Body Image Workshop Part 3: A Parent’s Guide To Talking About Body Image – Ages 4-8

Does This Backpack Make Me Look Fat?

by: Marci Warhaft-Nadler and Melissa Atkins Wardy

In 2009, a studydone by the University of Central Florida revealed that nearly half of 3-6 year olds in the study worried about being fat.

Truth be told, we all deal with a certain amount of worry regardless of how old or young we are, but there are certain concerns that just make more sense than others. Having to reassure your child that you’ll be home soon the first time you leave her with a babysitter or spending a few minutes before bedtime clearing her closet of monsters is to be expected, but having to convince your stressed out six year old that her nightgown or snow suit does not, in any way, make her look fat, is not the kind of thing most of us are prepared for.

Research tells us that children have adopted society’s warped view on body shape and size by the time they are five years old. One has to wonder, how society is finding its way into their young psyches so soon? Are the negative messages of self-judgement sneaking through some window we’re inadvertently leaving open or are they blatantly smashing through the front door? I think it’s both.

Some of the messages our kids are getting are loud and clear and therefore easy to spot, but others are way more subtle and even more dangerous because we don’t even see them coming.

For the first few years of our children’s lives, we pretty much control their environment by deciding what they eat, watch, and hear. As our kids grow, their toys and media change, and carry older themes very quickly (The average age a girl receives her first Barbie? Three years old). Once our kids start preschool, they become exposed to all kinds of outside influences (classmates, teachers, other parents or caregivers) and it’s important that we help them be able to process the examples they’re seeing and the lessons they’re being taught.

School and new friends change the scope of our child's environment.

LISTEN and ASK At School:

In Part 1, we talked about what we can do as parents to promote healthy body image at home and today I think it’s important to point out the significant role that teachers play in our child’s esteem while they’re in school.  Recently, a lot of schools have decided to make their schools healthier by implementing rules around what foods kids can and cannot bring for lunch and snacks. School have also decided to tackle the issue of childhood obesity by teaching healthy eating. While intentions are good, often the execution is anything but. I truly believe that our schools want our kids to be healthy, but when it comes to food and weight, we ALL come to the table with preconceived notions about what we should eat and how we should look. It can be hard for kids to think of teachers as “regular” people, opinions can be mistaken for facts, which could prove dangerous.

Parent Tip: 
 a) If you sense a difference in the way your child is thinking about or acting around food, ask questions.  If they suddenly decide to stop eating certain foods, find out why.
b) Talk to their teacher. There’s nothing wrong with asking if there will be any weight or food topics discussed and how they’re planning on handling it. Again, this is an EMOTIONAL issue and it’s important to make sure your kids are getting the information that YOU feel comfortable with.

New Friends:

 It can be exciting and a little scary for kids to make new friends and while we wish every new child they came into contact with was a great influence, we know that not all kids can get along or be friends. Sadly, peer pressure starts very young and it’s possible to feel like you just don’t fit in, before you even know what you’re trying to fit in to!

Preschool and elementary aged kids may also witness or experience the first time someone is made fun of for how they look. Even at just five or six years old, kids can start comparing themselves to their peers.

Recently, the mother of a seven year old girl told me that her daughter came home from school saying that she didn’t want to be that fattest girl in her class anymore. Another mom told me that her six year old son begged her to keep him home from school because he was tired of being the smallest kid in his class.

It is important to teach our children that it is never appropriate to comment or make fun of another person’s body. Especially true for children, as their bodies are still growing and changing. If your child witnesses teasing taking place, teach them how to be a leader, put their arm around the child being teased, and say simply, “Ava, I’m really happy to have you as a fun friend.” Let’s teach our children how to set the example that everyone has worth, and character is more important than looks.

When it is your child being teased, it can be so hard because our first instinct is to protect our babies. Be careful not to teach them how to play the role of the victim. Validate their feelings, and ask questions about how to ignore the situation or make it better (maybe with humor or a statement of self-confidence). Review with your child how the teasers are obviously mistaken because your child has a healthy body that looks just the way it should. Go over the fun and incredible things your child can do with their body.

The hard fact is we have a lot of overweight kids these days. It isn’t right for them to be teased for how they look, but we need to be honest about the state of our health. Maybe there are steps your family can take — with the guidance of your pediatrician — to get your child back into a healthier weight range. Focus on how to make healthy choices around food and exercise, so that playtime is more fun and less of a physical strain. When we love ourselves from the inside out and fuel our bodies with healthy food, we look just the way we should. Healthy bodies can be many different shapes and sizes.

Kids have a very small frame of reference and need to be reminded that they’re not supposed to all look the same!Unfortunately, television doesn’t help, because most of the kids they see are carbon copies of each other.

