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Movement Experiences for Children
KIN 366
Instructor: Dr. Shannon S.D. Bredin
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Important Course Pages
Lecture Notes
Course Discussion


Thinness is highly valued within our society (Riciardelli & McCabe, 2001). The sociocultural pressure to be thin is so strong that it is felt and advocated by children as young as 7 years of age. Children between the ages of 7 and 11 years rate obese children as having fewer friends, being less liked by parents, having lower academic achievements, being lazier, being less happy, and being less attractive, compared to average and thinner children. Recently, many studies have examined body image concerns and early symptoms of eating disturbance among children. Similar factors to those found in adult and adolescent studies are correlated with children’s body dissatisfaction and early onset eating disturbances. These factors include gender, age, body mass index (BMI), race, sociocultural influences, and self-concept. There is concern that the body dissatisfaction during childhood and adolescence increases the risk for the development of body image and eating disturbances, as well as depression in adulthood (Smolak, 2003).


Body image is defined as a person’s perceptions, thoughts, and feelings about his or her body (Grogan, 2007). Body image is a multidimensional psychological experience of body-related self-perceptions and self-attitudes, including thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors (Cash, 2004). The term body image encompasses many different concepts, including weight satisfaction, size perception accuracy, appearance satisfaction, body satisfaction, appearance evaluation, appearance orientation, body concern, body esteem, body schema, and body percept.


Body image was first recognized during clinical attempts to understand neuropathological forms of body experience (Cash, 2004). Austrian neurologist and psychoanalyst Paul Schilder first conceptualized the term body image in his book The Image and Appearance of the Human Body (1935) and subsequently emerged as the father of the study of body experience. Psychologists Seymour Fisher and Franklin Shontz further contributed to the study of body image. For example, Shontz pioneered the idea that body image is a multifaceted concept. More recently, the study of body image has been dominated by clinical psychology and psychiatry, with investigations and applications pertaining to eating disorders among young women.


Body image is multifaceted, with perceptual, affective, cognitive, evaluative, and investment/behavioral components, which makes measurement difficult (Smolak, 2004). Measuring body image is especially difficult in children, as they are easily distracted and may face difficulties understanding questions (Riciardelli and McCabe, 2001). Evaluative body image, the most common component of body image measured in children, refers to one’s satisfaction with his or her body (Smolak, 2004). Evaluation requires that the child can assess his or her own body, has an ideal body to compare his or her body, and is capable of making such a comparison. The child must be acutely aware of the ideal body for meaningful body dissatisfaction to develop. Figure drawings, questionnaires, and video projection techniques have been used to research body dissatisfaction in children (Riciardelli and McCabe, 2001). The tools for measuring body image in children, especially in children under ten, are less developed compared to the scales available for adults and adolescents (Smolak, 2004).

Figure Drawings

Many different figure drawings have been developed to research body dissatisfaction in children and adolescents (Smolak, 2004). The most commonly used figure drawings measure was created by Collins in 1991. In this measure, children are given five to seven drawings, ranging in size from thin to obese silhouettes, and asked to indicate their perceived and ideal body size. However, it was found that figure drawings are only reliable for assessing body dissatisfaction in children eight years and older.


The Eating Disorders Inventory Body Dissatisfaction scale (EDI-BD) is currently one of the best measures of body dissatisfaction among older children and adolescents (Smolak, 2004). This scale focuses on the evaluative body image, with particular attention given to body areas of greatest concern to females with eating disorders, such as feelings about one’s hips, thighs, buttocks, and stomach. Other common scales used to assess body dissatisfaction in children include the Body Esteem Scale (BES) and weight concerns. The BES is used to assess children’s attitudes and feelings about their body and appearance (Riciardelli and McCabe, 2001).

Video Projection Techniques

Computerized video projection techniques have been used to assess body image concerns in children as young as 6 years of age (Smolak, 2004). In this measure, children are asked to adjust the width of a distorted image of their body projected onto a video screen, until it matches their perceived and ideal size. Discrepancy between perceived, actual, and ideal body imaged can be determined using this equipment Riciardelli and McCabe, 2001).

