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Child body image development

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Meghan Lodwick:

Welcome to a La Trobe University podcast. I'm Meghan Lodwick and today I'm interviewing Doctor of Clinical Research candidate, Emma Spiel from the School of Psychological Science. Emma is currently conducting a study with the Child Body Image Development Team at La Trobe University. Emma, thanks for your time.

Emma Spiel:

Thanks Meghan.

Meghan Lodwick:

Emma, could you tell me a little bit more about your study?

Emma Spiel:

We're currently conducting a study of three-year-old children and their parents. And we're looking at body image development. So we're currently recruiting and also doing some interviews, and we're doing some play-based interviews with children and also getting parents to fill out questionnaires.

Meghan Lodwick:

And so, what are you looking for?

Emma Spiel:

The study is actually based on a pilot we did a couple of years ago, and what we did, we looked at cross sectional data for three, four and five-year-old children and what we found was there seemed to be some developmental trends in body image awareness. So across the areas of body dissatisfaction, stereotypes around body size and we also did a little bit around dieting awareness, and we sort of found some preliminary data to suggest that there are some developmental trends. As children get older they appear to be more aware of these things. And we also found that the social environment may play a key role in the development of those things. So basically this study is to follow up on that. We're looking at the same things, but in a longitudinal fashion.

Meghan Lodwick:

Three to five years old sounds very young. Can you say specifically what kids are stereotyping?

Emma Spiel:

Three-year-olds are very young and I guess anecdotally, having sat down and done interviews with them, a lot of them are quite unaware about stereotypes about body size, but I guess what we're trying to look at is prevailing social ideals around body size. And without going into too much detail, it's the idea that our culture values certain body shapes and sizes and I guess as an upshot of that, we assign certain personality characteristics to certain body sizes, or we value a certain body size over another. And I guess what we're looking at in the study is whether kids from a very young age are tuning in to those things, because we have seen in previous research that this is something that they are quite aware of, and we're certainly seeing it in their media environment that children are exposed to.

Meghan Lodwick:

Is it simply like a young child will look at, say, a bigger body size and see it negatively? And a smaller body size and maybe refer to it as a positive image?

Emma Spiel:

When we're looking at that, we talk about the image for themselves, or the image for others. So we look at both in the study. So when we're talking about stereotypes, we're talking more broadly and generally I guess about personality characteristics based on a body size, so that general, is the body size good or bad or happy or sad, or that sort of a thing, and we also look at children's own body image so the extent to which they value thinness or being larger for themselves. And I guess what we're trying to look at now is that we have some data from the literature that says that kids do tend to characterise based on body size in some ways. What we're trying to look at is those attitudes then become internalised in a way and used to then judge themselves, and whether kids do that might be at greater risk of doing that towards themselves.

Meghan Lodwick:

Emma, you mentioned that the parents were also involved in this study. How much involvement is there on the parents' part?

Emma Spiel:

OK. So we ask parents to complete a survey. The questionnaire takes about thirty minutes to complete and it covers a broad range of things, so we look at demographic characteristics, but also about the way that parents are feeling about their own body image, and body image more generally, and themselves more generally. So we're trying to canvas a bit about both mums and dads in trying to kind of understand what's going on in the environment both for them and for children because we know it's a multi-generational thing. You know, we're all exposed to the same media environment, so we're just trying to see what kids are thinking about and what parents are exposed to and thinking about themselves.

Meghan Lodwick:

Now, without giving too much of your study away, you mentioned play activities that you conduct with children. What sorts of activities are those?

Emma Spiel:

This has actually been quite a fun and interesting part of the study. There have been a few studies with quite young children and they've used measures that are a bit abstract and perhaps not as engaging for kids. So what we've done, we've actually developed a series of figures made out of felt. So we've got five figures and we've got a set for boys and a set for girls, that the child can interact and play with. We put them on a board and then ask questions about the figures. And we found that kids actually engage really well with this material. We do things like choose the hair colour based on the same colour as their hair and they really engage well with the materials, and we've also got a story book, so when we're looking at attitudes towards certain body sizes, and this can be quite a sensitive topic for parents – so we try and get out these attitudes in a way that's quite covert and that seems fun for kids. So we read a story book as well, and we also have a section where we use snack boxes. So, I guess the rationale behind that is to make things as interactive as possible and to try and engage kids in a way that's going to mean that their participation is really meaningful.

