children, and how body image problems in childhood relate to eating disorders later in life. The Smolak 2012 chapter in The Oxford Handbook of Psychology of Appearance provides a very detailed overview of how children and adolescents experience themselves and others with regard to how they look as well as the appearance change strategies they undertake.

  • Ambrosi-Randic, N. “Perception of Current and Ideal Body Size in Preschool Age Children.” Perceptual and Motor Skills 90 (2000): 885–889.

    DOI: 10.2466/PMS.90.3.885-889E-mail Citation »

    Investigated body dissatisfaction in very young children. Used figure rating scales to determine that 52 percent of girls and 44 percent of boys wanted to be thinner than current size. Also showed that girls were not accurate in estimating their body size. Good resource for demonstrating dissatisfaction, although authors acknowledged preschoolers’ difficulty with figure ratings, possibly limiting validity.

  • Smolak, L. “Appearance in Childhood and Adolescence.” In The Oxford Handbook of the Psychology of Appearance. Edited by Nichola Rumsey and Diane Harcourt, 123–141. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199580521.013.0013E-mail Citation »

    Article offers a broad background in how children experience all aspects of physical appearance, including preferences for attractive faces as infants, development of appearance stereotypes, and body shape concerns developed in early childhood through adolescence. Helpful review for researchers and students new to topic of body image.

  • Smolak, L., and M. P. Levine. “Body Image in Children.” In Body Image, Eating Disorders, and Obesity in Youth: Assessment, Prevention, and Treatment. Edited by J. K. Thompson and L. Smolak, 41–58. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2001.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199580521.013.0013E-mail Citation »

    Chapter focuses on body image of children ages eleven and younger. Its three sections describe: (a) rates of body image problems among children, (b) influences on the development of negative body image, and (c) relationships between childhood body image and subsequent eating disorders. Comprehensive review useful to researchers and students.

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