Body confidence issues starting much sooner

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Paranoia about appearance in adolescence is sadly not a new or uncommon problem, but it is one that is now pulling ever younger children into its self-conscious grip.

Recent research, by the Dove Self-Esteen Project (DSEP), found that seven per cent of girls felt under pressure to look beautiful when they were as young as eight.

This figure continues rising steadily up to 27 per cent by the time they are 11.

Body image expert Professor Andrew Hill says the fact that society has become increasingly image-based, with constant access to visual media, exacerbates the problem.

‘You can certainly pick up this apparent lack of self-confidence in children as young as nine and 10,’ he says.

‘Nowadays, we often tell others about our lives not through words but through pictures via phones and computers, and there’s a vast array of magazines featuring celebrities, with pictures telling a very clear story about the acceptability and unacceptability of physical appearance.’

Possibly, as a result of unrealistic perceptions about the way girls should look, the DSEP research found 47 per cent of 11 to 14-year-old girls admitted opting out of what should be ‘normal’ teenage activities because they don’t like how they look.

Such a pronounced effect on these girls’ lives is clearly very worrying, but Hill, a Leeds University medical psychology professor, does point out this reticence about being noticed has always been an issue for young people.

Though the age it starts is getting lower in modern times, the basic feelings behind it are the same as ever before.

While adolescent girls may have deeper body confidence issues than their male counterparts, there’s no doubt that adolescent boys have image worries too, says Hill.

‘I don’t think the lack of body confidence is as intense for boys, but the same issues are there for them.

‘Boys tend to be valued for the things they do, like sport, and girls are often valued on the way they look.’

He points out that during puberty boys grow taller and more muscular – an appearance valued by society – while girls grow curvier, which they will often perceive as fatter.

‘The key thing for parents is to give unconditional love,’ Hill stresses.

‘It really doesn’t matter what children look like, you’re there to be their constant love and support.’