Body image issues manifest as early as eight years-old

New research has found that children as young as eight years-old are vulnerable to body image dissatisfaction as they experience rises in hormonal levels with the transition to puberty.

The population-based study was undertaken by the Centre for Adolescent Health’s Dr Libby Hughes, Dr Lisa Mundy, Professor’s Susan Sawyer and George Patton, as part of the Childhood to Adolescence Transition Study (CATS). 516 male and 621 female children were recruited from a stratified random sample of 43 primary schools based in Melbourne, Australia with a mean age of 8.9 years. Published in the latest issue of Journal of Adolescent Health, the study measured participants’ adrenal hormone levels and body dissatisfaction, along with covariates including body mass index (BMI), age and socioeconomic status.

Key points

  • ​The study of 1,100 boys and girls found a link between hormone levels and body image
  • The higher the level of hormones, the more unhappy the children were about their appearance
  • One third of the children were dissatisfied with their bodies

Body image dissatisfaction was assessed using a measuring tool known as the Kids’ Eating Disorder Scale (KEDS) body image silhouettes. From eight illustrated silhouettes of children, ranging from very thin to very obese, participants were asked to select the silhouette that most looked like them now and the silhouette that they would most like to look like. Separate sets were allocated for females and males.

Results indicated that both girls and boys with higher hormone levels reported greater body dissatisfaction. Girls were more dissatisfied with their bodies than boys, with girls also choosing ideal body types that were smaller than those selected by boys. Higher BMI scores were also significantly related to greater body dissatisfaction for both males and females.

“What we have learnt is that pre-pubescent children, as young as eight and nine, are vulnerable to poor body image and the dissatisfaction does appear to be linked to hormone levels associated with the onset of puberty,” lead author Dr Hughes said.

“Basically, the higher the level of hormones, the more unhappy the children were with their body size; however children with heightened levels of hormones also tend to be taller and heavier than their peers, and this could be the cause of their poor self-body image.”

The study highlights the heightened risk for body dissatisfaction to develop as children reach the early stages of puberty and stresses the need for programs to help pre-pubescent children maintain positive body image.

Dr Hughes stated, “It would also be helpful if there was more research to untangle the complex relationship between hormone levels, weight and body image for children in this age bracket”.

Read the full paper:

The Centre for Adolescent Health would also like to personally thank the CATS Ambassador students and parents for their assistance with promoting Dr Libby Hughes’ paper on the topic of body image and puberty. The Ambassadors represent a small group of CATS students and parents, who have participated in additional surveys, focus groups and now media interviews to help advocate for wider engagement in the CATS study. Their contribution is incredibly valuable to ensuring the public have a real-life perspective on the research, that they can relate to and understand.


​​​Watch the Channel 9 news story here

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Poor body image in children as young as eight may be linked to hormones, researchers say | ABC news

Eight and nine-year-olds experience poor body image as hormone levels rise | Science Daily

Children as young as eight feel the pressure for the ‘perfect’ body | The Age


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