Anxiety about body shape is starting among children as young as four – and increasingly boys as well as girls have low confidence in their body image.
Four-fifths (78%) of teachers, lectures, support staff and leaders who responded to a survey by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) say that girls suffer from low self-esteem because of societal pressure to be ‘perfect’, and half (51%) believe boys have low confidence about their bodies. Anxiety levels are also growing: 59% of staff say that female pupils feel anxious about their bodies, and 30% say the pressures affect boys too. And comments about their bodies can be sensitive and easily taken to heart by 55% of girls and 27% of boys.
Girls are more likely to go on diets, and boys are more likely to turn to extreme exercise to get the body they think they want. Girls as young as four are conscious of what they’re eating, and girls aged 10 have been known to go on diets. Teachers have also noted obsession with hair among boys and girls.
Teachers believe airbrushed and unattainable images in the media are mainly to blame. Two-thirds think there is more pressure on children’s body image than 10 years ago – and 84% think girls are under pressure to maintain a particular body image, compared with 66% for boys. The issue is that the children then make themselves miserable once they have fixated on a particular body and realise they probably won’t be able to achieve it.
ATL is calling for more education and awareness in schools about healthy eating and exercise, as well as the practices of airbrushing so that children understand what is real and what is fake. ATL general secretary Mary Bousted says: “Young people want to fit in and it’s a hard part of growing up, but the pressure to have the “perfect” body should not be at the detriment to children’s wellbeing and happiness.”