Dr Richard C. Woolfson
Your child needs to feel good about herself and like the way she looks if she is to develop confidence and a strong self-concept. This becomes particularly important once she enters school, when she will begin wanting to look good and wanting others to think she looks good; a five-year-old who is convinced her body is unattractive will most likely feel miserable.
The Importance Of Appearance
There are a number of reasons why your child is starting to place value on her body and physical appearance:
Independence By encouraging her to take an interest in her clothes and personal hygiene, you are rightly suggesting that she care about her appearance. However, an inoffensive request to comb her hair or brush her teeth can trigger off self-doubts.
Popularity Studies have shown that popular children tend to conform to the prevailing cultural standards of beauty. In other words, pretty girls and handsome boys tend to be the ones with more friends. As children gradually become aware of this unspoken social rule, it’s hardly surprising that they begin to take an interest in their bodies.
Media Movies, magazines and the television convey stereotypical images of beauty. This has the knock-on effect of making impressionable young viewers believe they have to be beautiful before they can think positively about themselves.
Peers Your five-year-old wants to look the same as her friends. You may be amazed when she insists she would like to be taller and slimmer, since to you, her appearance is lovely. But peer pressure can send her self-confidence plummeting.
There are also documented cases of children as young as five or six years placing themselves on a diet because they are convinced that they are too fat. One study found that although some of the young girls who were dieting really were overweight, at least half had normal body weight so their diet could not be justified on physical grounds.
In many cases, a child’s concern reflect those of her parents. Studies have shown that kids who diet usually have mothers who are also dieting, and probably learned the strategy from them.
How You Can Help
Here are some tips for discouraging your growing child from worrying too much about her body shape and her physical appearance:
1. Suggest a broad perspective Encourage her to consider a wide range of personal features – not simply physical shape and appearance – when judging any person. Tell her to think about the person’s kindness, thoughtfulness and friendliness. Emphasise that these characteristics matter more than physical attractiveness.
2. Be patient with your child’s complaints Even though you may not see the apparent physical imperfection she complains about, she can and this is all that matters to her. Calm her down, let her voice her dissatisfaction, then try to find a solution, perhaps by suggesting that she brush her hair in a different way.
3. Make reassuring comments We all need our self-esteem boosted sometimes. Hearing that you look marvellous in that jumper or that your new haircut is fabulous lifts your confidence, especially if you are having doubts about your appearance. Likewise, your child also likes to be told that she looks lovely.
4. Involve her in minor decisions She will have much more self-confidence in her appearance if she chooses what she wears. Clearly, there are huge limits to this, not least in terms of expense and taste. But there is no harm in involving her in choosing her own clothes within those restrictions.