Body Image Dissatisfaction

Body image dissatisfaction is a part the conceptualization of body image (Wood, Becker, & Thompson, 1996). Body image dissatisfaction refers to dissatisfaction with one’s physical appearance. It is a phenomenon that has become widespread throughout our society, particularly affecting young girls. Many children are dissatisfied with their bodies, concerned about becoming overweight, and have engaged in weight loss behaviors, such as calorie restriction and exercise (Riciardelli & McCabe, 2001). Approximately 45% of girls and 38% of boys felt it was important for women to be thin, while 35% of girls and 33% of boys felt it was important for men to be thin (Riciardelli & McCabe, 2001). Between 28% and 55% of girls desire a thinner body size, compared to between 4% and 18% of girls who desire a larger body size. Estimates of boys who desire a thinner body size ranges from 17% to 30%, whereas 13%-48% of boys desire a larger body size. BMI is good indicator of children’s levels of body dissatisfaction, while the main indicators of children’s body change strategies are sociocultural factors, including perceived pressures from parents, peers, and the media (Ricciardelli et al., 2003).


Children who have a larger BMI desire to be thinner (Riciardelli & McCabe, 2001). For example, 78% of overweight girls wanted to be thinner, whereas only 30% of normal weight girls wanted to be thinner. Similarly, 60% of overweight boys wanted to be thinner, while only 13% of normal weight boys wanted to be thinner. In contrast, 44% and 100% of underweight girls and boys, respectively, wanted to be larger.


Children’s levels of body dissatisfaction are greatly influenced by the perceived views of parents (Riciardelli & McCabe, 2001). Perception by young girls that parents are concerned about their weight is correlated with a desire to be thinner. Similarly, body image concern for girls was associated with mother’s comments about daughter’s weight, mother’s complaints about her own weight, mother’s weight loss attempts, and father’s complaints about his own weight. In contrast, the desire to be thinner among young boys was not related to perceived or actual encouragement to lose from parents.


Teasing on the basis of appearance is the most common form of teasing among children, however peer influences vary by gender (Smolak, 2004). While boys report more teasing and negative comments about their bodies from their peers, girls are more likely to discuss weight and weight loss with their peers. Girls commonly engage in “fat talk” with their peers in order to gain social acceptance.


The unrealistic societal beauty ideals prevalent in mass media result in body image dissatisfaction among girls and boys (Hargreaves & Tiggemann, 2004). Body dissatisfaction research by Hargreaves and Tiggemann (2004) suggests that the immediate impact of the idealized commercials on body image is stronger and more normative for girls than for boys (Smolak, 2004). Media images appear to have a greater impact on girls than boys. The acceptable body type for women in television is narrower than that for men on television, and women are more likely than men to be the target of jokes. Girls’ magazines tend to focus more on appearance than boys’ magazines. This is relevant as girls begin to regularly read fashion magazines in late elementary school. Approximately 25% of late elementary school girls read fashion magazines twice a week, a frequency increases through middle school.


Body image concerns among children differ by age, gender, and race (Riciardelli & McCabe, 2001).


Children’s body image concerns, as well as body change strategies, appear and develop between the ages of 8 and 11 (Ricciardelli et al., 2003). Body dissatisfaction, especially for girls, becomes more pronounced with age (Riciardelli & McCabe, 2001). For example, the number of girls who wanted to be thinner increased from 40% in grade 3 to 79% in grade 6.


