Children's perceptions of eating and body image
Concerns about children's eating problems such as obesity, unhealthy eating, dieting and eating disorders have been rising in recent years because of their detrimental effects on children's health. By exploring nine year old children's perceptions of body image, their perceptions of the link between body size and food, and their perceptions of the control of children's eating, this study seeks to contribute to an understanding of why children may develop these eating problems. 98 children undertook a semi-structured interview which incorporated drawing and card sorting activities. The measurement of the children's body mass index allowed the sample to be grouped into three weight categories. When describing their ideal body images most children rejected fatness, most girls wanted to be thin to medium and most boys wanted to be medium to muscley. About half the children were dissatisfied with their own body image, and about half wanted an ideal body image which differed to that of an ordinary child. The children described hypothetical fat people as eating large amounts of high calorie foods, such as chips, very quickly. Thin people were described as eating smaller quantities of lower calorie foods, such as fruit, slowly. The children demonstrated a good understanding of how foods could alter body size. Adults, particularly mothers, were perceived as having a great deal of control over the food which children ate. The study indicated that whilst many nine year old girls and boys had the pre-requisite knowledge to diet, girls had more incentive to do so. Boys had less incentive than girls to eat healthy food. The research draws attention to an association between men and women's perceptions of eating and body image, and boys' and girls'. The current national obesity campaign may be inadvertently fuelling children's eating problems and needs to address children's needs as separate to those of adults. Educational strategies which could make an important contribution to the primary prevention of eating problems include active learning about: the nutritional value of foods such as meat, normal changes in body shape and size, the biology of weight regulation, prejudice and discrimination on the basis of body shape or size, and social images of food and body image. These need to take a gender sensitive approach which acknowledges the biological and cultural differences between girls and boys.