Body image issues can start as early as 3-years-old, new study finds

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We like to think children are mostly free from adult worries, but at least when it comes to body image and relationships to food, a new study shows that's not the case.

Research from the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years revealed children as young as 3 years old can already be body conscious, with about 33% of school teachers and staff reporting having heard a child call themselves fat. 

"By the age of 3 or 4, some children have already pretty much begun to make up their minds (and even hold strong views) about how bodies should look," Dr. Jacqueline Harding, who advises the association, told the Telegraph

Some 4-year-olds, she added, were already aware of weight loss strategies.

According to the study, children begin struggling with body image as early as age 3.Source:  supot phanna/Shutterstock
According to the study, children begin struggling with body image as early as age 3.   supot phanna/Shutterstock

Though Harding said more research is necessary to determine the cause of young children's struggles with body image, she said it's clear that a culture of body-shaming in the media and in real life doesn't help.

"Contributing factors are likely to include: images on TV; images in story books and animations; and the general chat by adults about their bodies, dieting and cosmetic surgery," Harding said.

Researchers, Harding told the Telegraph, are seeking a better understanding of children's self-concept and at what age they begin to form it. In this case, of course, the Onion's satirical headline "Precocious 4-Year-Old Already Feels Terrible About Herself" takes on a very literal meaning.

In order to disrupt the paradigm, Denise Hatton, the founder of the Be Real Campaign for body confidence, said programs like hers need to start addressing younger demographics.

"We know positive activities such as these will have an impact on this age group," Hatton said. "However, as this research shows, more work is needed across the sector to reach those in primary education or even younger."