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Why prepubescent children experience poor body image

9 years old girl brushing her long hair in her bedroom


Puberty is when bodily changes occur that mark the start of the transition from child to adult. It is a confusing time for children as they go through these changes. This is also the time when children are at the risk of developing body-image issues and disordered eating. So far there have been very few studies that have examined these symptoms across puberty and there has been no study that explores the link between hormones and body satisfaction in prepubescent children, until now.

Researchers from the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI) and the University of Melbourne examined data from more than 1100 children in Melbourne, collected for MCRI’s Childhood to Adolescence Transition Study. This population-based study consisted of eight- to nine-year-old boys and girls — 516 boys and 621 girls.

The study found that girls tended to be more dissatisfied with their body image than boys. But boys with higher hormone levels also felt unhappy with their body shape.

Body dissatisfaction among prepubescent children was measured using a tool called the Kids’ Eating Disorder Scale (KEDS) Silhouettes. This consisted of eight illustrated silhouettes of children ranging from very thin to obese, with separate sets for boys and girls. Each child was asked to select a silhouette that most looks like them (self-rating) and was then asked to choose a silhouette they would most like to look like, which marks their ideal rating. Each silhouette is scored and a positive or negative body satisfaction score was calculated by subtracting the ideal from the self-rating scores. The study also measured adrenal androgens — naturally-occurring steroid hormones such as DHEA and testosterone — through saliva samples.

The study found that girls tended to be more dissatisfied with their body image than boys. But boys with higher hormone levels also felt unhappy with their body shape. The study also found that the higher the hormone levels in children, the unhappier they were. Kids with higher hormone levels tended to be taller and heavier and this could result in body dissatisfaction. According to the researchers, these kids might be feeling conspicuous around their peers which can result in poor body image.

The results convey that children as young as eight and nine years can be vulnerable to poor body image and body dissatisfaction, which is linked to hormones levels associated with prepuberty or adrenarche — the earliest phase when puberty-related hormonal changes occur.

The study indicates there is a need for developing good strategies at school and home to help prepubescent children learn about good self-esteem and maintain a positive body image before the onset of puberty.

Source: Journal of Adolescent Health


Meena Azzollini

Meena is passionate about holistic wellbeing, alternative healing, health and personal power and uses words to craft engaging feature articles to convey her knowledge and passion. She is a freelance writer and content creator from Adelaide, Australia, who draws inspiration from family, travel and her love for books and reading.

A yoga practitioner and a strong believer in positive thinking, Meena is also a mum to a very active young boy. In her spare time, she loves to read and whip up delicious meals. She also loves the smell of freshly made coffee and can’t ever resist a cheesecake. And she gets tickled pink by anything funny!