Body image -®
Important study on body image in preschoolers
"Is my bum too big in this?"

"I've been so bad today, tomorrow I'll be living on lettuce."

"That girl is so pretty - look how skinny she is."

"I can't eat that… I don't eat carbs."

Magazines, music videos, TV advertising, TV weight loss shows, mums, dads… Early Years Educators?… On and on it goes…

Does any of this sound familiar? 'Fat talk', 'fat shaming' and idealising the thin body for women and the muscular body for men is so common in Western culture we might not even be aware we are doing it. In fact, studies have shown that even children as young of three years of age are not immune - they prefer thin playmates over larger ones and believe they can't live up to the beauty ideals set by Disney Princesses. We used to think that body image concerns began around puberty, but increasingly, research with younger children has shown that body image worries are beginning much earlier than this (1).

What is body image?

Body image is the how a person 'sees' their physical self, and the thoughts and feelings that accompany this opinion may be positive, negative or both (2). Body image has been rated as one of the top three concerns of 30% of participants in an annual Australian survey of young people aged 15 to 19 years (3). Body image doesn't appear to depend on how a person actually looks (4); the way a person sees themselves appears to be more important to their self-esteem than the opinion of others. Poor body image can lead to a range of problems, including poor self-esteem, an unhealthy relationship with food and exercise and poor social functioning (5).

The development of body image begins early in childhood, and is influenced by factors such as peers, media and family (6). The way a person internalises the pressures from society, and the way they are able to cope with them, is influential in the development of their body image.

Obesity and overweight are factors which may lead to poor body image. Australia is now described as one of the fattest nations in the world, and the emphasis being placed on body weight, appearance and health may be causing more harm than good (7). The relentless promotion of healthy weights and sizes, which may be unachievable for some members of society, increase anxieties and body dissatisfaction (8). This makes for a difficult health promotion environment. One the one hand, we know that rates of childhood overweight and obesity are high; that overweight children are more likely to be overweight adults; and that being overweight increases the likelihood of developing diseases such as type 2 diabetes, some forms of cancer and cardiovascular disease (9), (10). On the other hand we know that poor body image is leading to many unhealthy behaviours, increasing rates of depression and anxiety and increasing social isolation 5. It seems that overweight and obesity exist with unhealthy body image, and that these issues need to be tackled together (11).

Are Early Years Educators influencing body image? The short answer is - we don't know! While there have been a few studies into the influence of parents on the development of body image in very young children, there has been very little in relation to the influence of Early Years Educators. Given the amount of time that children spend with educators, this is a topic that warrants investigation.

So what can Early Years Educators do? Edith Cowan University is currently undertaking a study into body image in very young children, with the aim of developing professional development to empower Early Years Educators to promote positive body image in the children they teach.
If you would like to be involved in this important study, please contact Karen Lombardi at or on 0423 774 349.


  1. Dohnt HK, Tiggemann M. Body image concerns in young girls: The role of peers and media prior to adolescence. Journal of Youth and Adolescence. 2006; 35:135-45.
  2. Cash TF, Pruzinsky T. Body image: A handbook of theory, research, and clinical practice: The Guilford Press; 2004.
  3. The Butterfly Foundation. Body Image TOP 3 concern for 4 years running – Australia must act now. 2013.
  4. Feingold A. Good-looking people are not what we think. Psychological Bulletin. 1992; 111:304-41.
  5. Birbeck D, Drummond MJN. Very young children's body image: Bodies and minds under construction. International Education Journal. 2006; 7:423-34.
  6. Thompson JK. Exacting beauty: Theory, assessment, and treatment of body image disturbance. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association; 1999.
  7. O'Hara L, Gregg J. The war on obesity: A social determinant of health. Health Promotion Journal of Australia 2006; 17:260-3.
  8. McVey GL, Gusella J, Tweed S, Ferrari M. A controlled evaluation of web-based training for teachers and public health practitioners on the prevention of eating disorders. Eating Disorders. 2009; 17:1-26.
  9. World Health Organization. Childhood overweight and obesity. 2013 [1 March, 2013]; Available from:
  10. Australian Bureau of Statistics. Children who are overweight or obese. 2009 [cited 2013 January 22]; Available from:
  11. O'Dea JA. Prevention of child obesity:'First, do no harm'. Health Education Research. 2005; 20:259-65.
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