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Positive body image starts with early years

Only a couple of days ago the BBC published a piece detailing how there has been a 42% increase in diagnosed teen eating disorders post covid. This is on top of studies which show that at least one in five women aged 16-24 have self harmed at some point - cut, burned, or poisoned themselves - and this trend is increasing rapidly across both genders.

It is easy to think that this is a teenage issue and has no relevance to early years. But that would be a mistake. By the time a child turns 12, they are already exposed to a range of things that create a fertile ground for such lack of positive body image and all the mental health implications that it leads to.

Research shows that 24% of professionals have seen body confidence issues in children aged 3-5. 47% of childcarers have witnessed anxieties over body image in children aged 6-10.

But there is a range of things that we can do, as nursery practitioners and as parents, to help our children develop a healthy relationship with their bodies.

Complement the feeling, not the look

How many times have you heard somebody say to a child: "Oh, you look so cute in that outfit!", or "Those ribbons look so pretty on you!".

It is often an innocent comment, designed to build rapport with a child or to express a delight. However, such comments only build a realisation in a child that how they are perceived is key to their self worth. Doubly so if these comments are the first thing a child hears from you when you meet them.

So, what do we do instead? If they are desperate to show you an outfit - try asking a child how they feel in the outfit of their choice. Does it make them feel confident? Does it make them feel happy? If you are meeting them for the first time - try not to comment on appearance at all. Ask them what their favourite book or a favourite activity is instead. Talk to them about what they like to play with, about kind things they have seen during the day. About things they are grateful for. About things that made an impression on them. In short - almost anything other than their appearance.

This is a very important shift. It changed a focus away from how an outfit or a look is perceived by the outside world and the importance of that external validation and towards teaching a child to make choices that make them feel good about ourselves. This builds a child's feeling of confidence and self worth and puts this ahead of external validation.

Doing this consistently for 10+ years means that by the time this child is a teen, they are much more resilient to what their peers have to say about their appearance or their dress sense, significantly increasing their coping capability when it comes to many types of peer bullying.

Show body confidence

One of the best ways that children learn, without us even noticing, is by copying us. So showing a healthy body attitude is key. This means avoiding commenting negatively about our own appearance and focusing on expressing a healthy attitude towards our appearance, our body, our clothes. This may be a little hard, as most of us have grown up in an unhealthy body image culture, driven by social attitudes and amplified by advertising that constantly tells us to worry about those little lines that appear with age.

Embracing our own self love and ageing process is a key step in demonstrating a healthy attitude to our own children.

Applaud good choices

Celebrating healthy choices that our children make when they listen to their bodies and to what is right for them is also an important piece of the puzzle. We have all seen situations where a relative is desperate for a hug or a cuddle and the child is reluctant. How many times have you then caught yourself saying "come now, let Grandma give you a kiss". What the child hears in such situations is that their choice, their voice about their body is not important. That the other person's need for physical affection is more important than their own reluctance.

Instead of forcing a child by emotionally blackmailing them or labelling them as 'shy', try saying: "You don't have to give Grandma a kiss if you do not want to, it is your body and your choice. If and when you would like to, you can."

Be mindful of the environment

Children absorb a lot more from their environment than we realise. By the age of 2, their environment has already left a deep mark on our children's subconscious regarding social roles, stereotypes and much more. This is a key way that children absorb useful information about the world around them. Their brains are literally wired to do so as quickly and as efficiently as possible. However, they have not yet developed cognitive function or an internal set of values that allows them to consciously adjust or moderate what they see. It's a hard skill for an adult to develop and it is totally absence in really young children.

Take a mindful look at your child's environment.

What do characters on their favourite TV shows look like and how do they behave?

What do their toys look like? Do they portray a healthy and realistic body type?

One of the things we always do at our nurseries is being mindful of the dolls that children play with and the body image that they signal to our children. All dolls used at our settings show a realistic body type. Children want to be like their favourite characters from their best loved TV shows - just ask any of our children that love dressign up as spider boys and girls!

They love to dress and undress their dolls and to create whole worlds around this play. Such play is a key part of their social and emotional development. It is very important for learning to look after other things and as preparation for being a caring adult and (maybe) parent in the future.

So, being mindful of the characters involved in that play, the role models they create, is super important.

This is a super important topic for us at Alba Nurseries and a key way for us to help positively influence our children's healthy development in the future.



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