Body image and child development
Making little adults out of little kids seems to be the latest pot of gold for fashion designers cashing in on the ‘tweens’ – the years between age 8 to 14. Annette Binger reports on how body image in young people is being influenced by current fashion trends.
Worrying about body shape was once the domain of teenagers and adults. But with clothing for young girls now reflecting adult fashion trends of bare midriffs and slinky tops, and boys wishing for physiques that match ideal media images, body image issues have begun emerging in children as young as five.
‘Children are no longer getting the opportunity to experience the physical freedom that should be their right,’ says Thea O’Connor, a dietician with Corporeal, a health consultancy specialising in body image training for teachers, students and parents. ‘Girls of six are saying they’re fat. Ten percent of primary aged girls are practicing dieters. And it’s not just the girls who are worried, fear of fat is common in boys too.’
The answer to why young children have body image issues is found in two key areas of influence, says O’Connor. ‘If parents express concerns about their own bodies and diets, chances are their children will too.’
‘And because children are big media consumers, they’re constantly faced with its limited attitude to body image – thin is good for girls and a toned body with large muscles is good for boys. It’s that simple.’
According to YouthSCAN, an Australia wide study conducted by Quantum Market Research since 1992, children are now watching twenty hours a week of television, and growing numbers of girls are reading 'girl' magazines which give ample fashion advice that defines beauty within a very limited range.
Add to the mix films, the internet, advertising billboards, and peer pressure to conform as children reach puberty, and it seems they have little chance of escaping unscathed.
However, Kylie Burke, a psychologist working with the Victorian Parenting Centre can offer some solace. ‘Contrary to what is sometimes believed, children will go along with the beliefs and values of their parents,’ she says.
‘Healthy attitudes to body image are a family matter. If healthy eating and exercise are perceived as valued activities that are put into practice by the whole family, a child is more likely to focus on health and well-being rather than body shape.
‘As with other challenging issues that occur when raising a family, it’s vital for parents to have a strong, ongoing, positive relationship with their children. This means keeping the lines of communication open, giving plenty of positive feedback, and sharing activities together.’
Commonly, parents respond to childhood concerns about body shape by suggesting: ‘you have nothing to worry about’, ‘you’re being silly’ or ‘you look fine just the way you are’. Although this may be consoling for a moment, it sends the message that the parent isn’t really listening to what is important to their child.
‘Acknowledge a child’s concerns,’ says Burke. ‘Talk about how all bodies are different and how these differences make people interesting. Discuss aspects children like about themselves: their personality, skills and interests as well as physical characteristics.’
Leah Brennan is currently completing her PhD on parenting programs and adolescent obesity. She also believes positive attitudes start within the family. ‘First and foremost, parents should not add to pressures by commenting on body shape, height or weight of their children or themselves. Encourage other family members to follow suit by sending clear messages that teasing about weight, height and shape is not OK.’
‘Similarly, parents can help children withstand peer pressure by teaching them how to respond in difficult situations,’ says Brennan. ‘They can also educate children about media advertising, its purposes and methods and point out how most people look quite different to body types idealised in popular media.’
Teaching a child to think critically about media messages is an important lesson. But it does not alter the reality of what’s available in stores. Wander through any major chain store girls’ wear department, and hipster jeans, diamantes and stretchy midriff tops are de rigueur for the primary school age group that marketing and advertising agencies have dubbed ‘tweens’.
‘Taking my nine-year-old daughter shopping is a nightmare,’ says Shelley Bauer. ‘She’s not thin. She’s a healthy, active nine-year-old with a strong build. The worst part is that she knows how awful the tight tops and low-slung pants look on her, and I understand how important it is for her to dress like her friends. It’s depressing.’
With research such as Quantum’s YouthSCAN, among others, revealing the buying power and influence of tweens, it’s not surprising that everyone’s jumping on the bandwagon.
Some adult fashion labels such as Zimmerman and Marcs have been moving into the lucrative children’s market, selling to tweens who are keen to imitate their favourite pop-idols. And fashion labels such as Supré and Urban Angel have hit a bullseye in targeting young girls, while surf labels such as Ripcurl and Mambo have done the same for boys and girls.
‘They are an amazingly powerful group,’ says Tiffany Height of Quantum. ‘Children of ten and eleven have an average of $15.00 a week spent on them. By the time they hit twelve it rises to about $39.00 a week, and around eighty-five percent of kids are involved in buying decisions over clothes and other consumables that come into a household.’
Having that much influence is one thing, but how is it affecting young people without the maturity to understand the power they wield?
‘What I’m finding,’ says Thea O’Connor, ’is that fashion trends and the desire to conform are being imposed on children earlier and earlier. Girls are learning a very limited lesson – the message is you have to be sexy to be female.’
Boys may appear to have more physical freedom in their clothing choices with baggy pants and oversize shirts; however, playgrounds are still a place to compare shoe labels and t-shirt logos.
‘Martin begged for a pair of branded runners,’ says Bauer, relating the horror of shopping with her eleven-year-old son who demanded to spend his own money if she wouldn’t fork out. ‘They’re a status symbol among his friends. At the rate his feet are growing, I’m not spending $160 on them and I don’t think he should either.’
Jan Matthews, a psychologist and Deputy Director of the Victorian Parenting Centre, says it’s important parents are not afraid to set limits while also still allowing children to express their individuality.
‘Most parents will try to accommodate their children’s preferences, but should also make judgements about clothing suitability based on what is practical, comfortable, age appropriate and affordable. This means setting reasonable limits in the same way as for other things, such as where a child goes, how much television they watch etc.’
‘As a child enters adolescence you should review the limits that were set and allow more independent clothing choices, but with young children, it is important that parents acknowledge they have the final say about what their children will wear.’
By Annette Binger
This article was first published in Australian Family Magazine, February 2004.