Meghan Lodwick:

Every day you see news reports and magazines that are talking about celebrities' body sizes and that kind of thing. How much will this study help the wider society in relation to our obsession with weight?

Emma Spiel:

Well, I think there are a number of things. So anecdotally I've certainly had a lot of parents saying to me that they are quite confused about the messages that they are receiving. What's really interesting is, we're receiving this message around obesity and health, and we're also receiving these messages around positive body image and health at any size, is another way we sort of conceptualise this. With this research we're starting to really unpack what is going on at a younger age, and hopefully, by doing that we'll be able to better inform parents, schools and the like as to how to approach these things in young children, and to sort out what's going on at a young age and what might be the important things to look out for, but also the more that we know about these issues, we can better inform prevention and intervention early on. Whilst we don't think that children at this young age are really experiencing the negative consequences of poor body image, we do know that later down the track, they might. And if we can get on to these things early, and prevent them, then we're giving kids a good opportunity later on to be feeling happy and healthy in their bodies.

Meghan Lodwick:

If children are starting to perceive their body image from 3 to 5, does it linger with them throughout life?

Emma Spiel:

A lot of the research in this area is done when we start to see the real problems are happening – middle childhood to the teenage years. A lot of the research is focussed in that area. And what's really great now is that we're actually starting to look beyond that time. We've got actually some research now that looks at women in mid-life and how they're thinking about their body image, and we're also starting to go the other way and look at children and what's developing in them, finding out what is going on, because we don't know necessarily if what's going on now is going to have an effect later on. But what we're trying to sort out is those key elements that we know is related to body dissatisfaction and problems later on, whether they are happening in kids from a young age, and what might be going on there.

Meghan Lodwick:

Is that why this is a three year longitudinal study? Do you go back to the same children you interviewed say, at three, at six?

Emma Spiel:

We follow children up at the age of three, at the age of four, and at the age of five. What that's trying to do is trying to see developmentally what is going on with those children, whether children at the age of three who are more likely to select a thinner body size are still doing that over time. And whether that's an early indicator for what might come ahead.

Meghan Lodwick:

How far along are you into the study?

Emma Spiel:

We've conducted almost one hundred interviews with three-year-olds and we've done probably fifteen or so follow-up interviews with four-year-olds. We are hoping to get 300 participants for the study. We're about a third of the way through in terms of recruitment and interviewing and we're very interested to continue and hopefully get another 200 more so that we can meet our quota.

Meghan Lodwick:

You mentioned that the parents fill out a survey. What kind of reaction are you getting from them in relation to studying kids at such a young age? Are they perplexed that you would study kids at three years old, on this subject?

Emma Spiel:

Yes, actually it has been really interesting. A lot of parents they do say, look, really I don't think they have any idea and this isn't something that's really crossed our minds. I think from our perspective, a lot of what we're seeing is that children aren't really thinking about these things in those really stereotypical ways at three years of age, but I guess by looking at them before maybe that stuff's going on, we get to clearly delineate at what age that stuff does start happening. But I think generally parents, despite whether they think their children are concerned about these things at the moment or not, are very interested in the study and very interested to see how their children do respond to the materials. They see it as something that's really valuable and also something that they're getting something out of and they can see how it's going to be useful.

Meghan Lodwick:

That's all the time we've got for our La Trobe University podcast today. If you'd like to leave some feedback about this or any other podcast in the series, or suggest a possible topic, you can get in touch with us at podcast@latrobe.edu.au. Emma Spiel, thank you very much for your time.

Emma Spiel:

Thanks, Meghan.

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