Gender plays a significant role in body image development (Smolak, 2004). The nature, risk factors, outcomes, and developmental course of body dissatisfaction differ by gender. Gender differences for body image dissatisfaction have been found in children as young as 8 years of age (Riciardelli & McCabe, 2001). The gender differences that emerge between the ages of 8 and 10 may be due to the fact that children find it difficult to understand and complete the instructions of the evaluation measures, or that sociocultural influences for ideal body size have not been internalized prior to this age. Girls are more concerned about body fat compared to boys (Smolak, 2004). For example, girls are more likely to perceive themselves as fat when they are average weight or even under weight, whereas boys are more likely to be worried about body fat when they actually posses a high BMI. This gender difference likely contributes to the gender differences observed in eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. In contrast, boys are more likely than girls to want to increase the size of their muscles. By adolescence, the desire for larger muscles rivals the desire for weight loss among boys. If the boys who desire larger muscles are combined with the boys who are dissatisfied with their bodies because of fat, then rates of body dissatisfaction are similar among adolescent boys and girls. However, boys younger than age 11 do not seem to be particularly concerned with building muscles. Adolescent boys are more likely than girls to use anabolic steroids and food supplements to gain muscle. Steroid abuse in adolescent boys may be as common as anorexia nervosa in adolescent girls. While young boys are not pressured to meet the muscular adult male ideal, young girls are pressured to achieve the thin adult female ideal. As a result, the onset of pressure to achieve an ideal body type occurs earlier in girls than boys, which in turn indicates an earlier internalization of body image issues in girls compared to boys. Although at the extreme end, behavioral outcomes of body dissatisfaction are as dangerous for boys as for girls, at more moderate levels, body image dissatisfaction may be more problematic for girls, as girls are more likely to act on their body dissatisfaction.


There has been limited research examining the effects of race on body image concerns among children (Riciardelli & McCabe, 2001). African American 9-year-old children chose larger ideal body sizes for self, male child, female child, adult male, and adult female, compared to Caucasian children. Similarly, grade 3 and grade 6 African American children were found to desire a body figure that was heavier than their perceived figure, whereas Caucasian children were more likely to desire a body figure that was thinner than their perceived figure. Further, heavier African American 9 and 10 year-old children were less dissatisfied with their weight, body shape, and body parts. These findings may indicate that African American children are exposed to sociocultural messages regarding dieting and thinness from their family, peers, and media to a lesser degree than Caucasian children

Eating Attitudes and Behaviours

Body dissatisfaction among children is one of the main risk factors leading to early symptoms of eating disturbances (Riciardelli & McCabe, 2001). Poor body image among girls and boys has been correlated with problem eating attitudes and behaviors, as assessed by the Children’s Eating Attitude Test (ChEAT). Although eating disorders among children are rare, early dieting and related behaviors are risk factors for chronic body image problems, weight cycling, obesity, and eating disorders later in life.

Practical Applications

Educational and intervention programs are needed to address children’s body image concerns and eating disturbances before problems increase in frequency and severity (Riciardelli & McCabe, 2001). Prevention and treatment programs will benefit from further research in body image development (Smolak, 2004). Parents have a great influence children’s body image (Riciardelli & McCabe, 2001). The following are steps parents can take to help children develop a positive body image:

  • Ensure children understand that weight gain is a normal part of development
  • Avoid negative comments about food, weight, body size, and shape
  • Allow children to make decisions about food
  • Compliment children
  • Limit and supervise children's television viewing and discuss media images with them
  • Encourage school to develop polices against size and sexual discrimination, harassment and teasing
  • Maintain open communication lines with children

(Body image and your kids, n.d.)


  1. Body image and your kids. (n.d.). Retrieved March 1, 2014, from
  2. Cash, T. F. (2004). Body image: Past, present, and future. Body Image, 1(1), 1-5.
  3. Grogan, S. (2007). Body image: Understanding body dissatisfaction in men, women and children. Routledge.
  4. Hargreaves, D. A., & Tiggemann, M. (2004). Idealized media images and adolescent body image:“Comparing” boys and girls. Body image, 1(4), 351-361.
  5. Ricciardelli, L. A., McCabe, M. P., Holt, K. E., & Finemore, J. (2003). A biopsychosocial model for understanding body image and body change strategies among children. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 24(4), 475-495.
  6. Ricciardelli, L. A., & McCabe, M. P. (2001). Children's body image concerns and eating disturbance: A review of the literature. Clinical psychology review, 21(3), 325-344.
  7. Smolak, L. (2004). Body image in children and adolescents: where do we go from here?. Body image, 1(1), 15-28.
  8. Wood, K. C., Becker, J. A., & Thompson, J. K. (1996). Body image dissatisfaction in preadolescent children. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 17(1), 85-100.