 Parent Tip:
 Show your kids that people really do come in so many shapes and sizes. An easy thing to do is to take a trip to a mall on the weekend when it’s pretty busy and just people watch for awhile. Point out all the different people that you see remembering to mention that it’s our differences that make us unique and special and that we are all different and unique in our own way.

New friends= New Toys:

It’s easy to decide what we’re going to buy for our kids to play with and what we’d rather leave on the shelves at the toy store, but when the play dates start, that control is lost. To some people, toys are just toys, but many of us know how powerful they can actually be.

We all know that the Barbie doll has been causing some controversy over the last few years, and with good reason. With all the “evolving” she’s supposed to have done, her physical appearance is still unattainable. While the newer Barbie has moved beyond supermodel and beauty queen into careers in business and medicine, they all still have 18 inch waists and live in impossibly high heels. Barbie is considered old school now, as there are many new 12-18 inch dolls on the market perpetuating the “beauty is best” mentality.

study from Pepperdine University gave a group of preschoolers a choice of 2 toys to play with who were identical in every way except for their weight and 9 times out of 10, the girls chose the thinner toys. An upsetting carry over from this preference is that this behavior tends to continue in the playground when choosing friends.

Children's toys with dispproportionate bodies.

How does the Beauty Myth perpetuated by plastic dolls transfer into real life? A 2010

 Boys Toys on Steroids:

 Girls aren’t the only ones who play with dolls, except for boys, they’re called ACTION FIGURES.

I can remember being a little girl and watching my big brother play with his G.I. Joe, his toy being much different than the one for sale today. The original G.I. Joe was created to look like a regular guy who was fit and strong, while today’s version looks better suited to be on stage at a bodybuilding competition. Even our beloved Superman has been given a makeover. Apparently, someone decided that he didn’t look strong enough and gave him insanely exaggerated muscles and an impossibly square jaw.

For a lot of little boys, these dolls, I mean….Action Figures, represent what a hero is supposed to look like. As a result, I have 9 year olds asking me why they don’t have six pack abs or killer bicep muscles! We need to tell our sons that a truly strong man isn’t judged by the strength of his muscles but on the strength of his character.

 Simply put, toys should encourage creativity and imagination, not feelings of inferiority and shame.

Parent Tip:
Start a conversation about the important people in your child’s life; feel free to pull out family photo albums for a visual prompt. Have them talk about the people who make them happy, make them laugh and help them feel good about themselves. Ask your daughters to name the women who they look up to and have her explain what is so special about them. Help her understand that these women are special because of WHO they are and not how they look and they would be just as amazing and loveable if they were taller, shorter, thinner or wider.
Same idea for the boys:  Who are the men that your son looks up to? Why does he admire them? Do they make him feel safe and protected? I’m willing to bet that not all, if any, of his male role models possess perfectly chiselled, well sculpted muscles and this will help him understand what true heroes look like. Discuss what kinds of people could be considered superheroes in his community; what types of people really do save lives? Why not take a trip to your local Fire or Police station where he can meet these heroes in person and see how different they look from each other, and as a bonus he’ll get to see some heroic women as well!
Now  Switch!
Do the same exercises in reverse. Have your son list the important women in his life and discuss how different they may look from each other and then take your daughter to see meet her local heroes and sheroes.


The great thing about really drilling home messages about body image for kids at this age is that they still think their parents are brilliant. That’s only going to last a few more years, so we need to take advantage while we still can.

Our voices matter, our actions matter and our children are listening; let’s make sure we’re proud of what we’re saying.

 We can do this. Together.


Marci Warhaft-Nadler is a certified fitness instructor and body image consultant. After overcoming her own body image and eating disorder issues, Marci created her Fit vs Fiction program to tear down the dangerous myths related to beauty and fitness and empower kids with the self-esteem they need to tune out negative messages and be proud of who they are instead of judging themselves for who they think they’re not. 

Self-Worth should NOT be measured in pounds! 












  1. I love this! Than you for taking the time to share it.

  2. You are amazing. As a fitness instructor, personal trainer, woman who has dealt with my own body image issues and eating disorder, and now, a mom of two young children, I truly appreciate what you’ve shared here. I will be re-reading this post frequently and I will send my friends and clients with children to this site. I try to be very aware about how I discuss my own body and my job with my kids. I talk about being strong, I talk about being healthy, I talk about teaching people to love movement and exercise. My kids come with me to some of my classes and I love the examples they see. I teach Zumba Fitness in a few locations, one of which is a Senior Center. My students vary in age, gender, body type, and fitness level. The common denominators are that they come, they move, and they smile. I love the example that my students set for my kids (who sometimes get up and dance as my “assistants”). My kids are now school age (going into second and kindergarten) and I do worry about all of the external influences on them. Thank you for giving me ideas for how to navigate them. Keep up the good work!

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